None of the other greats of baseball retired as young as Sandy Koufax, and perhaps none retired so well.

And no one else in the Hall of Fame disappeared from the game so quickly.

For 13 years, he wandered from the coast of California to the coast of Maine, disappearing from public view for years at a time.

"I wasn't looking for anything... just looking for time," Koufax said. "It was a mindless period to do what I wanted to do and go where I wanted to go.

"I decided to take a few years for myself... I wanted to see how long I could stretch it."

Now, after he has been out of the major leagues one year longer than the dozen seasons he was in them, Koufax has quietly reappeared in a corner of the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse as a low-profile pitching coach, one of three such coaches in the Dodgers organization.

Mr. K, the man who many say was, at his peak, the most overwhelming pitcher in the history of baseball, sits on a pedaling machine in the Dodgers weightlifting room. Cap tilted back, he looks as delighted as a batboy to join in the big league banter.

Koufax has come home.

He wears the old number -- 32 -- and, if anything, is a few pounds trimmer than his playing weight in 1966 when he shocked his entire profession by hanging up his spikes at age 30. "That's right," he says with a wry and enigmatic smile, "30."

At 43, Loufax's hair is a distinguished pepper-and-salt gray. He is tan and utterly at ease. Like Joe DiMaggio, he has, with age, gone from movie-star hand-some to some higher plateau.

"Hey, Sandy," said Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda, "you're gonna pitch for us coaches in the charity game against the media men today, right?"

"I guess I'll be there," said Koufax, just as he did before Walter Alston handed him the ball to start the World Series.

"I knew it," said Lasorda, glowing, his mousetrap all set. "That's why all them newspaper guys are lined up outside with bats."

Koufax is too delighted to be the butt of such a ridiculous joke to offer any retort. Everybody hits Sandy Koufax these days -- the scrubs in batting practice, the paunchy L.A. reporters.

When Koufax stepped off the mound after the '66 Series, he had won 27 games with a 1.73 ERA. He had been baseball's player of the year for four consecutive years. He was not at the peak of his game: he was somewhere above it.

So, he will be remembered forever that way. "He could step on the mound and win today," said L.A.'s Don Sutton.

Retirement is baseball's cruelest joke. What player has truly survived it without a sense of erosion? Willie Mays does not wear his bald spot well, nor Hank Aaron his spare tire. Mickey Mantle is a pulpy Oklahoma good ol' boy.

"Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Sandy," said Dodger Steve Garvey. "They're the only ones that seem to grow bigger with the years."

Perhaps Koufax does it best because he tries least. Williams and DiMaggio are both fiercely aloof. Koufax seems to tred an easy middle ground between pal and deity.

"This man was my idol," said rookie pitcher Robert Castillo, patting Koufax's embarrassed shoulder. "I snuck into every game he pitched."

At that, Koufax goes from eyesdown displeasure to mischief. "Well," said Koufsx to Castillo, "where's the money? You can pay me now."

There is hardly a word strong enough for the way other players feel about Koufax; it almost goes beyond affection to a sort of total protectiveness for a man so gentle he seems misplaced in a jock shop.

"I played with Sandy in '66," said veteran pitcher Don Sutton proudly. "It's like he's never been away. He's absolutely unchanged. He's the greatest, most sincere and humble..." then Sutton stops, as if laying it on too thick might reflect badly on Koufax.

"He helped me as a rookie and he helps me now. If anybody ever deserved to be at the top of the ladder, it's him," said Sutton. "A lot of people look around to see how they can keep you from climbing up there with them. Sandy has always gone out of his way to pull everybody up there with him."

That desire to pull others up the ladder is part of Koufax's pleasure now. "Pitching is a branch of learning, no doubt of it," said the southpaw who struggled for six big-league years as a 36-40 pitcher before suddenly learning control."You're part of a chain that goes back for generations passing the art along. You want to start others off further down the line than you did," he said.

For a man so reticent as to be a recluse by baseball's gregarious standards, Koufax is almost shockingly candid about the other reasons for his return.

"I need the money," he said. "I'm not destitute by any means, but I always knew I couldn't stay retired forever. I just wanted to stretch it as long as I could.

"It took me eight years (as a player) to get to $20,000 a season. Then I only had four more seasons, so you can figure that out. I did some TV announcing for NBC for five years (salary near $100,000 a year), but nothing since then.

"I'm like a lot of older people living on fixed incomes," said Koufax. "I needed a regular supplemental income just to keep up with inflation."

Koufax has investments and real estate holdings, as well as a sportsmedicine clinic in Eugene, Ore.

"Sooner or later, you're going to say, 'That's enough of that.' You need to find something to do, another purpose," said Koufax.

"Also, it's hard to be away from possibly the only thing you ever did really well," he said, with an expression that looks more like hard insight than false modesty.

"Baseball is a way of life. It's pleasant to be in a large group with one pursuit, everyone working for the benefit of all. Other people find the same felling in other ways... it's hardly unique to sports. It's like an orchestra making music together.

"Sometimes, on the right team, baseball can bring out a lot of the best in people. On the wrong team, I expect it can bring out a good deal of the worst."

Koufax, thanks to baseball, has always been able to lead a simple, untarnished, almost philosophical life.

"The game has a cleanness," he said. "If you do a good job, the numbers (statistics) say so. You don't have to ask anyone or play politics. You don't have to wait for the reviews."

That pursuit of pure pitching performance remains an essentially untransmittable lesson. Like a Talmudic scholar, Koufax can pass on the letter but not the essential mystery of his pitching teachings.

"Success and confidence," he said. "Who can say which one comes first? It took me six years to get them, and I still don't know which led to the other or how they sort of fed on each other. It's like relaxation and concentration... they go together, but it's hard to learn.

"Pitching is a static situation. You initiate the action. That means you can develop a special depth of concentration."

None of that is altered by the years. "I feel perfectly at home," said Koufax, "because the game doesn't change. There's no proficiency without dedication.

"It's surprising that baseball hasn't had to update anything since Ty Cobb. On a ground ball in the hole, a fast man's still out by a step and a slow man by two steps."

That seems to please Kaufax. He mulls it.

It is that silence and self-containment that have always set Koufax apart, made his psyche a parlor game for baseball psychiatrists. No man ever refused to pitch a Series game on Yom Kippur before Koufax. No man, for that matter, ever retired at his earnings and performance peak.

"My retirement was entirely a medical decision," Koufax says now, just as he said then.

That, of course, explains nothing. Hundreds of pitchers have had arm problems that turned arthritic, that threatened to become chronic and cause lifelong discomfort or minor deformity.

It is difficult to find a fan or athlete who truly has a feeling for how Koufax could walk away after a 27-9 season. Obviously, he still had a brilliant, if painful, pitching future ahead of him.

"I didn't believe it when I heard it," said Sutton, then a rookie. "I called Sandy that day. He said, "There are some things in life I might be jeopardizing, if I keep pitching with this elbow... you know, I might want to swing a golf club sometime during the rest of my life."

That brings us to the edge of Koufax, which may be as far as he will ever allow anyone to go. How is the great consuming public, avid for heroes, going to understand a man who forsakes fame simply because the idea of crippling himself, perhaps losing the feeling in his fingers, offends him deeply?

The pressure of the game did not drive him away. "Sometimes, you find that you like those extreme pressure situations," he said. "You like the responsibility. You know, sometimes the most terrified people do the best work."

The heat of the public spotlight burned him more than the heat of the mound. "You are part of an entertainment," he explained. "But you are not an entertainer. That is unnatural. But I enjoyed doing it... probably even more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me."

Even in that Southern California media whirl, Koufax maintained his privacy by refusing to do otherwise "If you want your life to be private, it can be," he said. And that's that.

That wall of privacy is not topped with Ted Williams' barbed-wire snarl but with a gentle, disquieting smile. Where was Koufax for seven years from 1972 to 1979? "Wherever I wanted to be...."

Koufax, in his blank-faced, enigmatic moments, can seem like a man protecting an enormous and simple secret that is more important to him than it could possibly be to anyone else. Like some adventurous introvert in a Joseph Conrad novel, he seems to have glimpsed a sobering heart of darkness either in himself or in the world.

When someone praises him too much, Koufax gives a weary, knowing look and says, "Who are we talking about? I don't think I know this person."

When a man says, in passing, "You know, Sandy, I think if I had to be interviewed as much as you, I'd crawl in that trunk"

"I'm tempted," says Koufax gently.

Yet, at other times, Koufax seems comfortably ordinary recycling the driest baseball cliche as though it were new.

The clue, perhaps, is that Koufax has seen through the veil of his game. A sport can be extremely difficult without being extremely important. Baseball could fascinate him, but not control him.

"It is unfair to make comparisons. I don't want to be compared to anyone," he said, as though saying it one more time is unlikely to change anything. "I am just myself... the same person I have always been."

And who might that fellow be -- that chap who retired at 30, who lived in blessed gossipless solitude with his wife for 13 years, and who now returns to baseball with such natural ease?

That central inviolate self remains as untouchable as a Koufax fast ball, as admirable as a Koufax curve.