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Koufax still inspires awe

It was a prized Wade Boggs autograph. This time, Tampa Bay's third baseman wasn't signing. He was asking for a signature.

Boggs has 2,810 hits. He'll make the Hall of Fame. But the tough, 39-year-old Boggs' heart fluttered as he put a freshly unboxed baseball into the wondrous left hand of history's greatest pitcher.

Soon, a wealthy contemporary athlete had the grin of a proud little boy. Checking his "Sandy Koufax" prize. Boggs had never met the incomparable left-hander. "What a thrill," Boggs said.

Let's do compare Koufax's credentials are engraved in his Cooperstown plaque. Sandy's last four years (1963-66) were seasons meriting individual awe: 25-5 record (1.88 ERA), followed by 19-5 (1.74), then 26-8 (2.04) and a concluding 27-9 (1.73).

Roger Clemens isn't close.

Dream on, Greg Maddux.

Koufax left baseball at age 31. The epitome of quitting on top. Arthritis was savaging his magic left arm. If it'd been 1998 and not 1966, modern surgical techniques probably could have extended Sandy's excellence.

He was invited to Tropicana Field by Anaheim manager Terry Collins, an old pal from the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Koufax spent the weekend analyzing and counseling Angels pitchers.

"I'm lucky to have played when I did," said Koufax, who pitched a perfect game and three other no-hitters. "I'm delighted to have begun in 1955, a memorable time when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and teams still traveled by train."

That's something you won't often read. Quotes from Sandy Koufax. Thirty-two years of retirement have been stylishly private. Bordering on reclusive. He lives in Vero Beach and Portland, Ore.

Koufax doesn't appear on TV. Avoids autographs-for-dollars opportunities. Refuses interviews. Won't manage or coach. But, before Saturday night's Angels-Rays game, the home-grown Brooklyn legend sat on Anaheim's bench and conversed with rare ease.

"Being a college basketball junkie, I came to St. Petersburg for the NCAA South Regional," said Koufax, who played the sport as a University of Cincinnati freshman. "I was eager to return and check out the stadium in its baseball configuration. I like what I see.

"I wondered if baseballs would carry, but clearly they zoom over fences with regularity. It's a nice touch to have a classic full-dirt infield, unlike most domes. Looks like a real baseball field."

At 62, the handsome silver-haired Koufax was trim enough in blue jeans and long-sleeved white shirt to qualify for a Calvin Klein ad. Only thing is, Calvin can't get Sandy. Money can't buy him. Visibility, for Koufax, is something to be ducked.

"I have no regrets about having pitched when salaries were far lower," said Koufax, who 43 seasons ago signed with the Dodgers for a $14,000 bonus and $6,000 salary. "That was my time and I loved it. There is too much talk today about the money in baseball."

For 45 minutes, Sandy touched on a fascinating variety of subjects. Demonstrated pitching motions. Showed his fastball grip with especially long and powerful fingers. Talked about bygone ballparks in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

How did Koufax pitch Hank Aaron? "Really carefully," he said. "Putting the highest emphasis possible on taking care of the batter before Aaron. You work at controlling nine hitters, not one."

Frank Howard, the old 6-foot-8 slugger who is a Rays coach, was a Los Angeles teammate of Koufax. "There is no classier person in baseball," Hondo said. "Sandy is shy. Doesn't want the spotlight. He could make a fortune with his name but he would hate doing it. But when you're around Koufax, he is marvelous to talk with."

Amen to that.