GLENDALE, Ariz. — Fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers appeared satisfied to stand in line for an autograph or photo with Tommy Lasorda, or to watch Clayton Kershaw field bunts, or to see Andre Ethier play catch with Matt Kemp. But once Sandy Koufax arrived at Camelback Ranch on Sunday afternoon, the entire camp seemed to turn its collective head in unison. Whispers turned to shouts as waves of fans approached him and begged for autographs, the mobs held back only by minimal security and awe. Nobody else could have prompted such a reaction. Maybe a president, or Justin Bieber or Magic Johnson.
No. This guy is cooler. Even at 77 years old, with the whitest hair and the plainest clothes — a white long sleeve sweatshirt and black sweatpants — Sandy Koufax couldn't have made a grander entrance. He has come to Dodgers camp before, but this was the start of something different. He's going to suit up in a Dodgers uniform and be a pitching instructor for the next 10 days or so. If all goes well — if the Dodgers feel their pitchers are getting something out of it, and if Koufax enjoys himself — the arrangement will continue into the regular season. From there, who knows?
"I’d like to see this organization be a winner again," Koufax said. "I don’t know if I can do that much, but I can try and help."
The relationship between Koufax and the Dodgers has been complicated ever since he stunned baseball in 1966 by retiring at the peak of his career at age 30. Koufax spent time with the Dodgers as a minor league pitching coach from 1979-1990, but reportedly quit when he became unhappy with the team's direction. In 2003 when Fox and Rupert Murdoch owned the Dodgers, he severed ties with the team completely after the New York Post (also a Fox company) printed rumors about Koufax's personal life. Even before that, Koufax had been regarded as a private person, crafty at avoiding the spotlight — especially for someone so famous.
He has stopped by spring training in Arizona from time to time — but he's also done the same at New York Mets camp. He even received some criticism for it.
"Anyplace else they said I was 'working with pitchers’ — I went to see friends; I wasn’t working with pitchers," said Koufax, who went to high school with Mets owner Fred Wilpon. And when the Mets asked him to put on a uniform and instruct, Koufax refused.
"They’ve asked," Koufax said. "And I said, ‘I can’t.’ I wasn’t looking for a job so there was no reason to put on a uniform."
He likes what new Dodgers ownership is doing, from player personnel to stadium improvements.
"This is the only organization I’ve ever played in or been in," Koufax said. "I came here with Jackie [Robinson] and Gil [Hodges] and Duke [Snider] … and played with great people like Don [Newcombe] and Tommy [Davis], Willie [Davis] and Maury [Wills]."
Koufax has given much to the Dodgers. Perhaps he just feels like it's time to give a little more.
When he stopped by Dodgers camp a year ago, Koufax suggested to left-hander Chris Capuano a different way to stand on the pitching rubber.
"Sandy is the kind of guy who loves talking baseball, but he won’t necessarily come up to you. You kind of have to go up to him and ask questions," Capuano said. "He’s here for 10 days. I plan on finding a moment, maybe when I’m throwing a side, and trying to pick his brain."
Capuano said other pitchers should take advantage, once they get over being star struck.
"I think sometimes when you get around a legend like that, you get a little tongue tied," Capuano said. "But he dispells that very quickly. He’s easy to talk to."
Koufax isn't yet sure what he'll say or who he'll work with. Whatever pitching coach Rick Honeycutt needs, he says. But he does have something to offer.
"I'll say this," Koufax said. "Throwing hasn’t changed, not since the caveman. Pitching may have changed a little bit. I think there’s more emphasis on changing speeds than there used to be. Pitching itself has changed a little but it’s still throwing. It’s precision throwing."
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