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A Spring Thaw on Koufax Front?

Times Staff Writer

Sandy Koufax returned to Dodgertown this week, for the first time since severing ties with the Dodgers a year ago, stirring optimism that the Hall of Fame pitcher might resume a relationship with the club.

Koufax, whose brilliance on the mound captivated fans in the 1960s and defined the Dodgers’ greatest era in Los Angeles, was at the club’s spring-training complex Thursday to discuss his torn calf muscle with team physician Frank Jobe.

The legendary left-hander and Vero Beach resident has not attended spring training at Dodgertown, visited Dodger Stadium or participated in activities since last spring, in protest of the Dodgers’ former parent company, News Corp. Koufax turned away from the Dodgers because a report in the New York Post, a News Corp. subsidiary, apparently intimated that he was homosexual.

The Dodgers on Friday stressed that Koufax was at Dodgertown only because of his injury, downplaying a brief appearance most in the organization did not know about. But Koufax would not have set foot on Dodgertown last season.

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“The purpose of his visit was merely to see his doctor,” said Derrick Hall, a senior vice president and one of Koufax’s closest friends in the organization. “I don’t read anything into that, and I don’t think that indicates that he’s changed his mind or approach in any way.”

Koufax broke off ties with the Dodgers after 48 years in response to a two-sentence gossip item published in the Post on Dec. 19, 2002. The Post reported that a “Hall of Fame baseball hero” had “cooperated with a best-selling biography only because the author promised to keep it secret that he is gay. The author kept her word, but big mouths at the publishing house can’t keep from flapping.”

Koufax, who was not specifically named by the paper, is the subject of Jane Leavy’s acclaimed biography, “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” published in September 2002.

At the time, Leavy, a former Washington Post reporter, called the report “thoroughly erroneous on all counts. [The item] was blatantly unfair, scandalous and contemptible. It was thoroughly without basis insofar as it had to do with Sandy or any relationship I had with him professionally.”

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The Dodgers are hopeful Koufax will rejoin them in an unofficial capacity because Frank and Jamie McCourt have bought the club from News Corp., but they won’t push.

“The McCourts want that and we all do,” Hall said. “But regardless, Sandy’s friends are still going to have that friendship with him. It’s more than Sandy just coming out to Dodgertown.

“For the benefit of the organization and the benefit of the young players who are out here, it’s important for him to be a presence, but that’s up to him. He used to do it in the past just to visit friends. He wasn’t working for us for the last several years.”

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The Dodgers have created a difficult situation with Eric Gagne, who may report to Dodgertown today.

The closer is upset about the club’s handling of his contract situation the last two seasons. The Dodgers unilaterally renewed it in 2003, then defeated him in arbitration Thursday. Gagne will be the highest-paid pitcher in his first season of arbitration eligibility at $5 million, but he had sought $8 million.

“To try to suggest that he wasn’t upset is not the truth,” said Manager Jim Tracy, who’d spoken with Gagne shortly after Thursday’s announcement. “He was upset and you can understand that.

“But he’s just beginning to become what he’s eventually going to be.... I don’t see any scenario where the number is going to go down as he goes along. The number is going to go higher.”

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Agent Scott Boras and new General Manager Paul DePodesta have discussed the situation, and DePodesta expects the topic to be revisited when he introduces himself to Gagne on the right-hander’s arrival.

Boras is confident that Gagne will maintain his focus this season.

“Eric Gagne has the ability to do some special things in this game for a long time,” Boras said. “When he puts on that uniform, he’ll put the business issues behind him and go out and perform.”

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Setup man Guillermo Mota is still awaiting the completion of paperwork in the Dominican Republic that will allow him to join the club, Tracy said.


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