Monday, February 21, 2011

Sandy Koufax Batting for Fred Wilpon

I've been calling the Mets, their fans, and their organization variations of "stupid" for over 30 years. But I figured, at the least, that Fred Wilpon was a smart businessman.

I guess he should've taken more advice from his old friend Sandy Koufax than from his more recent friend Bernie Madoff.

Now 75 and living in Florida, the scintillating pitcher for the 1960s Los Angeles Dodgers (he arrived with them in his native Brooklyn but didn't get straightened out until after the move) was a classmate of Wilpon's at Lafayette High School, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, between Bay Ridge and Brighton Beach. Due to poor recent performance by its student body, the school has been target for closing by the Mayor Bloomberg-controlled Board of Education, but at yet remains open.

Talk-show host Larry King, then still using his birth name of Lawrence Zieger, also attended the school, graduating two years ahead of Koufax and Wilpon. The school, which opened in 1939, has produced more Major League Baseball players than any other, 21. They include the brothers Bob and Ken Aspromonte (in 1970, Bob became the last remaining active former Brooklyn Dodger), Met legend John Franco, not-so-legendary Met pitcher Pete Falcone (whose tendency to walk batters with the bases loaded still leads me to call the action "Falconing"), legendary sportswriter Larry Merchant, artsist Maurice Sendak and Peter Max (the former titled a book Where the Wild Things Are, the latter could have), singer Vic Damone, TV producer Gary David Goldberg, and actors Paul Sorvino, Rhea Perlmand and Steve Schirripa.

Koufax has occasionally been a spring training pitching consultant for the Los Angeles edition of the Dodgers, just as his contemporaries Whitey Ford and Bob Gibson have been for their former teams, the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. The late Jim "Catfish" Hunter had also done this for the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. But Koufax and the Dodger organization have often had a strained relationship, and he has also offered his services to his old friend Wilpon.

In yesterday's New York Daily News, Koufax discussed his, and Wilpon's, connection to Madoff. "We have been friends for over 60 years," Koufax said of Wilpon. "I just hate to see him being beat up this way. I don't know a kinder, more generous or compassionate human being than Fred. I was part of that investment, and I think if Fred knew it was going to be a bad investment, he never would have told me to put money in it. That's it. I hate to see what he's going through. It bothered him."

I have never said, and I would never say, that Fred Wilpon is a bad person. A bad sports-team owner, maybe. But that doesn't necessarily reflect on a man's character.

Koufax is a man whose character has been unimpeachable. He's honest. He stood up for his rights and those of his fellow players, from his 1966 dual holdout with Don Drysdale to his longtime work with the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT).

He has been married and divorced twice, but there has been no public suggestion that either ex-wife, or any other real or suspected romantic partner, was ever mistreated by him. Aside from Koufax, a bland memoir written with Ed Linn in 1966 while he was still playing, he has never written a book, tell-all or otherwise. He has never publicly torched any of his past associations. He has never been involved in scandal.

The closest he has come, unless you count his investment with Madoff, was in 2003, when the New York Post -- like the Dodgers then were, owned by Rupert Murdoch -- printed a gossip item suggesting that Koufax, twice married and divorced, was gay. He nearly sued, and left the Dodger organization. A year later, Murdoch sold the team to Frank McCourt (not the Angela's Ashes author), and relations between the organization and its greatest living player were repaired. (Ironically, McCourt is now trying to sell the Dodgers to pay legal costs from his own divorce, one of the messiest in recent memory.)

So if Sandy Koufax says someone is a good person and doesn't deserve the bad things happening to him, I'm inclined to believe him.

"I don't know who (are) the victims and who aren't the victims," he said. "If I lost any money, I didn't lose it to Madoff; I lost it to the IRS. You pay taxes on money that didn't exist. That's what happened, but I got some of that back. You were allowed to recoup some of your taxes for a few years. I have no problem with what's going on (with arbitratior Irving Picard trying to recover money for Madoff victims). I just feel bad for Fred."

"METS" may now stand for "Madoffed, Extremely, Totally Screwed." But an association with Sandy Koufax can only help. His is still one of the magic names in baseball. Even people who hate the Dodgers (yo) admire him. Even people too young to have seen him pitch (I've seen him at 3 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, one of the few public appearances he makes, but he retired 3 years before I was born) know his name, his legacy, and his example.

He was one of the greatest pitchers ever, and one of the greatest people ever involved in the game. It is an honor for anyone to have Sandy Koufax "come to bat for him."

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