LOS ANGELES – The left arm of God, upper-case G in Dodgertown, bounced the ceremonial pitch early Monday afternoon. It will be recalled as a perfectly carved curve ball, rightfully buried, the way he did, the way he still does, even at 77, because the left arm belongs to Sandy Koufax.
In this town, on this field, in that uniform – Koufax's jersey was yellower than the rest, like he travels with his own bucket of sepia – there is and will forever be only one Koufax. Whittled from a fungo bat, sainted over six near-perfect seasons in the early years of the Dodgers in L.A., then gone too soon, Koufax still reduces grown men to wobbly-legged fanboys.
So when Magic Johnson freezes mid-delivery, stopped by Don Mattingly in a wonderfully tacky and scripted pre-game performance …
So when Mattingly takes the ball and waves to the dugout …
So when the number on that milky jersey is 32, and the man behind it is both stooped and willowy, then it could only be the mysterious and magical Koufax, who, when he was done with it, returned the left arm of God shattered and unfixable. The one he carried to the mound Monday, nearly five decades later, had about 50 feet worth of what we'll call a curve ball left in it, and he grinned at the fuss.
For people just dying to become fanboys again and going on a full quarter-century since Gibson and Hershiser (Orel Hershiser, by the way, neatly scooped Koufax's pitch), just the glimpse of the great Koufax might have been enough to carry the day. He waved and they cheered and, hokey as it might have been, I'll be damned if it didn't work.
As it happened, another lefty was waiting on that ball, a 25-year-old Texan who counts Koufax among his mentors and friends, who'd start on opening day against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium, new and improved and thick with hope. Clayton Kershaw pitched nine shutout innings, hit the home run that broke a scoreless tie in the eighth inning, all but carried a 4-0 win by himself, and afterward asked that no one run too far with the whole next-Koufax thing.
Joe Torre started it. Years ago, while tempered with all the he's-young, he-hasn't-done-anything, Koufax-three-times-threw-300-innings-for-God's-sake stuff, Torre said, you know, they sort of have a similar bearing. It was unfair to Koufax, Torre would say, and grossly unfair to the overgrown, somewhat gawky and raw Kershaw.
And yet on a sunny day on the first day of April, you look past the numbers and past the eras for just a moment. You watch Koufax throw a pitch and then Kershaw throw 94 of them, and you believe it's OK to think maybe this is what it was like back then, when Koufax took the ball and the Giants had no chance. When nobody had a chance.
Which, of course, never entered Kershaw's head.
"I just don't want to disrespect Sandy," he said. "He doesn't deserve that. He was the best left-handed pitcher ever. For some to say that, it disrespects him. … I've got a long way to go."
It's unintentional, a wispy notion carried by the time and the place and the dominant appendage. A dewy-eyed public wants a Koufax for its generation, and then there's Kershaw, burying that curve ball, tugging on that white jersey with Dodgers across the chest, rearing back and winning again.
"It flashed through my mind," Mattingly admitted.
Against the defending world champions – granted, they hardly won last year on the back of a juggernaut offense – Kershaw needed just those 94 pitches, 65 of which were strikes. His fastball peeked into the mid-90s, his curve ball manipulated by a joystick. The Giants managed a handful of good swings, few of which put the ball in play with any authority. Kershaw struck out seven and walked none. He allowed four hits, maybe four more than Koufax would, given the same day and an arm a half-century younger.
So well was Kershaw pitching that given his first weighty managerial decision of the season, Mattingly sent him to bat as the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning of a scoreless game. Kershaw, off a three-inning spring training taper five days before, had thrown 85 pitches. He swung from his heels on a first-pitch fastball from Giants reliever George Kontos and the ball carried over the center-field fence. Kershaw hadn't hit a home run that counted since Highland Park High School.
The fans cheered, Kershaw grinned, and no one in the ballpark would sit until Kershaw would come to the top step to recognize that he'd practically whipped the Giants by himself. Kershaw gave a half-wave, because by then all he could think about was the ninth inning, and it was no time to think anything was over.
The other element is that Kershaw is two seasons from free agency, and negotiations on a contract extension that could push him well into his 30s faced an opening day deadline, as set by Kershaw. He wouldn't say afterward whether he'd stand by that.
Anyway, that was all a little too real. Instead, Kershaw smiled and said he could barely feel his feet hit the ground on the home run, which he had no idea was a home run until the ball cleared the wall. And he said he felt great on the mound, in command, aided by a well-positioned defense, in the end even supported by three other runs, as excessive as they might have been. The Dodgers won, 4-0.
There happened to be a guy in the ballpark who would appreciate that sort of game, that sort of will, that sort of dominance. He has his place here, and it is everywhere. On Monday, he threw the first pitch and Clayton Kershaw took care of the rest. The game is different. The men who play it are different. Nothing compares. And Koufax stands alone.
"It was just a special day all the way around," Kershaw said. "A really special day."
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