Mets soak up Koufax's wisdom
Wagner, Pedro get a few pointers from Dodgers legend
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Growing up, the skinny Dominican kid didn't know much about baseball players. He knew bits from the stories his brother, Ramon, would tell, and pieces from the baseball cards that he would meticulously collect and store in albums.
He never flipped the cards over, though -- at least not long enough to glance over the statistics. Not until that skinny Dominican kid made it to Double-A, where a teammate gave him a book filled with all the baseball numbers he could want, did he begin to understand what all the fuss was about.
That's when Pedro Martinez discovered just how good Sandy Koufax really was.
"I was like blown away by those numbers," Martinez said. "I didn't know why people were so excited. It's just unbelievable."
Saturday morning gave him even more reason to marvel, as Koufax made a rare public appearance at Mets camp to help closer Billy Wagner with his curveball. Since he's tinkering with the new pitch this spring, Wagner figured he might as well learn from the best. Makes sense. And the best was happy to oblige.
"If somebody wants to get better and they think I can help them, then it's a pleasure," Koufax said. "I don't do it unless somebody asks me to do it. If I help them, great, and if I don't, I tell them this is an experiment. If it doesn't work for you, forget it. It has to work, you have to be comfortable. I don't have all the answers to anything."
Could've fooled Wagner. As his new teacher gave him a crash course on the curveball, Wagner soaked in every sentence. This wasn't just some ordinary lesson. No, this was like learning music from Mozart or physics from Einstein.
"He has a lot of good ideas -- a lot of things I'm able to do and a lot of things I'm not able to do," Wagner said. "But he's got a wealth of experience, and if you can tap in just a little bit, it's something that you treasure."
So on Saturday morning, Koufax's mission was to inject the fireballing Wagner with a dose of finesse. Few boast better credentials -- Koufax's 97 wins over the last four years of his career helped define him as perhaps the greatest lefty in baseball history -- and few possess greater knowledge.
And though Koufax wasn't sure if he could plant any of that wisdom into Wagner's brain, he was willing to try. Perhaps even an old closer can learn new tricks.
"It all depends on your mental attitude," Koufax said. "Changing speeds for a guy who throws 100 mph is not always easy. I think Billy's come to the realization now that he might have to find one more pitch. If it works for him, great."
And if not, at least Wagner can remember his brush with history -- even if few others noticed. Breezing through Mets camp in a white polo shirt and baseball cap, Koufax could have been any old tourist marveling at the scene. At 72 years old, he walked with the gait of a man 20 years younger, and he spoke with the wisdom of one 20 years older.
Koufax spoke about his relationship with Mets owner Fred Wilpon, about how players these days are bigger and stronger, and about how the money is so much greater. He spoke about that other lefty stalking around Mets camp -- "He's a very good competitor," Koufax said of Johan Santana -- and of the fall of Dodgertown 35 miles to the north.
Mostly, though, he spoke about Wagner and how the closer reached out for his help. Wagner was the only item on his Saturday morning agenda, before Martinez grabbed hold of Koufax and asked him to stay. After all, it's not often one of baseball's living encyclopedias stops by for a visit.
When Koufax first addressed him during his days as a 17-year-old Dodgers rookie, Martinez knew the legend's name -- everyone in the baseball-crazed Dominican Republic did -- but that's about all he knew. Now, with the help of that baseball book and a little experience, Martinez knows a bit more -- which would explain why he all but begged Koufax to stay and watch his bullpen session.
Though they throw with different arms and dominated different eras, Martinez and Koufax have plenty in common. Looking back years from now, they might even be examined side by side. But standing next to the legend he once knew only from baseball cards, Martinez -- often boastful and routinely cocky -- was humbled.
"I never realized I was being compared to him, because he was such a big name, such a dominant pitcher," Martinez said. "I never thought I could be even a flash of what he is. Now, after a few years, a lot of people try to make comparisons, but to me, there isn't any way to be compared. It's totally different, and my admiration doesn't even let me stand beside him any more than a student to a teacher."
And so in one morning, with his mere presence alone, Koufax transformed grown men into children and ballplayers into fans.
"Once you meet him, it's like you've known him your whole life," Wagner said. "He doesn't talk like you're just acquaintances -- he always talks to you like you're good friends. It makes it really easy and comfortable to be around him."
Wagner, all 36 years of him, seemed more like a boy at that moment. Sitting at his locker in a sweat-drenched T-shirt, he tossed a football to himself and shrugged.
"Pretty good day," he said.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.