Koufax unassumingly had announced his presence at Camelback Ranch a week ago in a new role, as an instructor in Los Angeles Dodgers camp. When I had a chance then to ask him about "Lebowski," I froze, later rationalizing that it was a topic best handled one on one. If at all. My line of questioning wasn't exactly like, "Where have you been for the past 47 years?" or "How are you going to help ensure that Zack Greinke is worth $159 million?"
To remind those who have forgotten or don't know the Koufax-Lebowski connection: One of the movie's characters, Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman), wanted to emphasize to The Dude (Jeff Bridges) why being Jewish was important to him. Their relevant dialogue:
Dude: You're living in the [f------] past.
Walter: Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax, YOU'RE [G--D----] RIGHT I'M LIVING IN THE PAST!
Koufax is probably the best and most famous Jewish ballplayer in major league history. "Lebowski" is one of my favorite movies. And Walter had a socially relevant point about Koufax being cultural bookends with the prophet Moses. So what was the ballplayer's take? Koufax working for the Dodgers was a surprise already, but he really doesn't do many interviews. Regardless, I approached him as he came off a practice field following a tutoring session with left-hander Jarret Martin:
(Here's audio of most of the interview)
David Brown: Mr. Koufax, my name’s Dave Brown; I’m from Big League Stew at Yahoo! Sports.
Sandy Koufax: (Leans in with ear) From what?
David Brown: Yahoo! Sports.
Sandy Koufax (starting to walk away): I’m kind of a conscientious objector [to] the digital revolution.
(No kidding! Uh oh.)
(Koufax was prepared with any excuse to decline an interview. He's a pro at that, but he's also been burned unfairly by the press before, the New York Post most notably. Not only that, he used the term "conscientious objector" — which is awesome in itself, because he reached back to the late '60s, the prime of his life, when people were getting drafted into the military and refusing induction.
It also has an ironic meaning in this case. Walter Sobchak related everything in his life to Vietnam (he fought there), to the point of absurdity. So Koufax didn't want to talk to me because he thought it would be like trying to conduct a firefight with the Viet Cong. Like LBJ or Richard Nixon, I didn't take "no" for an answer, as I often have. But this was Koufax. And not everything is about Vietnam, Sandy!
David Brown: Oh, really?
Sandy Koufax: Yeah.
David Brown: What if I say I printed out [my posts] for my mom and my grandma so they could read them?
Sandy Koufax: That’s OK [laughs].
David Brown: Well, do you mind ... can I just ask you?
Sandy Koufax: Sure.
(He probably did mind, but he also could have kept walking and said "not today" and that would have been that. Instead, he stood.)
David Brown: Have you ever seen “The Big Lebowski”? The movie “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen Brothers movie.
Sandy Koufax: ... Yeah, sure.
David Brown: Then obviously you know you’re referenced in the movie.
Sandy Koufax: Yeah, I’m in five or six movies. I’m in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," I'm in … so?
(And it wasn't just a "therefore? ..." kind of "so," either. It also was a "So, you're wasting vital moments of my 77-year-old life talking about some movie I wasn't even in?")
David Brown: Well, I just wondered if you were a fan of the movie, or if you got [appreciated] the reference, or if you thought it was was your “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” moment. Weren't you tickled?
Sandy Koufax: I don’t care. I don’t.
(The Viet Cong surrenders.)
David Brown: All right, very cool. Thank you very much.
I guess he was not tickled. If I were to have kept asking questions, I would have mentioned the Coen Brothers and Jeff Bridges talked on the set of "True Grit" about making a sequel to "Lebowski." Perhaps Koufax could make a cameo, or a walk-on, or re-launch his acting career in earnest. Koufax has acted, you know. He was on "Mr. Ed" for crying out loud! If you can give up an inside-the-park home run to a talking horse on national television, you can talk about "The Big Lebowski."
Here's the relevant (NSFW) clip of Walter and the Dude mentioning Koufax:
I hope Koufax being curt with me doesn't bum out my friend Dave Schwartz. Because of Koufax's return to public view, he was inspired to blog about a memory he had from 2000, when Koufax came to a University of Cincinnati men's basketball game that Dave was covering for a newspaper. (A newspaper being an unobjectionable medium to Koufax, probably.) Seeing one of his idols, especially that one, prompted Dave to call home and ask his mom something like, "Didn't you tell me Sandy Koufax had died???" She denied it, but it was a rare public appearance for him.
It was Koufax's own retreat (for whatever his probably valid reasons of self-preservation) that helps to make him bigger than life, and keeps the spark of curiosity about him burning for decades after he quit playing. It's tricky for him, I concede.
It certainly is possible that Koufax literally does not care that he has "appeared" in movies such as "Lebowski" or (NSFW) "Cuckoo's Nest," although I wonder if it's just a matter of principle. "Oh, no," he's saying. "I might have come back to the Dodgers, but that doesn't mean you bloodsucking vultures (the media) get to ask about my movie-going habits! Or even my being-referenced-in-a-movie habits!"
Here's the NSFW clip of Jack Nicholson in "Cuckoo's Nest":
Legendary stuff. DiMaggio was a private person like Koufax, and he reportedly got a wee cranky when Simon and Garfunkel used his name in their most famous song,"Mrs. Robinson." Maybe he didn't like the characterization. Maybe he wanted a cut of the profits. Maybe he wanted control. Maybe he just wanted to be kept out of it, so people like me would have one less thing about which to bother him.
Maybe Koufax is the same way. We're probably never going to know for sure. And I think that's how Sandy Koufax wants it.
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