In the big inning, there was Koufax.
Baseball cradled in his left hand, his flinty eyes staring down another strikeout victim, he was the quintessential Los Angeles sports superstar of the mid-20th century, a larger-than-life mythic figure to a city reared on the notions of making myths and living large.
Although he didn’t much care for the camera’s bright glare, Sandy Koufax was the perfect sports hero for Los Angeles in the early 1960s. He was armed with potential so vast, it took him years to harness it. Once he did, he became the must-see marquee draw to a town jaded on Hollywood stardom but new to, and excited about, the concept of professional sports transcendence.
Like many Angelenos of the time, Koufax came here from the East, breaking in with the Dodgers in Brooklyn before the Dodgers broke loose to Southern California.
That was during Los Angeles’ years as a gold-rush sporting boomtown. The Rams came first, in 1946, from Cleveland. The Dodgers followed in 1958, with the Lakers not far behind, migrating from Minneapolis in 1960.
Los Angeles became the ultimate tourist destination. When times were tough, the Olympics took a trip out here, to bask in the sun for three weeks in 1932, and liked it enough to return in 1984, when the Games were down on their luck again. Both times, Los Angeles helped regenerate the Olympic movement.
Al Davis was sufficiently intrigued to market-test Los Angeles for about a decade or so, but his rough-hewn Raiders seemed always boomerang-bound for Oakland. Donald Sterling brought his Clippers north from San Diego, although it took Los Angeles a couple of decades to notice.
Even teams unable to physically relocate wanted a piece of L.A. flash.
Hence, Arte Moreno and the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.”
The attractions kept coming, and the parade of sports luminaries that passed through our stadiums and arenas could stock several halls of fame.
The two greatest no-hit pitchers of all-time, Koufax and Nolan Ryan, dominated consecutive decades here. They took turns holding the single-season major-league strikeout record and combined for eight no-hitters while wearing the colors of the Dodgers and the Angels before Buzzie Bavasi, the man who negotiated Koufax’s high-profile contracts, moved to Anaheim to commit the biggest miscalculation in Angel history: allowing Ryan to become a free agent in 1980 because Bavasi was smugly sure the team could replace him with two 8-7 pitchers.
Don Drysdale first set the big-league record for most consecutive scoreless innings pitched in 1968, then Orel Hershiser broke it 20 years later.
Who fills the No. 5 slot in the all-L.A. starting rotation?
Fernando Valenzuela, who became a baseball and cultural phenomenon, inducing the kind of mania around Chavez Ravine that hadn’t been seen since Koufax, while winning the World Series for the Dodgers, all in his rookie season?
Or Don Sutton, who pitched for both local teams, laying his career’s Hall of Fame foundation with the Dodgers and then clinching his induction by logging victory No. 300 as a member of the Angels?
And who gets the call and the ball in the ninth inning with a one-run lead to protect?
Eric Gagne, whose sweat-stained Dodger cap became the city’s most photographed fashion accessory as it accompanied him to a record 84 consecutive saves?
Or Troy Percival, who saved more than 300 games for the Angels while closing out one of baseball’s unlikeliest triumphs yet, the Angels’ out-of-nowhere World Series championship in 2002?
Filling out the all-L.A. lineup card, how about Mike Scioscia at catcher?
A rock of granite blocking home plate, a postseason hero for the Dodgers in 1981 and 1988 and the manager who orchestrated that minor miracle in Anaheim in 2002.
The infield? Just repeat what Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda did during the 1970s and early 80s -- jot down the names of Steve Garvey at first base, Davey Lopes at second, Ron Cey at third and Bill Russell at shortstop. That quartet set a big-league record for longevity while winning four pennants and a World Series before its 8 1/2 -season run ended with Garvey’s 1983 defection to the San Diego Padres, a move recorded in the book “The Sports Pages of the Los Angeles Times” thusly:
“A noted Los Angeles public figure, Steve Garvey of the Dodgers, caused a flap among the city’s baseball fans, especially women, when he refused his team’s best offer and fled to San Diego for more money. Raising taxes would have caused less of a fuss.”
Do you save a spot for one-season wonder Kirk Gibson, whose limp around the bases after delivering a pinch-hit home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series remains the most indelible goosebump moment in Los Angeles sports history?
Vladimir Guerrero, owner of the ugly pine-tar encrusted batting helmet, whiplash batting stroke and 2004 American League most-valuable-player trophy, deserves a berth.
How about a Davis or two? Tommy was the first Los Angeles Dodger to win a league batting championship, hitting .346 in 1962. Willie won three Gold Gloves with the Dodgers. Chili did not win any Gold Gloves with the Angels -- notoriously brick-handed, he once threw his glove in an empty locker stall to “punish” it -- but he was a reliable run-producer during two stints in Anaheim.
Who should manage this team?
Alston, who milked a 1-2 pitching punch of Koufax-Drysdale and very little hitting to three pennants in four years in the 1960s?
Lasorda, the irrepressible showboat/showman who charmed nuns and cursed writers with equal gusto, ranting and cajoling the Dodgers to their unlikeliest triumph, the 1988 World Series victory over the supposedly unbeatable Jose Canseco-Mark McGwire Oakland Athletics?
Or maybe Gene Mauch, the too-smart-for-so-simple-a-game Little General, who out-thought his way out of potential Angel pennants in 1982 and 1986? Do you suppose he could have reached the World Series with the talent listed above?
Los Angeles’ basketball heritage is relatively short, but as rich as any in the sport’s history. Lend us Michael Jordan and we can piece together an all-time all-NBA team without venturing east of Westwood.
The backcourt is loaded, and who takes the last shot among this group?
Jerry West, who carved his legend and earned a nickname, Mr. Clutch, for his shot-making prowess during a game’s last 15 seconds?
Magic Johnson, whose beaming smile and no-look passes illuminated the Lakers’ Showtime era, who won league titles by filling in at center and filling the hoop with his baby sky hook?
Or Kobe Bryant, who never met a last-second shot he wouldn’t take? Bryant is perhaps the city’s all-time cautionary tale when it comes to the challenges of dealing with celebrity at too young an age, whose free fall from grace is surpassed locally by only O.J. Simpson’s.
Bryant’s idea of public image resuscitation? Scoring ungodly numbers of points -- 62 against Dallas, 81 against Toronto -- while everyone at Staples Center, teammates included, stands around and watches in jaw-dropping awe.
Elgin Baylor claims one forward spot for being Dr. J a good decade and a half before there was a Dr. J.
James Worthy, the one-handed jam conclusion to hundreds of Magic Johnson outlets, is a worthy candidate. So too are a number of UCLA Bruins: Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes, with the unconventional yet unstoppable jump shot; Marques Johnson, who went on to play in five NBA All-Star games; Sidney Wicks, who kept UCLA’s post-Lew Alcindor era thriving with NCAA championships in 1970 and 1971.
The depth chart at center on this team is ridiculous. Do you opt for Shaquille O’Neal or Wilt Chamberlain? The Big Aristotle or the Big Dipper?
The rim-bending force behind the Lakers’ 21st-century-opening three-peat or the broad shoulders that lifted the then-cursed Lakers to their first Los Angeles championship in 1972?
(Just don’t let them shoot free throws to decide it. We could be waiting a week.)
If not them, how about the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who didn’t win many friends with his off-the-court glower but teamed with Magic to win five league titles in the 1980s?
Or do we go with UCLA’s other greatest big man, Bill Walton, whose finest achievement remains debatable? Was it making 21 of 22 field-goal attempts in the 1973 NCAA final? Or wincing and squatting with aching knees to lift the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship?
The best man to coach this team is perhaps the best coach to ever work a gymnasium. John Wooden, architect of the much-copied Pyramid of Success, laid as a foundation a combination of hard work and teamwork, eventually building to a peak of 10 NCAA championships at UCLA, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973.
Fallback options aren’t bad. Pat Riley slicked back his hair and smooth-talked the Lakers into a memorable championship repeat in 1987 and 1988. Phil Jackson went with a soul patch, a Zen-tinged approach to motivation from within and his own Triangle of Success to one-up Riley and complete one of the sport’s most remarkable achievements: keeping O’Neal and Bryant from throttling each other long enough to win three consecutive NBA titles.
Rivalry was a way of life for professional quarterbacks in this town, starting with the Hall of Fame confrontation between Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin in the 1950s and gradually backsliding to Roman Gabriel-Bill Munson in the 1960s to James Harris-Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden-Vince Ferragamo in the 1970s to, at last and alas, Jim Everett-T.J. Rubley in the early 1990s.
At that point, the Rams and their fans had seen more than enough of one another and in 1995, the marriage ended with owner Georgia Frontiere jumping into the too-eager arms of football-starved St. Louis.
Quarterbacks kept the radio talk shows buzzing, but this has always been a running back kind of town.
The greatest of them all was also the sorriest, Simpson taking a quarter-century to devolve from sleek Trojan workhorse to that sad, slow Bronco drive in 1994.
Mike Garrett preceded Simpson as a Heisman Trophy winner, earning the trophy in 1965, barely a year before participating in the first Super Bowl in Los Angeles’ Coliseum, four years before winning the Super Bowl with Kansas City and four decades before watching USC claim consecutive national championships as the Trojans’ athletic director.
Eric Dickerson set the NFL single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards for the Rams in 1984.
Bo Jackson burned brightly but briefly as a backfield comet for the Raiders, and hit a memorable home run in the 1989 All-Star game in Anaheim while tending to his second job, star outfielder for the Kansas City Royals.
Marcus Allen won the Heisman Trophy at USC in 1981, a Super Bowl with the Raiders in 1984 and foreshadowed the Raiders’ eventual return to Oakland by being driven out of town by Davis in 1993, two years before Davis did the same with the rest of the franchise.
USC went Heisman-less for more than two decades, Carson Palmer finally following up Allen’s triumph in 2002 to set off a three-in-four-years Trojan run, running back Reggie Bush’s 2005 victory tag-teaming quarterback Matt Leinart’s in 2004.
USC also gave the city a long football coaching legacy that extended from Howard Jones’ dominance in the early 20th century to John McKay’s penchant for one-liners and late-game dramatics to John Robinson’s power-ball approach to Pete Carroll’s college-kid-forever enthusiasm that produced the school’s unlikely turn-of-the-century renaissance.
UCLA added to that tradition with Red Sanders, who engineered the school’s only NCAA football championship in 1954; studious Tommy Prothro, who had good teams and the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, Gary Beban in 1967, but also the bad luck of coaching the Bruins during McKay’s glory days; and Terry Donahue, a football conservative who still produced such notable passers as Troy Aikman, Jay Schroeder and Tommy Maddox.
Los Angeles is a city with ties to:
* The man who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Jackie Robinson, a multisport star at UCLA.
* Perhaps the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, who broke Gordie Howe’s scoring records and nearly won the 1993 Stanley Cup with the Kings.
* Perhaps the greatest tennis player off all time, Pete Sampras, who honed a game that amassed 14 Grand Slam titles on Southland hard courts.
* Perhaps the greatest jockey of all time, Bill Shoemaker, four-time winner of the Kentucky Derby during a riding career that nearly covered four decades.
* The greatest golfer of our generation, Tiger Woods of Cypress.
* Some of the greatest female athletes in U.S. history: Babe Didrikson Zaharias, winner of two gold medals at the 1932 Olympics; Billie Jean King, who left Long Beach to win 39 major singles and doubles titles, which were almost overshadowed by her “Battle of the Sexes” victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973; Cheryl Miller and Ann Meyers, trend- and record-setters on the basketball court; Olympic swim legend Janet Evans; and the tennis-playing Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, winners of a combined 12 Grand Slam tournament titles.
One final question: Who gets the call to call Los Angeles’ most memorable sporting moments of the last 125 years?
Choose a face, a voice, from sportscasting’s Mt. Rushmore: Vin Scully, Chick Hearn, Dick Enberg, Bob Miller -- a fabulous foursome that teamed to spoil L.A. fans for decades -- or from a couple of national voices who have resided locally for years, Keith Jackson and Al Michaels.
Of course, you would expect as much from Los Angeles. This is a city that has always talked a good game. Turns out, it played a pretty good one too.