Sandy Koufax and Joe Torre in Conversation: Twilight of the Idol
Sandy Koufax, hands folded in his lap, sat in the center of Nokia Theatre's bright stage between the Skipper and the Local Sports Columnist , who sat waiting for him to say something.
They weren't the only ones in limbo last Saturday night. A lot of people have been waiting for Koufax to say something for a long time. After the death of JD Salinger earlier this year, Koufax might be the most famous hermit left in American "public" life, though as the wry pitcher himself might note, Salinger didn't have to do his writing "there with another 30 or 40,000 other recluses."
I had been thinking about Koufax a lot lately, even before I had finagled a seat to the discussion featuring the legend and Dodgers manager Joe Torre, benefiting Torre's Safe at Home charity . It's not only that we had reached the end of the Aughts and Jane Leavy's Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy —an admiring but fair work that aimed to deconstruct the Koufax mythos without tearing down the man. It was probably my favorite sports biography of that decade, a worthy form of sequel to Roger Kahn's classic The Boys of Summer .
I had also been thinking about Koufax because of the imbroglio faced by quite possibly the world's current greatest athlete—as dominant with a 7-iron as Sandy was with the curve—one Mr. Eldrick Woods, whose many times over infidelity has fueled the gossip machine these winter months and was enough to spur the creation of a TMZ Sports, a golem I fear that athlete and fan alike will have to endure well into this sports decade.
In another, more polite time, Koufax's response Saturday night to the press characterizing him as a playboy bachelor—"I don't know...I had a good time"—would have been sufficient for a Tiger Woods, and whatever work he needed to do at home would have been his and his family's business alone.
But no more.
We need contrite press conferences and photographers stationed at rehab facilities. This is the world we live in now, a world where people "tweet" what they're having for lunch and where they're having it, and remember what happened last Friday night by the photos posted on Facebook the next Monday morning. A world where, improbably, one can become famous simply for being famous, or for once being famous and now being seriously troubled.
It's even worse for those who have established their celebrity through actual achievement. Koufax and Woods cut to the very core of the relationship between fan and athlete, voyeur and celebrity.
What is owed to them, and what is owed to us? Is there a point where their role as "role model" stops? Is it not enough to want to emulate an athlete when they are at their best—Koufax on the mound or Tiger at the 18th? Must we now also sift through every detail of their personal lives and crucify them when we find they have come up short?
Is it necessary to think that, even though we may never be able to drive a golf ball as far as Tiger, at least we would be smart enough to delete our call log and not leave voicemails?
On the flip side of that coin, to be an athlete but not be an exhibitionist or a braggart, to not feed what has become an expansive hype machine, makes you a "recluse," a designation Koufax—by the looks of it Saturday night—still bristles at.
Forget the personal stuff. Koufax is loath to even talk about his personal accomplishments between the lines, leaving his canonization to the likes of the Nate Silvers and Robert Pinskys of the world. As the Local Sports Columnist ran through his career stats, you could almost feel Sandy squirming in his seat.
We could only thank God for Torre's deep, brotherly friendship with Koufax, and the fact that the latter was so moved by the former's charity that he would allow himself to be formulated by all those eyes, sprawling on a pin, pinned and wriggling in his seat.
As the evening went on, though, you could feel Koufax opening up more and beginning to reveal the kind of conversationalist those who know him best have before hinted at. He seemed to even forget the audience when he showed young Clayton Kershaw the fingering on a curveball, the kind of mentorship those in the audience had heard or read about and were now lucky enough to see.
Baseball fans, especially those in Los Angeles, are prone to live in the past, but for one night the fans could be excused for some quiet reflection from the legendary lefty before the season's noise.
What do Dodger fans have to look forward to anyway?
Manny the Moper, pouting his way through his walk year?
TMZ Sports leaking sexts from Matt Kemp and new tabloid arm candy Rihanna?
Frank and Jamie McCourt's (the former conspicuously absent from Saturday's event, especially given that former Dodger owner Peter O'Malley and current Angel owner Arte Moreno were in the house) screaming matches in the dugout as they divvy up bats, mitts, and athletic supports?
Yet another disappointing playoff exit at the bats and arms of the Philadelphia Phillies (a point harped on by the Local Sports Columnist, even on this otherwise most august and sublime of Los Angeles evenings)?
Why not focus instead on Sandy, who, as many a Jewish parent has told their child, once refused to pitch on Yom Kippur.
55 years of beautiful L.A. Dodger tradition, from Sandy Koufax to Joe Torre.
You're God damn right we're living in the past.
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