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Koufax meets with Marlin pitchers

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HYDE: Koufax?s pitch travels across a baseball generation

Published March 26, 2004



JUPITER -- It started late Thursday morning in a back room at the Marlins complex with Sandy Koufax saying simply and honestly and as decently as ever to a small group of pitchers, "I don't have the answers. Let's just talk."


The door was closed. The room was quiet. And there they all sat for the next hour, like Knights of the Roundtable, discussing grips, attitude, pitch selection, lower-body movement and lessons so technical about the art of pitching that you or I might need a translator to relay the involved principles.


Or not.


"Besides pitching, they got a lesson in being a professional, how one of the greatest thinks and acts and talks," said Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who had invited Koufax.


This is the kind of story you only get in baseball. And only then on its best days. Koufax is the most private of public men, a baseball legend who surfaces so sparingly he didn't talk for a best-selling biography about him. But maybe it's just the subject matter that keeps him quiet. Or maybe it's the audience.


Because if you debriefed those involved Marlins, it sounded like they had an hour to remember. Here was Koufax, now 68 and once the king of October, taking a question on setting up batters from Josh Beckett, now 23 and October's latest king. A.J. Burnett asked about pitching in rhythm. Chad Fox, who has undergone two reconstructive arm surgeries, asked why pitchers seem to get hurt more today.


Dontrelle Willis asked if there's a reason why, after two good opening innings, the pattern was for him to stumble in the third.


"I can't tell you why that is," Koufax said. "You've got to find that out for yourself."


We are losing our baseball royalty. DiMaggio. Mantle. Ted Williams. All gone. Probably no living baseball name is more regal than Koufax, for what he once did and what he still stands for.


To understand what he did, just look in the record books and see the five-straight earned-run average titles, the four no-hitters and the perfect game in 1965. But to understand what he stands for, there was Marlins announcer Tommy Hutton re-introducing himself after nearly four decades in Thursday's clubhouse.


"You probably don't remember this," Hutton told Koufax, "but I sure do."


In 1966, Hutton made his major league debut at first base in the ninth inning of a Dodgers' late-season game. Koufax was pitching. Hutton was so nervous that after catching a throw to first on a ground-out shortstop Maury Wills asked how he could catch the ball with his knees knocking so obviously.


"When the game ended, which was probably his 24th win, [Koufax]came up to me -- up to me -- shook my hand and said `Congratulations,'" Hutton said. "You can imagine how that made me feel. I made a point of remembering to do that whenever a player would play their first game."


Hutton's still doing it, too. When a Marlin makes a debut, there he is with a congratulatory handshake. That's how one baseball era links hands with another.


That and meetings like Thursday's.


Marlins pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal loved for his players to hear a legend underline some of the points he makes daily. But some was just curiosity. The players asked Koufax to show how he held a curveball in that left hand so big it could once hold seven baseballs.


He also said he'd throw a split-seam fastball if he were active today. And he related his idea in spring training was to throw every day until he had two dead-arm periods from overuse. That meant he would be in shape.


Unlike football or basketball, pitching hasn't changed much across the years. As Koufax said after the meeting, "There's only so many things you can do to a baseball when it comes out of your hand -- legally."


He was standing in the sunlight, trim and wearing a blue golf shirt, khaki shorts, a Mickey Mouse watch and a shock of silver hair. "It was nice," he said of meeting the Marlins. "I was interested in meeting them. I enjoyed watching them [last season]. They seemed like a good bunch."


Maybe they got a lesson in the details of pitching. Maybe, as Loria suggests, they got a lesson in how to be a pro. But a few hours after the meeting, Rosenthal already was repeating one line Koufax said and underlining.


"This isn't a new season," Koufax told the pitchers. "It's a continuation of last season."


I like that last line. I also especially like his idea of getting ready for spring training - to throw, throw, throw. I am curious to know what he said to each player, especially to Chad Fox.

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