Koufax or Ryan? Tough choice for Torborg
Don’t ask Jeff Torborg to choose between Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan.
The only man to catch no-hitters thrown by both can’t make up his mind.
A former back-up catcher for the Dodgers and Angels, Torborg caught a perfect game thrown by Koufax in 1965 and no-hitters thrown by Bill Singer in 1970 and Ryan three years later.
“You’re talking about two of the greatest pitchers of all time,” said Torborg, who managed five major-league teams and won American League Manager of the Year honors in 1970. “It’s awfully tough to compare them. Nolan threw righthanded and Sandy threw lefthanded. Koufax threw a straight-down curveball and Ryan threw a softer curveball. Nolan later came up with a good changeup too; it broke away from lefthanded hitters. They were special competitors.”
On paper, the records of Koufax and Ryan seem worlds apart. Yet both won quick admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Koufax, forced to retire at age 30 by arthritis in his left elbow, went 165-87 for a .655 winning percentage over 12 seasons while Ryan remained in the majors for a record 27 years. Plagued by poor support, he came within eight defeats of joining Cy Young as both a 300-game winner and a 300-game loser. Ryan finished at 324-292, a .526 wining percentage, but had more strikeouts (5,714) and no-hitters (7) than any other pitcher.
The two pitchers combined for 15 strikeout crowns, all but four by Ryan. In 1973, the year he threw his first no-hitter, Ryan fanned 383, topping by one the Koufax single-season record of 1965.
Koufax, who spent his entire career with the Dodgers, led the National League in earned run average in each of his final five seasons, winning three Cy Young Awards in the process. Ryan, whose big-league career spanned a record 27 seasons, won two ERA titles but no Cy Youngs.
Without Jeff Torborg’s help, Ryan might not be remembered today.
“Nolan just muscled the ball in his early years,” said Torborg, a former Rutgers All-American who still makes his summer home in New Jersey. “You could hear him grunt all over the ballpark. When he came to the Angels from the Mets after the 1971 season, I was the player representative. There was a lockout but we pulled the team together and worked out in a public park. Nolan would throw off a little mound that was all chewed up — it was kind of dangerous but we weren’t allowed to go into the stadium.
“When the workout was over, Nolan and I would sit and talk. I tried to impart in him what Koufax and (Don) Drysdale had taught me about getting ahead in the count and throwing strike one away from every hitter. I changed his delivery a little bit so he didn’t take his left leg back past the rubber.
“Nolan could throw the ball down harder than anybody I had ever seen before. He could throw a fastball that with gravity would sink, almost like a submariner where the ball goes up but eventually sinks. He would overpower the low fastball so much he would almost handcuff the hitter. Very often he would throw a pitch with two strikes where he choked the ball so tightly that we called it a dry spitter. If somebody would look at the rotation of the ball in this day and age, it would be called a split-finger. But his was a fastball. All of a sudden, the bottom fell out of it. As a catcher, it almost knocked the glove off my hand.”
Control was an issue for both pitchers, Torborg remembered.
“Nolan started out with a pretty good curveball but it took him awhile to get control of it,” he said. “That was true of all his pitches. When he harnessed his mechanics, he was unbelievable and intimidating. When he was taking warmup pitches before the game, he would walk around the mound to see if there were any soft spots. Then he would look into the visiting dugout as if to say, ‘This is my mound. What are you going to do about it?’ He could run the ball up under the righthanders’ chins without any second thoughts.”
Like Ryan, who struggled through parts of five seasons with the Mets before blossoming with Torborg’s help, Koufax spent three lackluster years with the Brooklyn Dodgers and three more in Los Angeles before a backup catcher imparted timely advice that ignited his career. Norm Sherry’s tips helped Koufax find the strike zone and realize his enormous potential. Like Ryan, Koufax was in his seventh season when he made the All-Star team for the first time.
Two years later, the stylish southpaw pitched the first of his four no-hitters — one per year in each of his final four seasons. Jeff Torborg caught the last one, the only perfect game in that collection of gems.
“It was September 9, 1965,” he remembered. “The year before, I had warmed Sandy up in Philadelphia before he pitched his third no-hitter. We were in a pennant race, playing the Cubs in Los Angeles, but got only one hit in the entire game — typical of the Dodgers’ offense then.
“When you’re involved i na game and see a zero in the hit column, you know there’s a no-hitter in progress but might not realize it’s a perfect game. Normally in baseball, when a guy is pitching a no-hitter, his teammates don’t say anything to him in the dugout. I stayed away from Sandy because it was my first time through it, even though it was the fourth time for him.
“In the ninth inning, I had in my mind what I wanted him to do with the hitters coming up. The first man was Chris Krug, who had given us our run when Lou Johnson walked, was bunted over, and stole third. Krug’s throw went into left field and the run scored. Then Joey Amalfitano was a pinch-hitter. Already that year, he had delivered a pinch-hit that won a game against us in Wrigley Field. I called for a curveball — the only one I called for in the last two innings — and he hit a little foul squibbler. I pounced on it before it rolled fair. After we got him out, the last hitter was Harvey Kuenn, who had been a batting champion in the American League. My heart was pounding; I was thinking, ‘Whatever you do, don’t mess this up.’
“Sandy struck him out. He fanned the last six in a row and eight of the last nine.”
Five years later, Torborg directed the Bill Singer no-hitter differently. “He and I talked through it, how we wanted to pitch the game,” said the former catcher. “We knew we had a no-hitter and were trying to keep it. We were trying to fool the hitters, to make sure nobody hit a lollipop late in the game. The last out was a foul pop-up in front of the Phillies’ dugout that I caught while tripping over a bat Don Money had left in the on-deck circle. All I could think of was the time Yogi Berra dropped a Ted Williams pop-up with two outs in the ninth inning and almost ruined a no-hitter for Allie Reynolds. He went back, called the same pitch, and got the same result. So I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to let this ball hit the ground if it kills me.’
“After the game, I said to Bill Singer, ‘You’re supposed to strike the last guy out, not make it difficult on your teammates.’ “
Ryan’s 1973 no-hitter — his first — also needed an assist from a teammate, Torborg said.
“We were out in Kansas City in May and Nolan was cruising. When the game came down to the end, he and I talked about what we wanted to do in the late innings, how we wanted to handle each hitter. First of all, Singer and Ryan were younger pitchers — more in my age group — and I was not in awe of them the way I was with Koufax and Drysdale. So we did it together.
“It wasn’t easy, though, because the last out was a bomb Amos Otis hit to right field on a two-strike count. Our manager, Bobby Winkles, had put Ken Berry in as a defensive replacement for Bob Oliver in right field. As soon as Otis hit it, I said, ‘Oh, no, we came this close!’ But Berry caught the ball up against the bullpen gate to end the game. That stopped our hearts for a second.”
Because they were power pitchers, both Koufax and Ryan had the potential to pitch a no-hitter on any given night, according to Torborg. “Anytime a big strikeout pitcher takes the mound, he has the chance to do something special,” he said.
The manager of the Indians, White Sox, Mets, Expos, and Marlins, Torborg also was a long-time bullpen coach for the Yankees, across the Hudson from his native New Jersey, and a broadcaster for several different outlets. A fan of the New York Giants because his father favored that club, Torborg had to switch allegiances once he signed with the Dodgers.
“I idolized my dad,” he said. “We used to watch the Giants games together on television. In the ’50s, in New Jersey, we had three major-league clubs on TV.”
Torborg said he enjoyed being a broadcaster much more than being a manager.
“Announcing was a lot more fun,” he said, “because there was a lot less pressure. Your stomach’s not rolling, you’re not relying on what the guys you put into the game are able to do on the field. In the booth, you rely on your knowledge, your expertise, and your partner. A good partner can make any analyst look good. And in my years in the booth, I always had good partners.”
Jeff Torborg was a good partner too: for Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author or co-author of 35 baseball books, including The 300 Club: Have We Seen the Last of Baseball’s 300-Game Winners? His e.mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.