It was spring training 2008 at the Mets' Port St. Lucie complex. Four men worked in the bullpen, gearing up for the season. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax stood with newly acquired Cy Young winner Johan Santana and all-star closer Billy Wagner. The trio was joined by a 21-year-old lefty named Jonathon Niese.
"It was kind of a surprise to me because it was Sandy Koufax," Niese said. "It was just kind of an eye opener for me. I'm sitting in a circle talking pitching with guys like that. It just really didn't hit me. It was neat just to listen to what they had to say."
Niese was a veteran of just three professional seasons. He was coming off an 11-7, 4.19 ERA year at Class A-Advanced St. Lucie. Then the bullpen coach for the Mets, Guy Conti arraigned for the prospect to meet Koufax.
"They introduced him to me as Sandy so that's what I called him," Niese said. "It wasn't to where I was star struck, but it was neat just to hear him talk."
Koufax's career was finished 20 years before Niese was born, so the most the Bisons lefty has seen of the former Dodger is video. But Niese always knew about Koufax growing up and bought "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" to learn more. Funny enough, Niese had the book with him in spring training when Conti told him about the meeting.
"We were just talking pitching," Niese said of his interaction with Koufax. "It's kind of neat that his style of pitching and my style of pitching are pretty similar. He just kind of showed me how he gripped some of his pitches and what his thought process was when he was throwing his pitches."
A lot of that work focused on throwing the curveball, a pitch both men are known for. Niese said Koufax told him to throw the pitch the same way, and as hard as he could, every time. Koufax told him if his mechanics are right and he follows that advice, a good curveball should fly home. Niese took to the suggestion, saying it's when he tries too much to guide his curve that he hangs it and gets into trouble.
But getting to work with Koufax wasn't just a onetime deal. The Hall of Famer made an appearance in Mets camp this year as well.
"It makes you feel great," Niese said of Koufax taking the time to talk with him. "It says a lot about him. He's always been noted as a great guy and once you see it for yourself it's really neat to be associated with a guy like that. That's kind of the guy that I want to become."
And Niese has taken strides in that direction this season, at least on the field. The hurler is 5-0 in his last seven starts with an ERA of 0.71. He's also struck out 42 and walked just 12. The tear also includes a streak of 24.1 innings without allowing a run. But Niese will have to wait until the next time he sees Koufax to tell him how things have worked out.
"I didn't get his number," Niese said. "[I] probably should have, but I'm sure I'll see him again. It's always good to talk to Sandy." -- the herd --
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.