DODGERS ACE CLAYTON KERSHAW LEAVES LITTLE TO CHANCE, BUT WITH FREE AGENCY LOOMING, THE GREATEST PITCHER OF HIS GENERATION IS DESPERATE FOR THE ONE THING THAT HAS BEEN BEYOND HIS REACH—A WORLD SERIES TITLE IN LOS ANGELES
CLAYTON KERSHAW has started nearly 400 games, from spring training to the World Series, which means he has woken up nearly 400 times and put on the same once-white UnderArmour shirt under his Dodgers jersey. If first pitch is at 7:10 p.m., he straps heat packs on his left arm at 5:58. He enters the dugout and drinks a cup of water at 6:20. He begins warming up at 6:23. He stretches at 6:36. "Not 6:35:58," says Brandon McDaniel, the Dodgers' strength coach. "Not 6:36:02." And then Kershaw utters the same words he has before every start since his major league debut, trying to steady his heart rate.
Lord, whatever happens, be with me.
Kershaw was baptized Methodist and attended church every Sunday. But he says he believed in God as a child mostly because he thought he was supposed to. He was an anxious kid, especially after his parents divorced when he was 10. So he decided to try to control everything he could. His father, Christopher, was not around much, and his mother, Marianne, rarely had to discipline him. He says he did not drink in high school. He turned in his homework on time. He did not need to be told when to turn off the TV or when to go to bed.
As he emerged as a major league prospect—at a time when many athletes become seduced by the trappings of sudden fame—Kershaw listened more attentively in church. He discussed what he learned with his close friends, and with a girl he had met in eighth grade, Ellen Melson. He would go on to develop mid-90s velocity and a curveball Vin Scully would name Public Enemy No. 1 in spring training 2008, and become the best pitcher in baseball. But first he examined his life. Everywhere he looked he saw divine fingerprints. He began to reconsider the story he told himself.
HERE IS the story we tell about him: The greatest pitcher of his generation is incomplete without a championship. He has three Cy Young Awards, an MVP and the lowest ERA by a starter in the live-ball era (2.37)—but in the playoffs.... five runs in 42/3 innings (2009) ... seven in 4 ('13) ... eight in 62/3 ('14) .... In postseason elimination games, he is 1--3 with a 5.60 ERA. In last year's World Series against the Astros, the closest the Dodgers have come to winning a title in three decades, his team gave him leads of four runs and later three runs in Game 5. He blew both. In Game 7, with L.A. down 5--0, Kershaw threw four shutout innings of relief, but it was too late. For the seventh time in nine seasons, the Dodgers fell short in the playoffs.
The criticism frustrates Ellen, now his wife. She occasionally wants to log on to Twitter and defend him: That 4.35 postseason ERA is inflated because of five bad starts; relievers following him have allowed nearly three-quarters of inherited runners to score. In short, Ellen says, his postseason performance is complicated. Clayton disagrees. "You know what's not complicated?" he asks. "Winning."
His critics say he should win more. Kershaw says he should win everything. Many people say they are blessed when they succeed. Kershaw believes he has been blessed with talent. Every time he fails, he views it as a tiny affront to the God who gave it to him. "I don't want to waste it," he says.
The heaviest load he carries isn't the weight of fans' expectations. It's that he believes he has been given a gift that he doesn't deserve. He thinks often of his favorite verse, Colossians 3:23: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters."
Does Kershaw ever give himself a break? "In the offseason," he says, "like 10 days or two weeks."
No—does he ever say, It didn't work out, but I tried my best and that's enough?
"Oh, no," he says.
Kershaw's good friend and former catcher, A.J. Ellis, says that Kershaw perceives any season in which he does not win every start as a failure. When Kershaw hears another pitcher say, after giving up a hit, that he executed his pitch, he shakes his head. "I don't care about executing pitches," he says. "What do you say when you make a great pitch and the guy still gets a hit? I'm not going to tip my hat. I'm pissed. You're not supposed to get a hit off me."
Rick Honeycutt, the only major league pitching coach Kershaw has ever had, recalls a moment during spring training: Kershaw descended the mound. He had done his job. But he was scowling.
The ball was not springing cleanly from his hand. What if he'd lost it?
Honeycutt laughed. He has this conversation with his ace every year. It was February. This was Kershaw's second bullpen session of 2018. "Clayton," he said, "that's why we do this."
This line of thought baffles Kershaw. "People assume that because you were good last year, that you're going to be good again," he says. "Yes, it's spring training, but that doesn't mean you just say, Aw, whatever. Because it's spring training the results don't matter, but it's going to matter soon enough and you've gotta figure it out. Everything matters."
KERSHAW THINKS frequently about time. Even when he was a child, tardiness made him anxious. His father was often late to pick him up for baseball practice. He would stare out the window, wondering if Dad would show up. Now he prefers to arrive at least 10 minutes early for everything.
Kershaw is early to church, early to pick up three-year-old Cali and one-year-old Charley from school, early even to parties. Ellen would be happy to walk into an airport and right onto a plane for final boarding; Clayton wants to get there three hours early, having already researched where to park and how to get to the gate. Ellen says that one of her goals when they got married was to try "desperately hard" to be on time for him.
He is at his most compulsive on start days. He checks Waze throughout the morning and memorizes alternate routes from their house to Dodger Stadium. After Cali was born, Kershaw decided to take an Uber to the ballpark so they could all drive home together. After a year of backseat navigating during which his rating must have plummeted, the family agreed it would be better to take two cars. He prefers to be at the field shortly after 1 p.m. for a 7:10 game. "What could you possibly be doing for six hours?" Ellen asks him.
The training staff loves to work with Kershaw because he can diagnose his own injuries, sometimes early enough to prevent them. Most people feel a twinge and think, Oh, I must have done something different yesterday. Kershaw never does something different. If he feels a twinge, something is wrong. He has adapted his regimen over the years—he works out during the kids' naptime now and has added Pilates—but when he settles on something, he follows it like a military command. He asked McDaniel to design his home gym so it matched the one at Dodger Stadium. He has eaten the same breakfast (an alchemy of half a dozen cereals) and turkey sandwich on a bagel for a decade of start days. When the Dodgers removed bagels from the clubhouse a few years ago, he bought his own.
"I want to be able to say there are no regrets," Kershaw says. "I want to make sure I have done literally everything I possibly can."
CLAYTON'S CHILDHOOD revolved around Little League, fruit snacks and "Eye of the Tiger" on repeat. His parents' divorce upended his life. Marianne worked late to keep Clayton in the tony Highland Park, Texas, school district. (He shies away from discussing his father, who died in 2013; Clayton's most public comments on the topic are in Molly Knight's book, The Best Team Money Can Buy.) As soon as he understood that the game could send him to college for free, the stakes of every outing felt overwhelming. Cautiously, he began handing off some of his worries to God. He found his anxiety lessened. Faith simplified everything. He began to believe the story of his life was really the story of his relationship with God. "He kept showing up when I didn't notice it," Kershaw says. "I was like, Oh man, His hand was in all this stuff."
As a child, he says, he imagined God as a great but distant king. Ellen convinced him to see God also as a loving father. Clayton's relationship with his own dad was limited to hellos at baseball games and the occasional dinner. He wrapped himself in the idea that he had the unconditional love of such a great being.
We do not earn God's grace, he likes to say. That's what makes it grace. Still, a gift like his—he must owe someone something for that. At a minimum, he says, he must not squander it. It galls him to see young players arrive in the majors, dazzle for a few weeks and then fade away rather than make adjustments that would keep them in the big leagues. "I don't like to see people waste their talent," he says.
Despite Kershaw's platform, he does not try to convert everyone. He does not point to the sky after key strikeouts or suggest that God roots for the Dodgers. He tries to read the Bible daily, during those six hours before the game, and considers how he can grow in his faith. He attends a small service held at the ballpark before Sunday day games and helps lead a Bible study with teammates once per road trip.
Over the years, his idea of a life working for the Lord has expanded. In eighth grade, Ellen watched an Oprah special about AIDS orphans in Zambia and felt called to help. She has since visited the country 10 times, bringing Clayton with her for the last four. After their first trip they established Kershaw's Challenge (motto: Strikeout to Serve), which they fund with events including an annual Ping-Pong tournament and by donating $500 for every Kershaw K. The organization has worked with a charity called Arise Africa to build two orphanages in the capital city, Lusaka, and has since expanded to L.A., Dallas and the Dominican Republic. Ann Higginbottom, Ellen's sister and the executive director, once mailed T-shirts to donors from her living room; today she heads a staff of eight and has overseen more than $6 million in contributions.
Clayton's first visit to Zambia came three weeks after their 2010 wedding. Ellen had shared air mattresses in countless minor league cities to support his dream, and he wanted to involve himself in hers. But he worried that he would not know where to start. She leaped off the plane after 22 hours and began carrying on conversations in broken Nyanja; he nervously followed her through Lusaka's slums, surrounded by poverty that overwhelmed him. Ellen seemed to connect instantly with the kids and their families. Clayton held back.
Before the trip, he had shipped a blue pitching tarp to the complex where they would stay, figuring he would find somewhere to hang it. He was touched when he arrived to see that someone in the village had welded together a base not unlike the one he used at home. After his first day of mixing cement to build classrooms at an elementary school, Kershaw set off to his workout on the dirt road behind the complex. As he threw, children gathered in the tall grass. None of them knew or cared who he was. He showed them how to throw, how to catch, how a glove works. They played every night. By the time he left, he was making plans to come back. He left the tarp there.
FOR ALL of his urgency, Kershaw refuses to look into the future. He scoffs when people suggest he's the lefthanded Pedro Martínez, or the next Sandy Koufax, or one of the best ever. Walker Buehler, 23, the Dodgers' top pitching prospect, flew from his home in Nashville to Dallas for one day this offseason just to watch Kershaw work out and could barely steady himself to speak. Second baseman Chase Utley laughs as he watches young players part when Kershaw enters the clubhouse. Kershaw begs them to give him grief—for his hair, for his age, for anything. "I think he has trouble always being Clayton Kershaw," says Ellis. "He wants to just be Clayton."
Kershaw is most comfortable at a hightop table at Bandito's in Dallas, eating fajitas with his childhood friends, weathering insults about his fantasy football team and trying to snoop on their dating lives. (In an attempt to foil him, his buddies all upgraded to six-digit iPhone passcodes from four.) Anyone who recognizes Kershaw at Bandito's is more likely to remember him from elementary school than ask for an autograph.
So Kershaw was delighted when a prospect challenged him to a game of Ping-Pong, his favorite off-field activity and one that brings out his start-day competitiveness. He invites himself to dinner with teammates on the road and picks up the check. He tries to stack the workout-room playlist with EDM and to stay up-to-date on Snapchat and Instagram. He says he did not really feel like a veteran until his 30th birthday, in March, was on the horizon. He thinks he struggled with his command his first two years in the majors because he gave opposing hitters too much credit. Now, he says, he knows he belongs.
He knows, too, that all this is temporary. He and Ellen remind each other often that in 10 or 20 years, no one will much care what he did on a pile of dirt. He says he will retire when he no longer feels the urgency to improve, but he cannot quite picture life after baseball. There will be more work with the foundation, of course. Otherwise he thinks he will divide his time among the PTA presidency, crossing-guard duty and shifts in the kids' cafeteria.
But now, even as the 2018 season enters its second month, the Dodgers' loss in the World Series last October still guts him. His dedication to routine makes the playoff losses even more frustrating. He has perfected the process. Why can't he perfect the results? He derives no solace from the knowledge that he dominated in Game 7, throwing those four scoreless innings in relief on two days' rest. He flashes back to Game 5, when he blew the two leads. He runs through his mistakes: a slider off the plate here, a middle-in four-seamer there. He does not know how to blunt the pain. He doesn't want to.
"You should enjoy the wins," Kershaw says. "It's hard to win a major league game. Get as emotionally high as you can and celebrate the moment. And then when you lose, feel it."
He says that the kids saved him after the World Series. He used to wonder how sleep-deprived teammates with children functioned, but when Cali was born, he felt his heart open. Normally stoic, he sometimes cries when they greet him after a road trip. After the Series, he could have stared at the wall for days. Cali just wanted Daddy to read her a story and sing her a song.
Ellen and Clayton packed up the L.A. house and flew home two days after Game 7. Kershaw went straight from the airport to a West Dallas baseball field he had donated, where he ran a six-hour camp for 400 underprivileged kids. "I probably wouldn't have gotten to do that if we had won," he says. "We would have been having the parade."
His sense of perspective is often in conflict with his single-mindedness. Perhaps no player has more at stake this season than Kershaw. The possibility of free agency looms—he can opt out of his contract after this year—as does the inevitability of decline. This could be his best chance to win it all. But he learned early in his career that the high after a victory soon gave way to an emptiness, a need to do it again. There is a good chance that if he wins the World Series, he will wake up the next morning and think, Now what?
Still, the more he does it, the harder it is for him to imagine not doing it. "It's the only way I know," he says. So he replays his failures and mixes his cereals and stretches at 6:36. He gets to the ballpark six hours early. And in the stillness before the chaos, he asks God to be with him.
Actually, that's not quite right—"It doesn't make much sense to say [that]," Kershaw admits upon reflection. "God is always with you. I think I say that just because I know He's already there, so I just say that to remind myself. I've thought about it over the years, and there are probably better things I could pray for, but that's the first thing that came to my mind. It's almost as a reassurance." Kershaw realizes now: He's talking to himself.
DOES HE EVER SAY, IT DIDN'T WORK OUT, BUT I TRIED MY BEST AND THAT'S ENOUGH? "OH, NO," HE SAYS.
KERSHAW AT 30
Only four pitchers (Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Roger Clemens and Bert Blyleven) accumulated a higher Wins Above Replacement by age 29 in the modern era.
Strikeouts by Kershaw before age 30, which is fifth all time, behind only Sam McDowell, Blyleven, Johnson and Félix Hernández.
HOW LOW CAN HE GO?
Kershaw has pitched for 10 seasons and lowered his career ERA after each of the last nine. Just two other pitchers have had streaks as long immediately following their first season. Kershaw's ERA his rookie year was 4.26; his ERA last season was 2.31.
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The lowest in the live-ball era among pitchers with at least 1,500 innings pitched.
He's won 36.8% of postseason games he started, but 49.0% of starts in the regular season.