Last night's "Joe Torre Safe At Home" benefit, featuring Sandy Koufax and Joe Torre, was a special event that I won't soon forget. I never had the pleasure to watch Sandy Koufax pitch; I was born 10 years after he retired. I knew of him, of course. Brought up as a Dodger fan, I was indoctrinated early and often about the legend of Koufax. Everybody that I know who watched him pitch has always been reverential toward the Dodger legend. Part of the mystique surrounding Koufax is that he has been a relatively private man for most of the 44 years since he last pitched. Saturday night offered a unique glimpse into the man, the myth, the legend.
The event was hosted by L.A. Times columnist T.J. Simers, who at times seemed like the only person in the room who didn't appreciate the specialness of the night. Simers, who spent most of the night addressing the headliners by only their last name, deserves a ton of credit for helping create this event, much as he did with last year's Vin Scully and John Wooden event. However, the curmudgeon shtick is tired enough on Page 2, and it was downright painful at times to watch in person. Whether his nerves settled down or what, Simers did improve as the night wore on, as he rightfully took a back seat to Koufax and Torre, and Simers was able to elicit some enlightening answers from his guests.
What stood out to me was the rapport between Koufax and Torre, and Koufax's sense of humor. My favorite Koufax story of the night was when he and Torre were discussing Koufax's troubles pitching to Henry Aaron. Koufax had trouble retiring the home run king with his fastball and curve, so he decided to try a change. After Aaron was retired on a blistering grounder off of Tommie Davis' chest at third base, Davis walked to the mound to hand the ball to Koufax, wheezing and pleading for Koufax to never throw that pitch again.
In a taped piece, Vin Scully, as only he can, likened Koufax walking to the bullpen "a maestro ascending the podium to conduct his symphony." Scully also recalled how nervous he was in calling Koufax's perfect game. I got a little choked up watching listening to this quote from Scully, alternating my gaze from the video screen to Koufax on stage, as he was clearly moved:
Sandy had a way of lifting his teammates, inspiring the fans, and I think, once in a blue moon, even inspiring a broadcaster. On that particular night, it was so dramatic, a perfect game. Yeah, it inspired me.
Koufax recounted how he almost quit after the 1960 season, going so far as to throw his equipment away. However, he did return in 1961, a decision for which Dodger fans owe him a debt of gratitude. Koufax recalled advice given to him that spring by catcher Norm Sherry, who told the southpaw not to throw as hard. I'm sure Dodger fans hope a current young lefty will similarly benefit from some sage advice. In this case, Clayton Kershaw was brought to the stage as Koufax showed Kershaw how he threw a curve. Two very notable moments from this exchange were:
- Koufax's hands dwarf those of Kershaw (Kershaw called them the biggest hands he has ever seen)
- Koufax gripped the ball so that he wouldn't push on the back of the ball with his thumb, which he said just got in the way (not that I've ever been able to throw a non-Wiffle curve, but I always thought the thumb played a more prominent role)
Kershaw and Koufax became fast friends, talking pitching the whole way back to Arizona, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. Hey, a kid could have worse tutors.
A few more highlights, from Koufax:
To me, competing is being the last man standing. It had nothing to do kicking water coolers; that's ego massage.
On whether or not he would try steroids or HGH:
I don't know, it wasn't available. I took whatever the doctors told me. When what I was kind of living on they stopped giving to horses i thought 'Wait a minute, I'm not sure this is a good situation, They banned it for horses and they're still giving it to me, I don't know about this.'"
On his relationship with Don Drysdale:
We were friends. I think our relationship was good. I think we drove each other. If Don was going to do something, I had to do it also. I think we made each other better, as a friendly competition. Most teams would like to have two guys who are pitching that well.
On his six-year broadcasting career (he worked for NBC on their "Game of the Week" telecasts from 1967-1972):
I absolutely hated it...I worked every Saturday, and prayed for rain every Friday night.
There were a few other touching tributes throughout the night, one for former Dodger owner Peter O'Malley (who got one of the loudest ovations of the night), one for unsung 1965 World Series hero Sweet Lou Johnson, and another for Ann Meyers-Drysdale, the widow of the late former Dodger pitcher. On an emotional night -- and rightfully so, as over $700,000 was raised to raise awareness of domestic abuse -- I thought it fitting that even Koufax, who earlier in the evening joked that there was no crying in baseball, fought back tears as Torre recounted their friendship.
Koufax said multiple times Saturday night that "a quality start is shaking hands with the catcher," and he delivered again with yet another complete performance in a wonderful night of remembrance for Dodger fans.