Koufax & Kershaw
The Dodgers honored Sandy Koufax by unveiling his statue in their centerfield plaza on Saturday. His greatest student was there to cheer him on.
One of my biggest fears in life is standing so close to something so magnificent that I miss it completely. There’s an excellent restaurant across the street from my house that I’ve been to maybe five times in the 10 years I’ve lived here. Friends travel from all over the city to go to this restaurant. Why don’t I go there more often? I don’t know! Perhaps because I see it eight times a day when I’m picking up dog poop that it just doesn’t feel exciting to me. When I go to dinner I want an adventure, I guess. And that adventure involves leaving my block. But I know I’m missing out.
The jacarandas have been in bloom for months and I take them for granted as well. My neighborhood is an explosion of purple that stops tourists cold. I just live here, and mostly I’m annoyed that this superbloom makes my nose run like a faucet.
I went to the beach yesterday for the first time this year. I live a few miles from the ocean but I never go, even though I love it.
What am I doing? Why does it often take a friend visiting to point out all the amazing sights and sounds right in front of our faces?
Dodger fans have taken Clayton Kershaw for granted for the past 15 seasons. I know this because from time to time I will see a tweet from a fan that diminishes his greatness, and wonder how they could possibly fail to understand how special he is.
Sure, the numbers are obscene: 2,493 IP. A 2.48 ERA (lowest ever in MLB history for that amount of innings). 2,710 strikeouts. Nine All-Star appearances, three Cy Youngs, an MVP, and a World Series ring. But most importantly? One team. Off the top of my head, there are probably three other current starting pitchers who are destined to make the Hall of Fame: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke. All three have played for more than one club. Scherzer is on his fifth team. Greinke has pitched for six.
The best pitchers I’ve ever seen in my lifetime besides those listed above are probably Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling and Greg Maddux. They all suited up for multiple teams. This doesn’t diminish their accomplishments in any way. In fact, one of the reasons they were traded so often is because they were so highly sought-after by contenders as big prizes that could deliver titles if acquired at the trading deadline. They weren’t just hired guns, they were skilled mercenaries. Most of them have the rings to show for it.
I say this because a guy as dominant as Kershaw playing at such a high level for his 15 years (and counting) for one team in the era of free agency is almost unheard of. The one modern equivalent I can think of is Felix Hernandez, who pitched for 15 years in Seattle before retiring three years ago. Hernandez tossed 2,729 innings for the Mariners, but finished with a career ERA of 3.42—nearly a run a game more than Kershaw.
And people are still mean to Kershaw on Twitter!
The Dodgers did what they had to do to keep Kershaw in blue this year despite his season-ending Injury that threw his future into doubt at the end of 2021. When he’s been healthy this year, he’s been awesome. I’ve had a front row seat to his excellence as his career almost completely overlaps with mine. I will never take what he’s accomplished for granted.
And I think one of the reasons I’ve been so keyed in on savoring every Kershaw start from the beginning is because of what happened to the man who laid the groundwork for Kershaw to be who he is.
I never got to see Sandy Koufax pitch in person. An arm injury that’s easily fixable today forced Koufax to retire at age 30 in 1966, roughly two decades before I was born. But because he was so young when he hung up his cleats, he’s always been a presence at spring training or at Dodger games, unlike baseball legends like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Cy Young—who are long dead.
It’s clear from the numbers that Koufax was one of the greatest to ever do it: he won three Cy Young awards, an MVP, and carried the Dodgers to three World Championships by posting an 0.95 ERA in 57 World Series innings with four(!) complete games. The White Sox couldn’t touch him. Neither could the Yankees or the Twins. The Orioles scratched across one earned run against him in the ’66 Fall Classic, and the Dodgers failed to rally and win that year. But anyway, the man still led the Dodgers to four World Series in seven years and they won three of them. Because of this feat, he’s still the greatest pitcher to ever wear a Dodger uniform. Kershaw has at least one more ring to go to enter that conversation, and I think he’d agree with me.
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That’s the thing about Kershaw’s and Koufax’s relationship. Since he was just an 18-year-old kid playing rookie ball, Kershaw has been smart enough, and humble enough, to sit next to Koufax whenever he can and just listen to the man talk about pitching. Kershaw holds these conversations sacred, so he won’t tell me a lot of what is said. But the one thing that struck him early on is when he met Koufax and went to shake his hand, Koufax’s hand dwarfed his.
Koufax, for his part, respects the same omerta regarding his conversations with Kershaw. It also helps that Koufax is a private guy in general, and doesn’t do things like tweet angry thoughts about Craig Kimbrel after Dodger losses. He’s 86 years old now, but looks 20 years younger, probably because he never tried to hang on to this brutal sport longer than it would have him. Unlike so many of the greats who can never seem to find footing as solid off the field as they do on it, Koukax got hurt, retired and then got a life. None of us have any idea what that life entails, because he keeps the details to himself. In the age of oversharing, the mystery surrounding Sandy Koufax is an inspiration, really. None of us have to worry he might say or do something offensive or stupid that would tarnish the warm feelings we have about his awesomeness. He is a living legend still steeped in myth. Like Beyoncé, who doesn’t grant interviews.
The Dodgers retired Koufax’s number a long time ago, obviously, because he met their requirement of being elected to the Hall of Fame the first time he was on the ballot after he retired. But pinning Koufax’s jersey number to the club level facade at Dodger Stadium with the team’s other all-time greats was clearly not enough, so they unveiled a gorgeous statue of him just beyond center field on Saturday. The baggy uniform and high leg kick are unmistakable. I’ve watched every bit of grainy footage of Koufax pitching on YouTube that I can find. My God, what I would give to have seen him pitch live.
My family embraced the Dodgers when the club moved here from Brooklyn, probably because they themselves landed here as transplants from Ohio a few decades earlier. And since the Knights have taste, of course Koufax became their all-time favorite. I found this note that my great-grandparents wrote to my great aunt on Christmas morning in 1980 when she was well into her 40’s. I do not know what possessed them to give her a cup with Sandy Koufax’s face on it as a gift since she wasn’t the biggest baseball fan, except maybe they were trying to turn her into one. It is my favorite thing I have from my great-grandparents, who are long gone, and in closing I’d like to share it with you all: