by Edward Gruver
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Koufax's career turnaround began gradually in the off-season, and was sparked by three sources: catcher Sherry, pitching coach Joe Becker, and club statistician Allan Roth.
During the off-season, Roth showed Koufax numbers that revealed he was less effective against left-handed hitters than right-handers. Traditionally, southpaw pitchers do well against lefty hitters, and one of the reasons is the way a left-hander's curve breaks on the hitter. Koufax's curve was breaking in a way that prevented him from exploiting what should have been a natural advantage against lefties. Working with Becker, Koufax discovered that by altering his grip on the curve and moving his fingers slightly, he could throw a curve that at times dropped down and away on lefties.
Becker also got Koufax to tighten the windup on his delivery, a slight mechanical adjustment aimed at both helping his control and hiding his pitches. When Wally Moon joined the Dodgers the season before, he told Koufax that the Cardinals picked up tips from Koufax's delivery from the stretch, that he brought his hands up higher for the fastball than the curve. By unknowingly tipping his pitches, Koufax was giving the hitter a chance to gear up for either the fastball or the breaking ball.
Scout Kenny Meyers worked with Koufax on pitching to spots, but soon noticed that Koufax's motion obstructed his vision. How can you hit that spot," Meyers asked, "when you can't even see it?" By tightening his windup, Koufax was able to pick up the catcher's mitt easier.
It was Sherry, however, who provided the biggest impetus for Koufax's career turnaround in the spring of '61. The two roomed together in spring training, and while the Dodger regulars were playing Detroit in Lakehurst, Sherry was scheduled to catch Koufax in a B-squad game in Orlando. Ironically, the opponent was the Minnesota Twins.
On the bus ride to the game, Sherry and Koufax went over the signs and pitches Koufax would work on. The two men had a rapport, not only because of their catcher-pitcher relationship, but because they roomed together on the road.
"He was a good guy," Sherry said. "He was easy to room with; we got a lot of room service. For the most part, he kept to himself. Everybody liked him. On those Dodger teams, 99 percent of the guys got along.
"He worked hard, and he's a perfectionist. He dressed well and he always looked good. He used to carry a kit around with him and he'd try to fix things. If the TV in the room wasn't working, he'd try to fix it. When he couldn't do things the way he'd like, he'd get upset about it. He wanted to be successful and pitch well, and when it didn't happen, it bothered him.
"When I came up in '59, he was just another one of the pitchers. He had a good arm and at times he showed he could pitch real good, but he had problems with his control.
"He gave me a lot of credit for changing him around. It was a B-squad game in Minnesota. We left Vero Beach and headed over to Orlando, and we were short-handed because we were missing a couple of guys and one of our pitchers had missed the trip.
"On the way over Sandy mentioned that he wanted to work on certain pitches, like his changeup and his curveball. He wanted to throw a lot of those; in spring training a lot of pitchers like to work on those things.
"When we started that ballgame he went out for the first inning and I said, 'We'll start off with some curveballs and changeups and see what happens.'
"Well, he had trouble finding home plate. It was ball one, ball two, and he'd shake me off and want to throw the fastball. And he'd throw it and it was high, and that was his problem. He threw a lot of fastballs up and out of the strike zone and guys wouldn't swing at them. That happened with the first two guys and then he started shaking me off and trying to throw the fastball each one harder than the one before, and now he had the bases loaded.
"I went out to the mound and said, 'Sandy, you know we're short-handed. We don't have a lot of pitchers here. Why don't you take something off the ball and just let them hit it? We can get the outs and get out of this inning, because nobody's going to swing at the rate you're going.'
"I went back behind the plate and he just wound up and said, 'Here, hit the ball,' and struck out the side. When he walked off the field, I said, 'I'll tell you something. You just now threw harder trying not to than when you tried to.'
"His bell or light, or whatever you want to say, went off, and he got it into his mind, 'That's all I need to do.'"
Sherry had offered similar advice to Koufax before, but Koufax had tuned him out. This time he listened, and facing a Twins' lineup that featured many of the same names he would face in the '65 Series -- Killebrew, Allison, Battey, and Rollins -- he pitched without pressing. When he got ahead of the hitter, Koufax aimed for the spots, and hit them with regularity. He faltered in the fifth after walking two batters and began overthrowing again. He quickly walked the bases loaded, bringing Sherry back out to the mound.
"Think about what you're doing," Sherry said. "Pick me up. Watch my glove. Be a pitcher. Make them swing the bat."
Facing Killebrew and Jim Lemon with the bases loaded, Koufax regained control and struck out the side. He finished with a seven-inning no-hitter in which he struck out eight and walked five.
Later, Koufax said that there is nothing like instantaneous success to let you know you are on the right track. And he credited Sherry with helping him find that success.
"I told him, 'I'm not blowing smoke up your rear end, but you threw harder trying not to than when you were trying to,'" Sherry recalled. "And that evidently struck home. Here's a guy who since '55 has been trying to make it in the major leagues and always had the same problem. And what, a couple of words like, 'Don't try to throw so hard,' is going to change him? It hit home, but it takes time for pitchers to find themselves. But he did it, and he became dominant."
From Koufax by Edward Gruver.
Copyright © 2000 by Edward Gruver. Reprinted with permission.