In his prime Sandy Koufax found one hitter almost impossible to retire. Koufax and catcher Jeff Torborg held many confabs discussing selection of pitches to this nefarious fellow, who once hit two home runs in a game and built a .400 average against the Dodgers southpaw.

"We tried everything. Curves and fastballs. In, out, up, down," recalled Torborg, now a New York Yankees coach. "Nothing worked. Bob Uecker owned Sandy Koufax."

Uecker sits alone atop the bleachers in his beer commercials these days, while Koufax resides in the Hall of Fame, yet the greatest pitcher of the 1960s never figured out the humblest batter of his period. Welcome to baseball's central strategic mystery.

When we try to run baseball to earth, trace it to its lair, we seldom come closer to our game than when we talk about pitch selection. Interview major-leaguers for years and you will always hit dead silence at the same juncture. No, not on topics like a million-dollar contract or drug use or who hates whom in the clubhouse. Just ask, "How do you pitch this guy?" and suddenly you'll get a double-talk cover story that would do the CIA proud.

Pitch selection is Top Secret Classified Material. It's simply too important to discuss, at least not in the active tense. What you throw and why and when -- or, from a hitter's point of view, what you expect and when -- is at the center of the daily test. Only the past tense evokes answers. Ask about players who have retired and the anecdotes and the laughter pour out.

"After he retired, I asked Hank Aaron what he looked for at bat -- if there was any pattern to his thinking at all," said New York Mets Manager Dave Johnson. "He said, 'I looked for the same pitch my whole career. A breaking ball. All the time.' He could tell I didn't believe that was possible. Everybody looks for the fastball, then reacts to the curve. Aaron said, 'I never worried about the fastball. They couldn't throw it past me. None of 'em."

Inside the mind, that's where the secrets are in this game of timing and deceit, anticipation and disinformation. And not just the minds of the pitcher and hitter. "The catchers are the key," said Tim McCarver, the only catcher to play in four decades. "The first player I knew who understood that was Ron Santo. He'd say, 'I hit off the catchers. They're out there every day. Spot their patterns.' "

"I actually hate it when a team changes catchers in the middle of a series," said Bob Boone of the California Angels, who may set the career mark for games caught. "It messes me up {as a hitter}. You're in a constant state of flux anyway, making adjustments, then readjusting to what they're doing. That's the difference between the majors and minors. In the minors, you can get five or six guys in a lineup out the same way every time. In the big leagues, it's a necessity that you be able to handle all the pitches {at bat} -- if you're looking for the right one.

"So, just when you feel like you're thinking along with the other catcher, they go and change on you."

How can we decipher what a catcher thinks when he's behind the plate? Why, like as not, watch him when he's at the plate -- hitting. "You'd be surprised how many catchers call for what they can't hit themselves," said first baseman Keith Hernandez of the Mets. That's just the way the mind works. "I wouldn't say who does that, but let's say that Bo Diaz {Cincinnati Reds} and Jody Davis {Cubs} are two who don't."

A few catchers, however, can't get out of their minds the pitch a batter has just missed. "For years the story on {catcher} Andy Etchebarren was that if you swung and missed, all you had to do was wait, because Etch would call it again. And soon," said Johnson, a former teammate in Baltimore.

Even top catchers have trouble being analytical and free of predictability. Johnny Bench, the best of all, loved to call fastballs, especially with a swift runner on first, because he was vain about not allowing a steal. "I knew No. 1 {fastball} always went down when Garry Templeton was on first base," said Hernandez.

The code of the dugout dictates that all catchers and managers swear that pitchers, ultimately, call every pitch. Or at least take responsibility for it. Just listen to the rap. "It's the pitcher's livelihood. It's his game. He pays for it," said Manager Johnson. "He has to believe in what he's throwing. So he has the final say. If he doesn't want to throw a certain pitch, he won't throw it well."

In 1986, the Mets' new and famous catcher Gary Carter had many pitch selection differences with star Dwight Gooden. Finally, Johnson told Carter to swallow his great experience for the sake of Gooden's great talent. "I told Gary, 'Dwight is the one pitcher who can make the wrong pitch right. He can add or subtract a yard to his curveball. He can run the fastball right in on the fists. Let him do it his way.' " So Carter stopped insisting.

Despite that myth, it's simply not true that most pitches are called by pitchers. The manager, coaches and advance scouts help form the team's "book" on each hitter. The notion that pitcher and catcher can be on the same wavelength on 119 out of 120 pitches is nonsense.

Many pitchers prefer to concentrate on throwing, not thinking, so they're delighted to be led. Want proof? Think of any Jim Palmer game. Now that's what a game called by the pitcher looks like -- hill conferences, dozens of shakeoffs and a pitcher turning to re-position fielders between pitches.

"Palmer had great control in-and-out," recalled Johnson. "He divided the plate in half as well as anyone." Choosing between high and low is easier -- and allows more margin of error -- than trying to hit the proper side of a plate that's only 17 inches wide. "Jim always moved fielders because he was so confident which half of the plate he'd be working on."

For every veteran in charge of his own selections, there are entire staffs that look toward the bench, and the manager, on every pitch or, at least, on every important pitch. "Roger Craig {San Francisco Giants manager} calls the most pitches now," Hernandez said. "I've tried to pick up his signs. Not yet."Martin, Weaver and Mauch

The most famous recent signal-calling manager was Billy Martin. One of his Oakland players, Wayne Gross, once noted that Martin called pitches until the situation grew desperate -- i.e., tie score, bases loaded, none out, ninth inning. Then, no credit was to be gained. "The catcher would look in the dugout and Billy'd be over by the water cooler, head down, getting a drink," recalled Gross. "You were on your own."

Just as certain catchers call what they couldn't hit, some managers have the same reputation. In particular, both Earl Weaver and Gene Mauch had their great pride as players squelched by the existence of one pitch: the curve. "Almost every Mauch staff is known for curves," said McCarver.

"All Earl understood about the curveball is that he couldn't hit one," said Palmer. "So that's what he wanted you to throw."

That led to many battles. One of Weaver's coaches, Ray Miller, stood firm with the big-league majority that believes the fastball is, and always has been, the best pitch -- the bedrock of most repertoires. In the face of Weaver's fetish, and the sore arms it engendered, Miller went so far as to research every pitch thrown by every 20-game winner in Orioles history. To his glee, he discovered that every one had thrown at least 60 percent fastballs in every 20-win season.

To this, Weaver replied that, although fastballs are satisfactory in mundane situations, pitches that swerve are still the best choice in a crisis.

Would that the game were as simple as guessing fastball or curve. In an age of sliders, forkballs, screwballs, change-ups, scuffballs and spitters, the permutations are endless. Modern baseball has gotten so studious that batters expect to see new patterns each time they face a rival. "The advance scouts always see you, especially if you've just had a bad series," said Hernandez. "So, the first game of a series becomes a feeling-out process. You might take more pitches. See what they're thinking."

When a vital pitch fails, the second guess arrives as sure as the morning sun. That's how confidence can get destroyed. "Veteran pitchers can save young catchers," said Torborg. "I got a reputation as a smart catcher because Don Drysdale never shook me off. I appreciated it."

Players watched for years to see if the great Bob Gibson, who terrified both foe and friend, would ever shake off the green McCarver. What was with this kid? One day, Johnson asked Gibson, with McCarver present, if he'd ever shaken off a McCarver sign. McCarver's chest swelled until Gibson said, "Yeah, I always shook off one sign . . . The pitchout. Timmy couldn't throw out anybody."

McCarver's signal-calling rep got so inflated that Steve Carlton insisted that he be his personal catcher. Good enough for Hoot, good enough for me.

Some parts of pitch selection are a permanent paradox. How could Tommy Hutton kill Tom Seaver, or Mark Belanger hit Nolan Ryan so well that Weaver batted him leadoff in big games? Others aspects are an impromptu seat-of-the-pants art. "Every game is different," said Boone. "You don't know what stuff your pitcher'll have. I expect my pitcher to be perfect. I don't start with low expectations or fears. I make him prove to me which pitches aren't at their best that night."'One Thing Sets Up Another'

First-inning strategy, with the pitcher on a new mound, is much debated. Do you start simply with lots of power pitching? Do you establish one effective pitch, especially a curve, then add others, one by one? Boone tends to go for the whole package immediately; but many don't. Is that part of the reason pitchers allow more runs in the first inning than any other?

Once a hurler feels confident of three or even four pitches, the middle innings can be masterfully quick and riveting. "Then," said Mike Flanagan of the Orioles, "it's like a pool game when you plan three or four pitches ahead. One thing sets up another."

In particular, a wise pitcher studies the hitter's reaction to the previous pitch. Clubhouse meetings are all very nice, but if a hitter has decided to "sit on" the change-up -- that is, wait for it all night in hopes that he can get just one to hit out of the park -- then you better spot it early.

For instance, if a right-handed hitter swings late on your fastball on the outside corner and fouls it over the first base dugout, what do you do? There's only one right answer, folks. The man either has a slow bat or he's looking for a curve. "It's an unwritten rule," said Johnson, "that you throw the fastball again, but further inside. Then, he has even less chance to get the bat head out over the plate."

While pitchers (and fans) tend to think in terms of types of pitches, some hitters think primarily of location. That can mystify an entire league.

"Zone hitters can be tough," said Johnson. "Ted Williams was one. It was late in my career before I learned how much I liked the ball down and in." So, in his first National League season, Johnson looked for nothing else until he had two strikes. And hit 43 home runs after having had more than 10 only once in his whole career.

While hitters must decide whether to focus on location, velocity or spin, pitchers must decide whether to attack a hitter's weakness or emphasize their own strength.

"Seaver and Gibson pitched me entirely different," said Johnson, to illustrate the point. "Seaver, a power pitcher, went away from his own strength and threw me breaking balls in the World Series and kept the ball away. Going to my weakness. Gibby, on the other hand, was determined to prove he could get everybody out inside, because then he could get you out anywhere. You were defenseless. He came right after me and I was an awful good inside hitter."

A compromise position exists between these two theories which tries to take into consideration the style of both the pitcher and hitter. Catfish Hunter epitomized it. "I only wanted to know one thing," said the new Hall of Fame inductee, who was gopherball prone: " 'Where is his power?' I'd stay away from that area, but pitch my own way in all the other parts of the plate."

False information also can play a vital part in this guesswork world. "If you're going to hide your real pattern, then you sometimes have to run the risk of setting up a false pattern," said McCarver. "Billy Williams was a devastating breaking-ball hitter. But, with two outs and nobody on, you might throw him two curves in a row. Now you might get shown something; you might get buried. But if you got away with it, it made everything else work better."

By the same token, one out-of-character pitch can shape a whole game-long battle between a pitcher and a key hitter. Said McCarver, "If you'll throw that curve on 3-2 for a strike in the first inning, when it'd be easier just to go with the fastball and stay away from the aggravation {of a walk}, you might put an oh-for-four on that guy's ledger. All day, he's going to think you have complete confidence in your curveball, even if you really don't."

One pitch selection is perhaps the most controversial of all. The old-time knockdown. "With Drysdale, you'd just give a quick thumbs-up sign {like hitching a ride}," recalled Torborg. If the batter happened to see the gesture, Drysdale couldn't have cared less.

"Nobody ever defended his own hitters like Drysdale," said Torborg. "His rule was two-for-one. You flip one, he'd flip two. Hit one, he'd hit two."

Torborg shook his head, thinking back to those simpler days when pitch selection was a tad less sophisticated. "Drysdale wouldn't just drill you," said Torborg. "While you were lying in the dirt, he'd come right in to home plate, stand over you, pick up the ball and walk back to the mound."

Amazing how almost any pitch will suffice, if the hitter truly wishes he were back home, say, mowing the lawn.