Some 25 years after he retired from the game, I saw the Great One enter a baseball locker room and like an apparition, dissolve and disappear behind a shuttered door. When he reemerged—looking nearly the same as he did when he threw his last pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966—Sandy Koufax glided resplendently onto a baseball field, his iconic number 32 majestically emblazoned on his back, like righteous wings.
On that late February day in 1991, I was part of a throng of boomer worshippers attending a Dodgers Adult Camp in Vero Beach, Fla. When Koufax appeared we bowed, gathered around, and reverently gawked as he mingled and posed for photos. He gave a brief talk on the fine points of pitching—something akin to Da Vinci giving a brief talk on the fine points of painting—and then was gone, vanishing back behind the shuttered door and back to his Salingeresque-reclusive ways.
Through the years little has changed in the debate as to who was—or is—the supreme left handed pitcher in the game; for most of us, it has always been Koufax, then and now.
But the paradigm may be shifting a bit as of late; there may be small, growing fissures in the argument as to who is better, who is the greatest, and which southpaw would you rather have on your team: Sandy Koufax or the newcomer—a stylish, soon-to-be 26-year-old with watertight mechanics named Clayton Kershaw.
Armed at an early age with a prodigious curveball and this spring with the largest contract ever awarded a pitcher, for now Kershaw is the freshly anointed one. And as blasphemous as it may be, there are whispers by some who dare say he will eclipse the memory of Sandy Koufax as the greatest pitcher—left-hander or right-hander—in the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, if not all of baseball.
A cursory glance at statistics—baseball’s omnipresent life thread of measurement and information—will show that Kershaw is indeed far ahead of Koufax at this stage of their careers after just six years in the major leagues. Entering the 2014 season, Kershaw’s overall record is 77-46, a sterling, eye-popping winning percentage of .626.
Koufax? After six seasons he was barely hanging on, languishing as a reliever and infrequent spot starter. When he was signed as a “bonus baby” in 1954 by the Brooklyn Dodgers and following the team’s move west, Koufax’s overall record was a derisory 37-42 with an ERA that ballooned to 4.48 in 1958. But he had shown flashes of brilliance, flashes of something incredibly electrifying and the team’s manager Walter Alston and general manager Buzzie Bavasi stuck with him, believing if his untamed left arm could ever find the strike zone, they would have something very special.
Kershaw? There have never been doubts or hesitations. Starting with the remark prominently attributed to former manager Joe Torre back in 2008 that the then-19-year-old fireballer “reminds me of Koufax,” Kershaw has had—fairly or unfairly—the shroud of greatness hanging around his neck like a noose.
Not so with the young Koufax, who didn’t begin his ascension until his breakout 1961 season when he went 18-13 with a league-leading and major league record of 269 strikeouts. Overall he fashioned a remarkable winning percentage of .655, in spite of his poor record prior to '61. For six seasons—1961 through 1966—baseball had seen nothing like him, nothing close to the magic of his curve or the brilliance blaze of his fastball. His numbers during that stretch are beyond extraordinary, beyond incredible. Simply put, Koufax grew from below mediocre at best early in his career, to possibly the most overpowering pitcher, ever.
When he was forced to retire at the zenith of achievement because of his hexed arthritic left elbow—at just age 31—Koufax left a legacy few thought could ever be matched. Significantly, too, he left a frustrating, arcane question: what if? What if he had been able to pitch one, two, three or more seasons and put up similar incomparable numbers?
No one knows what could have been. We’re left only with a meteoric glimpse at genuine greatness, a baseball deity that has been unequaled. But this, we do know: very few pitchers dodge the injury plague—including, obviously, Koufax. And that brings us back to Clayton Kershaw.
Baseball’s history confirms how dicey it is for pitching phenoms to continue awe-inspiring success trajectories when just starting out; the list of once-heralded hurlers forced from the game early because of injury is frightening in its totality, scary in its reality. So the stormy, dark cloud of injury always hovers and Kershaw’s growing legion of admirers are faced with ominous questions:
- With his extraordinary mechanics, described by many pitching gurus as “nearly flawless,” can Kershaw sustain his astonishing early success and avoid injury, long-term?
- Can he add to his already impressive career that includes two Cy Young awards (and a second place in 2012), just one shy of Koufax himself?
- Can he stay focused and maintain a strict discipline?
Here’s the kicker for those jumping on the Kershaw band wagon: No matter how glittering his numbers, no matter how many Cy Young plaques may hang on his wall, until Clayton Kershaw wins a World Series he will always lag behind the three rings Sandy Koufax can boast.
Mythical or not, the Koufax aura sets an almost impossible standard. But if the conjectural heir apparent can match or surpass Koufax in championship wins and maintain a semblance of his early success, then the coronation and crowning of a new Great One can begin.