Dodgertown now haunted by absence of Koufax

February 23, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

VERO BEACH, Fla. - No sign of Sandy Koufax in Dodgertown yesterday. The tall lefty has made up his mind, and everyone who knows him figures the decision will stand.

You could see hard-working Maury Wills conducting bunting drills on a small practice diamond called Maury's Pit. You could see Tommy Lasorda buzzing down Tommy Lasorda Drive in his golf cart, yapping with fans and reporters.

You could see palm trees surrounding the acres of practice fields that make up Dodgertown, a huge former air base that the Dodgers have called their spring training home since 1948. In Jane Leavy's best seller, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, there are good stories about the wild times the Dodgers used to have in the old converted barracks.

But no sign of the first-ballot Hall of Famer who doubles as an unofficial spring training coach meant it was a lovely day in Dodgertown - only if you like spin control.

The edict from above seemed real clear: Keep this "Sandy Koufax won't come around the Dodgers until the team is sold" story out of the newspapers. Keep it off the air. Kill it now, since it does nothing except present the world one of the most dramatic showdowns between a symbol of sporting good (Koufax) and a symbol of evil: Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the Dodgers and the New York Post, among other things.

There was good reason old-fashioned sports fans groaned when Murdoch's media empire purchased the Dodgers from the O'Malley family. It was the end of an era. The Dodger Blue traditions were going to have to bend to a new world order. After two managers (Walter Alston and Lasorda) over a 40-year period, the Fox Dodgers have now employed four managers in the past six seasons. Worse, a model franchise that did things the right way, including Branch Rickey's deliverance of Jackie Robinson past the color line, now condones an atmosphere worthy of an R rating, or worse.

Suddenly, a real Fox was in baseball's hen house, a bald example of "synergy" gone awry. How about Fox productions like The Best Damn Sports Show Period," the one that decided to promote its brand of sports humor with TV ads depicting "comedian" Tom Arnold buried inside a mermaid sand sculpture, fondling his sandy breasts.

Koufax probably heard about those obscene ads, too, at least before Fox was forced to pull them off the air.

Murdoch's scurrilous minions know something about how stories get "legs." It was the Post, after all, that gave birth to the pathetic sliver of gossip about the mythic yet real-live human Koufax. The Post's Dec. 19 "blind item" came from publishing house sources who said Koufax had agreed to cooperate and authorize Leavy's biography in exchange for information about his alleged homosexuality remaining private.

For a tidbit so pathetic, Koufax probably should have used his age-old instincts and ignored it. Of course, this is the same newspaper that took aim last year at Mets catcher Mike Piazza, prompting Piazza to hold a clubhouse news conference declaring he was, indeed, heterosexual. As far as baseball or any other sports league's ability to accommodate homosexuality in any humane way, Piazza's decision to refute gossip shows us that disclaimers are still necessary.

Still, the people who know him best - and that's not the media or the public - say it's less the subject matter of the gossip item than the principle of the matter that has prompted Koufax to take such a stand.

"He was my teammate and he was one of the greatest to ever play the game, so if he is not here, it's because he has a good reason," Lasorda said, adding: "He was a great man who conducted himself with class, dignity and character.

"He never did anything to embarrass his family or this organization."

Koufax is such an incredibly revered member of the Dodgers family, almost every single person in the organization is embarrassed and sad over what has taken place. The sheer fact that the Post issued an apology - unheard of - shows that this time it knows it has messed with the wrong man.

Now the legend of the mysterious Koufax - who dominated baseball for the latter half of his 12-year career until his final game (Game 2 of the 1966 World Series against the Orioles) - has been taken to yet another level of reverence.

The Dodgers miss him. The old ones, like Wills and Lasorda, who are pained to see their classy friend so carelessly treated, as well as the young ones.

"Last year, he came up to me and said, `You might be thinking about your job and whether or not you will be here, but if you go out there and do what Greg Gagne is capable of doing, you will have the job,' " closer Gagne said, adding: "He's Sandy Koufax. He's probably the greatest pitcher who ever played.

"Better to have him around. He is so easy to talk to and he's such a good teacher. He'll point out something about your hand, your arm, your arm slot, your legs. He helps with the mechanics but also with the mental part. He can see things no one else can see."

And now the legendary lefty has done what no one else has done. He has stared down the Fox and won an apology. Now, the quicker the Dodgers are sold, the better. It's not the same without Koufax in the fold.

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