Searching for Mr. Koufax

When Jewish baseball great Sandy Koufax cryptically declined an interview at the Final Four in San Antonio last weekend, it struck a nerve.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
I have never blamed a current or former athlete for declining an interview. I value privacy and know that if I were in his position, I wouldn't want to be talking to some reporter who's just like the rest of them. But when Jewish baseball great Sandy Koufax cryptically declined an interview at the Final Four in San Antonio last weekend, it struck a nerve. I had read somewhere that Koufax, a former college basketball player at the University of Cincinnati, makes a tradition of attending the men's Final Four just about every year. I was on the lookout, knowing that the odds of finding him among the 43,718 in attendance were, well, 1 in 43,718. I had all but given up when, while taking a lap around the court during halftime, I spotted him jogging down the stairs to say hi to a friend. Dressed in dark pants and a peach button-down shirt, Koufax looked tan and fit. He shuffled around sprightly, a septuagenarian only in age. Shocked that I had found him so easily, I inched closer, trying to confirm that the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time was standing next to me. When his friend called him Sandy, I knew that I had him pinned. I walked a few feet away, to the point that he'd have to pass in order to return to his seat, and waited patiently. He finished his conversation and walked towards where I was standing. "Mr. Koufax," I said. "Can I talk with you for a minute?" "What?" he asked, leaning in to hear me better over the crowd's cheers. "I'm a reporter for The Jerusalem Post," I said, hoping to pique his interest by establishing the Jewish connection, but knowing that it could have the opposite effect. "I'm wondering if I can talk with you for a minute." I knew that Koufax was the hardest interview in sports. Accused by many of being a recluse, he simply didn't talk with the press. An attitude like that is bait for a journalist, an opportunity to catch a big story in the rare chance that he agrees to talk. But with two simple words, Koufax set me down, making me his 2,397th career strikeout victim. "Not really," he answered me matter-of-factly, spun around and continued to his seat, where he reluctantly and uncomfortably signed a few autographs. I remained in my place, going over his response in my head. Not really. What did that mean? Why not give me a simple No? Was he leaving open any possibility for an interview? Was he accurately commenting on my ability to talk with him, but not quite for a minute? I went back to my seat to watch the remainder of the game, but I couldn't shake the image of my Koufax encounter. I wasn't upset with him by any stretch of the imagination. I respect and even admire his commitment to privacy. He just left me wanting to know more. Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson" kept playing in my head, only I went to the bullpen for an apt substitute: "Where have you gone, Sandy Koufax? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." I wanted to hear what he has to say 43 years after declining to pitch in Game 1 of the World Series, because it coincided with Yom Kippur. I wanted to hear his thoughts about his Jewish legacy, about his role among a nation that swells with pride at the mention of his name. I just wanted to talk with him for a minute. Growing up years after Koufax pitched his final game, I was never able to fully appreciate his dominance for what it actually was. He's a legend to me, a handsome face that joins Abraham, Moses and David on the Jewish Mount Rushmore. He's essentially a biblical character in his own right. Moses split the sea, Joshua made the sun stand still and Koufax had a 1.73 ERA in his final season. During a timeout, I wandered in front of his section and observed him for a few moments. He was laughing with his companions, enjoying himself, giving actor Tim Robbins a knowing look of celebrity from a few rows away. He was far from reclusive. While my questions remain, I'm grateful that Koufax politely declined an interview. My five-second interaction with him may very well be our only encounter, but I was able to see him for what he's worth: just another basketball fan enjoying the game. Jewish baseball fans may resent his refusal to embrace the spotlight, but that's just fine. He's already done more than enough for baseball and for Jews. I realized that Sandy Koufax isn't a person, it's an idea. It's succeeding against the odds and remembering your roots. It's reaching the grandest stage and acknowledging its unimportance. It's becoming a god and deferring to God. It's being famous and rejecting the power and adulation that accompanies it. This is how I will always remember Sandy Koufax. And when people ask if I'm upset that he turned me down, I'll know exactly what to tell them. Not really.