Op-Ed: They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes – but they weren’t talking about Sandy Koufax

Last month, the day after Father’s Day, my phone rang. Although the call was from an unknown number, I answered and heard a voice say, “Hello, it’s Sandy Koufax.”

I held my breath in amazement, even though our lives had briefly crossed a few days earlier.

My journey with Sandy started years ago when I was a young child who idolized him. I was 9 years old when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. The team brought me so much joy as I struggled to survive the turbulence of a chaotic family life. I spent many nights with my transistor radio on my bed keeping score while Vin Scully told the story of the game and of the players themselves – Jackie, Duke, Pee Wee, Don and most importantly Sandy.

I lived in Huntington Park in Southeast Los Angeles, I was one of the few Jews in my high school, and I had no Jewish role models or heroes. That all changed when Sandy climbed the hill. All baseball fans were amazed by his extraordinary no-hitters, complete games and strikeouts. I was proud of Sandy for this achievement – and for being Jewish.

Then came Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, the Dodgers played against the Minnesota Twins. The match fell on the same day as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one of the most important holidays in the Jewish faith. Sandy chose not to pitch. He said of his choice not to play: “A man has a right to his faith and I don’t think I should work on Yom Kippur. It’s as simple as that…”

But this one simple decision created reverberations that continue today. For me and many others, it made him a champion of religious conscience and standing up for one’s beliefs. I believe this is one of the main reasons I have pursued a life as a rabbi, sought justice and done humanitarian work. Fans often attach great stories to our heroes, and it doesn’t really matter if they match reality, if they help inspire us and give us hope.

On June 18, my son Micah and I made the pilgrimage from Northern California to LA to attend the unveiling of the statue of Sandy Koufax at Dodger Stadium by the Dodgers. At our hotel we got into the elevator and as the doors closed we realized Sandy was standing there behind us. At first I didn’t want to be “that guy” who invades the personal space of a famous icon, but then I forced myself to talk to him and shared some overheated expressions of admiration and respect. When Sandy was embarrassed or disinterested, he didn’t show it in his words or in his smile. In those few moments, he turned from a childhood superhero into a real person with warmth and integrity.

Later that weekend we saw Sandy having breakfast at the hotel restaurant. We didn’t want to bother him but we arranged for his meal to be brought to our room and gave the waiter a note to pass on to him. We left Los Angeles with a happy feeling that we had treated Sandy Koufax to breakfast.

Then came the call. Sandy said he wanted to thank you and we had a great 10 minute chat. This simple act speaks to the man we have always believed he is, one who treats others with respect and tries to do the right thing.

His comments that weekend at the statue’s unveiling showed the same thing. They were marked with gratitude and celebrated others. As I listened to his speech, I finally understood that this intensely private man has a much less complicated image of himself than the image so many of us have projected upon him.

I see Sandy’s decision not to pitch on Yom Kippur differently now. It’s no longer the grandiose act I had built up to be. As with his phone call, he just did what was right for him and his conscience. He wasn’t trying to be a model of something bigger.

Viewing Sandy’s actions through this light empowers me that the world is being transformed not by words and proclamations, nor by daring heroic deeds, but by everyday acts of thoughtfulness and decency that anyone can do. Those actions, which are central to the human experience, are needed today more than ever.

Lee Bycel is a rabbi, the vice chair of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities, and the author of “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope.”

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