Thursday, June 6, 2013

My Apology to Sandy Koufax

In light of the on-going critical boredom of ballplayers being accused of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) I would be remissed if I did not apologize to Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.

In my best, or worst, "Get Smart" approach of "Could it be...that the greatest left-handed pitcher used something other than ointments for his left arm?" I recently read an article by Jane Leavy, dated September 9, 2002, entitled "The Chosen One," that makes me feel as impetuous as Jane Hathaway frequently accused the dashing nephew of a rich uncle-who struck oil shooting at some supper- of being.

Those aforementioned situation comedies (in the 1960s) may have described my attempts at giving examples of those who may not have played within the framework of the rules either in society or their chosen sport this article does divulge some hint that the things Koufax took may not have been legal. But in light of his intense pain I can understand why he did what he did.

Here are some excerpts of the article (

Koufax made his major league debut on June 24, 1955, in the 5th inning against the Milwaukee Braves, with the Dodgers trailing 7-1. A mop-up man...The public address announcer mispronounced his name - "Koo-fax"- as Johnny Logan stepped up to the plate. Logan hit a bloop single. Next was slugger Eddie Mathews, who surprised Koufax by bunting back to the mound. Koufax calmly threw the ball into centerfield. Now batting, Hank Aaron. He walked on four pitches. Bobby Thomson-that Bobby Thomson,slayer of Dodgers dreams-followed Aaron to the plate and became the first man ever struck out by Sandy Koufax.

When Sandy Koufax was a rookie, there was no such thing as sports medicine. You didn't rehab injuries. You lived with them, grew old with them. Ice was for martinis, not elbows. Every pitching arm is doomed. Soft tissue and bone can give only so much. The firt intimations of his arm's mortality surfaced on Aug.8, 1964, in Milwaukee. That night Koufax won his 17th game and became the first National League pitcher in the modern era to strike out 200 hitters in four consecutive seasons. He also singled and scored to begin the winning rally. Reaching base proved costly, however. He jammed his left elbow diving back into second to beat a pickoff throw.

X-rays were ordered. Robert Kerlan, the noted orthopedic surgeon and team doctor, took one look at the film and pronounced the bad news: traumatic arthritis. A diagnosis without a cure. Arthritis is an acute inflammation of a joint, usually associated with old age. Pitch by pitch, season by season, the cartilage in Koufax's elbow was breaking down. His arm was old even if he wasn't.

Kerlan knew the long-term prospects weren't good. Pitching is trauma. The human elbow may be one of God's great inventions, but He didn't anticipate a major league fastball during those first seven days. Maximum stress occurs just as a pitcher cocks his arm and begins to accelerate it forward. In that instant the elbow is subjected to what doctors call "maximum load," as two contrary forces, momentum and inertia, converge on the joint. It causes ligaments to stretch like saltwater taffy on a hot summer day.

Today arthroscopic surgery allows professional athletes and middle-aged golfers like Koufax to recover in a fraction of the time they once needed. Dr. Frank Jobe, Kerlan's partner and successor, performed the first elbow reconstruction in 1974, less than a decade after Koufax retired. Tommy John, the surgical pioneer, returned to baseball and pitched for another 14 years. Jobe says, "If you had said to Dr. Kerlan, 'Why does [Koufax's] arm hurt?' he'd say, 'Because he throws so hard.' That's true. What he didn't know was that [Koufax] threw hard enough to stretch a ligament. It wasn't torn, but it was stretched enough to allow two bony surfaces rub together. It must have just killed him."

March is the crudest month for pitchers: when rested arms renew the annual struggle for controlled velocity. Today pitch counts and early outings are meticulously monitored. Pitching a complete game in spring training is unthinkable, even without an arthritic arm. But on March 30, 1965, Koufax did just that. The next morning his roommate, Dick Tracewski, was at the sink shaving when Koufax walked in. "He says, 'Look at this.' The elbow was black. And it was swollen. From the elbow to the armpit it looked like a bruise. It was a black, angry hemorrhage. It was an angry arm, an angry elbow. And all he says is, 'Roomie, look at this.'"

Koufax returned to Los Angeles to see Kerlan, who told him he'd be lucky to pitch once a week. Eventually, and irrevocably, he would lose full use of his arm. Koufax told the doctor, "I'm trusting you to keep me going. I'm also going to trust you to say when you think I should quit."
Palliatives were all that medicine had to offer: cortisone shots in the joint, Empirin with codeine for the pain (which he took every night and sometimes during the 5th inning) and Butazolidin, an anti-inflammatory prescribed for broken-down thoroughbreds, so poisonous to humans that it was taken off the market in the 1970s. It had one major side effect. "It killed a few people," Jobe says.

Koufax regularly used a salve called Capsolin, derived from red-hot chili peppers grown in China, to mask the pain. Players called it the "ATOMIC BALM" - thick, gooey stuff that is no longer marketed in the United States. Most pitchers diluted it with cold cream or Vaseline. Koufax used it straight, gobs of it. Nobe Kawano, the Dodgers' clubhouse man, always made sure he washed Koufax's laundry separately. But once, when the Dodgers donated used jerseys to a local Little League team, the lucky kid who got number 32 ran off the field screaming, "I'm on fire!" He wasn't the only one. Lou Johnson wore one of Koufax's sweatshirts one cold night in Pittsburgh. First he began to sweat. Then his skin blistered. Then he threw up.

If heat was Koufax's salve, ice was his salvation. They didn't have ice packs then; they just plunged your arm in a bucket of ice and waited for frostbite to set in. Trainers fashioned a rubber sleeve for him out of an inner tube-the height of medical technology-that was later donated to the Hall of Fame.

Who could have predicted that by season's end Koufax would pitch 335? innings and set a major league record by striking out 382 men (an average of 10.25 per game). He never missed a turn.

In the 1965 World Series (Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Minnesota Twins) he came out of the bullpen to pitch Game 7, his third start in 8 days. He was a two-pitch hurler. Catcher John Roseboro came out to the mound to ask Koufax why he kept shaking off his signals. "He said, 'Rosie, my arm's not right.' Roseboro said, 'Well, what'll we do kid?' He said, 'F--- it, we'll blow 'em away.'"

In the ninth inning, his 360th of the season, protecting a 2-0 lead, Koufax faced the heart of the Twins' order: Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew, Earl Battey and Bob Allison-a two-time batting champion, a six-time home run leader, a four-time All-Star and a one-time Rookie of the Year, respectively. Oliva grounded out; Killebrew got on with a single. Koufax then struck out Battey and Allison-his ninth and 10th K's of the game-and left Killebrew stranded at first base, looking on in admiration.

In conclusion, I apologize for thinking that Koufax may have cheated in what he used to help his arm and it may be that he did but the effort is matchless and for that I applaud him.

(thanks to the SI article for bringing clarity to my accusation.)

Kevin J. Marquez