November 16, 2008

THE REGULAR:

The Left Arm Of God: He was a consummate artist on the mound, the most dominant player of his time, yet he shunned fame and always put team above self. On the field or off, Sandy Koufax was pitcher perfect (Tom Verducci, 7/12/99, Sports Illustrated)

He sat in the same booth every time. It was always the one in back, farthest from the door. The trim, darkly handsome man would come alone, without his wife, nearly every morning at six o'clock for breakfast at Dick's Diner in Ellsworth, Maine , about 14 miles from their home. He often wore one of those red-and-black-checkered shirts you expect to see in Maine , though he wasn't a hunter. He might not have shaved that morning. He would walk past the long counter up front, the one with the swivel stools that, good Lord, gave complete strangers license to strike up a conversation.

He preferred the clearly delineated no-trespassing zone of a booth. He would rest those famously large hands on the Formica table-top, one of those mini-jukeboxes to his left and give his order to Annette, the waitress, in a voice as soft and smooth as honey.

He came so often that the family who ran the diner quickly stopped thinking of him as Sandy Koufax , one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. They thought of him the way Koufax strived all his life to be thought of, as something better even than a famous athlete: He was a regular.

Dick Anderson and his son Richard, better known as Bub, might glance up from their chores when Koufax walked in, but that was usually all. One time Bub got him to autograph a napkin but never talked baseball with him. Annette, Bub's sister, always worked the section with that back booth. For three years Koufax came to the diner and not once did he volunteer information to her about his life or his career. It was always polite small talk. Neighborly. Regular.

Koufax was 35, five years since his last pitch, in 1966, when he came eagerly, even dreamily, to Maine , the back booth of America . He had seen a photo spread in Look magazine about the Down East country homestead of a man named Blakely Babcock, a 350-pound Burpee Seed salesman, gentleman farmer and gadfly whom everybody called Tiny. Tiny would invite neighbors and friends over for cookouts and dinner parties, during which he liked to consume great quantities of food, then rub his huge belly and bellow laughingly to his wife, "So, what's for dinner, Alberta ?" Tiny's North Ellsworth farmhouse caught Koufax's fancy at just about the same time one of his wife's friends was renovating her farmhouse in Maine . Wouldn't it be perfect, Koufax thought, to live quietly, almost anonymously, in an old farmhouse just like Tiny's?

Alberta Babcock was pulling a hot tin of sweet-smelling blueberry muffins from the oven when Koufax first saw the place in person, and the old Cape-style house was filled with so many flowers that it looked like a watercolor come to life. Koufax was sold, and on Oct. 4,1971, Sanford and Anne Koufax of Los Angeles , as they signed the deed, took out a 15-year, $15,000 mortgage from Penobscot Savings Bank and bought what was known as Winkumpaugh Farm from Blakely and Alberta Babcock for about $30,000. A cord was cut. The rest of Sandy Koufax 's life had begun.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2008 6:15 AM
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