May 21, 2024

Every fifth day — the mentality that drove Clayton Kershaw to greatness: Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from “The Last Of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw and the Burden of Greatness.” Copyright @2024 by Andy McCullough and reprinted with permission from Hachette Books/Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved. Available now. 

The five-day cycle would start once more quickly, and so Clayton Kershaw tried to diagram the way it had outlined his existence for the previous twenty years. He pressed his fingertips into his kitchen desk. The rewards of the cycle surrounded him. The hearth crackled in the lounge. Above it hung a row of stockings, one for every of his 4 youngsters. A pile of Amazon Prime packages lay by the entrance door. That evening, Santa Claus would experience on the again of a fireplace truck and greet the households of Highland Park, the posh Dallas neighborhood Kershaw had known as residence for many of his life. Christmas was two weeks away.

In the winter of 2022, when he invited me to his residence, Kershaw was solely two months faraway from standing at a crossroads. He had confronted this juncture earlier than, and he would face it once more. He had chosen to hold taking part in, which meant he had chosen as soon as once more to divide his life into five-day schedules. This was the customary for pitchers in Major League Baseball. For 4 days, they put together. On the fifth day, they carry out. This cycle formed Kershaw and enriched him and tormented him.

For greater than fifteen years, the destiny of the Los Angeles Dodgers — considered one of baseball’s glitziest, most prestigious franchises, a monetary behemoth value roughly $4 billion, throughout that stretch the winners of 11 division titles, three National League pennants, and the 2020 World Series — had revolved round Clayton Kershaw’s fifth day. He was the greatest left-handed pitcher of his era, the religious inheritor to Sandy Koufax. On his approach to turning into a 10-time All Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, and the first pitcher to win the National League MVP award since Bob Gibson, Kershaw reveled in the 4 days of coaching, the camaraderie of teammates, the trappings of athletic stardom. As he approached his thirty-fifth birthday, there have been occasions he thought he might keep on this cycle endlessly. But then he remembered how the final day, when he had to pitch, made him really feel.

“It’s just the fifth day that is — it’s a lot,” Kershaw mentioned. “The stress. The preparation. The pain. All that stuff, it takes a toll.”

For as soon as, his physique didn’t ache. During the summer time of 2022, he handled persistent again hassle. Discomfort accompanied most pitches. A way of apprehension greeted him most mornings: Is my again going to harm as we speak? With relaxation and rehabilitation, the ache pale. He felt higher than the earlier winter. After an elbow harm had sidelined him for the 2021 postseason, Kershaw apprehensive he would wish the first surgical procedure of his life. He averted going beneath the knife, however nonetheless felt persistent reminders of his sudden frailty. He couldn’t shampoo his hair or write his identify. When he picked up a baseball to throw once more, his elbow barked for a month. “But I kept throwing,” he mentioned. “And finally it got better.”

And so he did what he had finished each spring since the remaining days of his boyhood. He reported to spring coaching with the Dodgers. Kershaw had debuted at Dodger Stadium two months after his twentieth birthday. He quickly set the business’s customary. He starred like few others earlier than him. He suffered for his achievements. “He’s gotten some injuries over the years, where you’re always like, ‘This might be the one,’” former teammate Zack Greinke mentioned. “And then it seems to never be the end of it.” In current years Kershaw had broken the cartilage of his hip, torn a lat muscle, frayed tendons close to his elbow, and herniated a disc in his again. He had recovered from every of those with out surgical procedure, however the toll was mounting. Some of his illnesses represented the pure results of a career constructed round the unnatural act of repeatedly throwing a spherical object overhand. Some of it resulted from his unconventional supply, the heavy thudding of his 6-foot-4, 225-pound body into the earth, the violent trajectory of his left arm behind it. “It’s like a car crash every time he throws,” one other former teammate mentioned. And a few of it stemmed from Kershaw’s distinctive mixture of precociousness and effectiveness. He was so good, so younger, and depended upon a lot, there was certain to be a invoice.

By the finish of 2015, when he was 27 and had already received three Cy Youngs, he had gathered greater than 1,600 innings — a complete surpassed by solely two different pitchers at that age throughout the previous 35 years. CC Sabathia by no means made an All-Star staff after 32. Félix Hernández by no means threw one other pitch in the majors after 33. In 2022, at 34, Kershaw began the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. The honor served as a valediction as Kershaw approached the sundown, however it was not with out benefit. He completed the season with a 2.28 earned-run common, higher than all however 5 different pitchers. Even in decline, few might contact him. His profession 2.48 earned-run common was the lowest of any beginning pitcher since the sport livened its baseball in 1920: higher than Koufax, higher than Pedro Martínez, higher than Greg Maddux, higher than all who got here earlier than or after.

The 2022 season had ended sooner than anticipated. The 111-win Dodgers had fallen to the upstart San Diego Padres. Kershaw misplaced his solely postseason begin. Just a few years earlier, his outing would have produced howls about his lack of ability to carry out in the postseason. But Kershaw had tempered that narrative when he received two video games for the victorious Dodgers in the 2020 World Series. The championship ended a seven-year crucible of October agony and checked the remaining field of his Baseball Hall of Fame résumé. It additionally made others surprise, as the accidents gathered and his youngsters grew older and the stress of the five-day cycle compounded, about the finish. “At this point,” mentioned A.J. Ellis, Kershaw’s former catcher and considered one of his closest associates, “it’s like, what keeps driving him?”

Clayton Kershaw lastly received the World Series in 2020. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Two months earlier than one other spring coaching, Kershaw was pondering much less about why he stored going, and extra about why he may cease. His children. His again or his shoulder or his hip. Or, he admitted, he may retire for a extra primal purpose. The burden of greatness, the customary he alone set for himself, the pressure it took to be Clayton Kershaw — all of it was rising more durable and more durable to tolerate. He might solely give his all so many occasions.

“That’s ultimately what will drive you to stop, when it becomes too much to get ready for that day, every day,” Kershaw mentioned. “I probably put more stress on it than most.”

One day in the summer time of 2013, a film star visited the Dodgers clubhouse. This was not distinctive for Hollywood’s residence staff, save for 2 issues: The star confirmed up late. And the star confirmed up on a day when Clayton Kershaw was pitching.

When the man entered the room, the group erupted. The gamers hollered catchphrases immortalized on the silver display. Kershaw stewed at his locker, in full uniform, his No. 22 unfold throughout his again. He slipped right into a jacket, which he wore earlier than each begin, with “that zipper that zips all the way to the top no matter if it’s April or July in f—ing Miami,” one former teammate mentioned.

Kershaw stood up. In his left hand, as he normally did, he held a baseball. His proper hand carried his black Wilson 2000A CK22 glove, the identical glove he had worn since his rookie season. He was a product of routine and a captive of routine. He believed his devotion to behavior girded him by means of the 162-game season. Others believed it left him susceptible to failure in the moments of the highest stress. In his early years, earlier than the recreation humbled him and despatched him looking for solutions, he wouldn’t deviate from his schedule, diagrammed down to the minute. The routine known as for him to stroll into the Dodgers dugout at 6:20 p.m. He didn’t have a second to spare, even for Hollywood royalty.

“Clayton!” the actor shouted, holding up a hand as Kershaw stomped previous. “My man!” Kershaw wouldn’t meet his eye. He saved his demise stare for later, when he noticed the staff official who arrange the go to. He stormed out. He left Samuel L. Jackson hanging.

It was worse earlier than he turned a father.

In the years earlier than Cali Ann Kershaw was born, in January of 2015, her father had constructed a fame for dominating opponents throughout video games and spooking teammates earlier than them. For the 4 days between begins, Kershaw was a devoted employee and a pleasant presence. On sunny days, he sported outdated flip-down sun shades in the dugout. He performed playing cards on the staff airplane and unleashed righteous flatulence. While sauntering by means of the cafeteria one afternoon, he swiped a hen finger off a teammate’s baby’s plate. He projected healthful goofiness. “He’s the only guy I ever played with,” mentioned former teammate Dan Haren, “who I would let date my wife.”

The fifth day was totally different.

It began earlier than he arrived at the ballpark. “You wake up in a mood where you don’t want to talk,” Kershaw mentioned. He was silent however not nonetheless, his legs stressed, his thoughts racing, his coronary heart thumping. He thought of vomiting. He was not precisely offended or nervous, though it typically regarded that approach. He simply felt consumed by the process that awaited him, when he wanted to climb atop the pitcher’s mound, alone, and be Clayton Kershaw. He loathed interactions, even together with his spouse, Ellen. “It’s like, I don’t even want to waste the breath,” Kershaw mentioned. “I couldn’t even get the words out.”

Before his remaining season in highschool, Kershaw acquired tutoring from an area pitching guru named Skip Johnson. Johnson barely charged Kershaw for the classes. Kershaw by no means forgot that kindness. Years later, the University of Oklahoma employed Johnson as its baseball coach. When he acquired the job, Johnson texted Kershaw. It took two messages earlier than Kershaw responded. Worried about an emergency, Kershaw sounded thrilled when Johnson shared the information. Johnson requested for a favor. The athletic division was placing collectively a press launch. Could Kershaw say one thing good about him? “Skip, I can’t give you a quote,” Kershaw mentioned. “I’m pitching tonight.”

To ease into these fifth days, after Ellen moved to Los Angeles following their marriage ceremony in December 2010, the couple watched tv. Clayton consumed episodes of CSI earlier than begins. Ellen discovered not to hassle him. The edict handed by means of his internal circle. He hardly ever returned calls. He ignored texts. His associates used separate group chats on the fifth day. After Cali was born—and adopted by sons Charley, Cooper, and Chance—Kershaw stowed his morning misanthropy. Instead of watching Grissom and Willows remedy crimes, he spent the hours with “the kiddos,” as he known as them. The youngsters used him as a bearded jungle gymnasium. “He, at all times, has one of the kids in his lap, wrestling him, hugging him,” Ellen mentioned.

After Kershaw turned a father or mother, the transformation came about as he drove to work. Upon arrival, he slipped into his uniform, spikes and all. “That’s not normal,” former teammate Tony Watson mentioned. Several hours earlier than one recreation, considered one of A.J. Ellis’s minor-league managers visited the clubhouse. The artificial a request. “My son,” the supervisor mentioned, “is the biggest Clayton Kershaw fan. Is there any way he can sign a baseball for him?” Ellis knew the proposition was dicey. But he figured it value the danger. Kershaw didn’t say a phrase. He scribbled his identify, obtrusive at Ellis the complete time.

Kershaw conserved syllables however made noise. He paced the clubhouse, bouncing a baseball towards the partitions. He flipped curveballs, burning off power, looking for the proper really feel. In his early years, veterans like catcher Brad Ausmus tried to snatch the ball and loosen Kershaw up. It by no means labored. As time handed and Kershaw’s stature grew, the pranks ceased. “You felt like the season was on the line every time he pitched,” former teammate Skip Schumaker mentioned. The surroundings alternated between edgy and festive. Tension mingled with the pleasure of teaming with the greatest pitcher in the world. Former Dodgers reliever J. P. Howell known as Kershaw “Off Day,” as a result of nobody else was obligatory when he began. Another reliever refused to put on cleats to the bullpen when Kershaw pitched. Yet nearly all dared not goof off round him. The gamers discovered to peek round corners and hold their ears open. If they heard the tell-tale pock-pock-pock, they rotated. If they crossed his path, they averted their eyes. Some teammates cracked jokes about not wanting to purloin his oxygen. Everyone understood to whom the valuable useful resource belonged. “When he walked in, his demeanor, his attitude it was like, ’S—, I can’t mess around today,’” former Dodgers nearer Kenley Jansen mentioned.

Kershaw’s schedule was hard-wired into him and didn’t allow distractions. He ate a turkey sandwich earlier than each begin, the identical meal relationship again to highschool. In the majors, he ready his personal at the ballpark: mustard and cheese have been requirements, lettuce and onions preferable, mayonnaise forbidden. When he settled into the clubhouse cafeteria, seats emptied and dialog cooled. “You have to sit there, and you’re like, ‘You just sucked all the energy out of the room because of your psychosis over having to pitch in a couple hours,’” Ellis mentioned.

After Kershaw ate, he repaired to the coaching room. An unoccupied desk awaited him. On his first day as a Dodger, Chase Utley hopped onto the desk. Utley commanded respect round the sport. Even so, Dodgers therapeutic massage therapist Yosuke Nakajima warned him that he wanted to transfer. “He’s going to be here in about three minutes,” Nakajima defined. “I suggest you get up.” Nakajima, who had spent greater than twenty years with the Dodgers as a therapeutic massage therapist and was identified to all as “Possum,” served as Kershaw’s gatekeeper. Jansen usually lounged on the desk earlier than Kershaw appeared. “That’s Kershaw’s table!” Nakajima would say. “Get up!” The staffers prepped the area for him. Kershaw required a Red Bull and a protein bar. Late throughout his time in Los Angeles, third baseman Justin Turner barged into the room, famished after a exercise. He noticed the protein bar sitting on the desk and wolfed it down. Nakajima cried out: “What are you doing?” Turner begged Nakajima to discover a substitute.

The coaching room was Kershaw’s sacrosanct area. Once he arrived, totally dressed, cleats on however unlaced, he managed the actual property. The tv all the time confirmed a baseball recreation. He demanded quiet. Kershaw as soon as menaced utility participant Kiké Hernández for blaring a Snapchat video.

A few years later, rookie Kyle Farmer sat beside Kershaw at his locker on his day.

“What’s up, Kersh?” Farmer mentioned. Kershaw grunted, stood up, and left. Hernández walked over.

“Don’t talk to him,” Hernández warned.

“What?” Farmer mentioned.

“He will rip your f—ing head off if you talk to him,” Hernández mentioned.

Kershaw’s depth on the days he pitched was well-known. (Brandon Sloter / Image Of Sport / Getty Images)

Hernández, an impish fellow, didn’t do as he mentioned. Over the years, he loved attempting to make Kershaw giggle on the fifth day. He might determine Kershaw’s protection mechanism. Kershaw would pull his mouth sideways to stifle a smile, and compulsively stretch his hamstrings, kicking his legs in the air. Laughter was not an possibility.

Few different Dodgers have been so brazen, even those that knew him greatest. Ellis usually checked the coach’s room to see if Kershaw was napping. A slumbering Kershaw foretold distress for the opponents. A sleepless Kershaw meant Ellis may want to calm his ace throughout the recreation. The duo usually mentioned the want to “play with no regrets,” Ellis mentioned. “Like, have you done everything you can mentally, spiritually, physically, emotionally to be ready to play this game?” On the 4 days earlier than the fifth day, whereas Kershaw may need made for extra nice firm, he maintained a meticulous routine of lifting, working, and scouting. He fortified his physique so he might pitch so long as potential on that fifth day, and he sharpened his thoughts so he might dissect opponents as effectively as potential on that fifth day.

The pregame examine turned obvious two hours earlier than each begin, when Kershaw convened with Ellis and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. Ellis and Honeycutt met earlier than the assembly, to be certain they have been in lockstep. Once the session started, the catcher and the coach listened as Kershaw diagrammed how he would assault every hitter, not simply a couple of times or 3 times however 4 occasions. Kershaw outlined how he would begin the recreation and the way he would end it. He discouraged dissent, Ellis defined: “I might say, ‘You know, I think backdoor slider—’ ‘No!’ And I’d be like, ‘I think backdoor slider—’ ‘No! Did you hear what I said? No backdoor sliders!’” Kershaw required proof to change the plan he had formulated. And even when the suggestion had benefit, he won’t take it. “I was stubborn,” Kershaw mentioned. “I was stubborn.”

He was sluggish to belief. He stored a small circle of associates, the identical group since highschool. He stored others at a distance. Dodgers supervisor Dave Roberts thought of Kershaw “the hardest player I’ve ever had to manage, as well as the fiercest competitor,” as a result of he was so proficient and so obstinate and so cautious of change. Kershaw appreciated to do issues the approach he appreciated to do them. He was exact about all the things. If Kershaw entered the dugout at 6:20 p.m., as he did the day he didn’t make Sam Jackson’s acquaintance, that meant Nakajima had cocooned his left arm in warmth packs and slathered his decrease again with Cramergesic ointment at 5:58 p.m., he had chugged the Red Bull at 6:10 p.m., and he was due to stretch in the outfield at 6:23 p.m. A coach got here to stretch him at 6:36 p.m. He threw the identical sequence of pitches in the bullpen. He spoke the identical prayer: “Lord, whatever happens, be with me.” And then he handled the opposing hitters with the identical disdain he handled dialog on the fifth day.

“He is as nice a guy as there is,” former teammate Jamey Wright mentioned. “But on that fifth day, he is an animal.”

What nearly all of his teammates didn’t perceive, partially as a result of Kershaw didn’t inform them, was the nervousness at the root of his relentlessness.

One day when he was a boy, a few years after his mother and father divorced, Clayton Kershaw requested his mom, Marianne, a query.

“Mom, we’re rich,” he instructed her. “But we’re not Highland Park rich, are we?”

Kershaw was a perceptive baby. He resided in a unique financial stratosphere than his schoolmates. The Kershaws, not rich by most requirements, have been renters in a district that bought endlessly properties. Highland Park represented a cocoon of privilege, a land of countless alternative each tutorial and athletic — his childhood associates would change into bankers and actual property builders and, in the case of Matthew Stafford, a Super Bowl–successful quarterback. After the divorce he noticed much less and fewer of his father, a musician named Christopher Kershaw. Marianne labored lengthy hours as a graphic designer however nonetheless borrowed cash to keep in Highland Park.

For some time, Clayton break up time between his mother and father. His father was usually late choosing him up. When his mother was in control of transportation, he begged her to take him hours earlier than video games, so he wouldn’t be tardy. The powerlessness affixed him with nervousness. He vowed that as soon as he managed his whereabouts, he would all the time be on time. Chris ultimately remarried and pale from the image. He resided on the periphery of his son’s life, not precisely absent, however removed from current. Most of Marianne’s hours have been consumed by work. Clayton usually ate dinner at associates’ properties. He discovered to fend for himself. “I don’t feel like Clayton has ever been able to feel a weightless joy, if that makes sense,” Ellen mentioned. “He has been responsible for so long.”

In highschool, Kershaw recalled, “money became an issue.” He picked up hints. “I never was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have enough shirts to wear,’” he mentioned. “It was never to that point. But it was like, ‘Hey, don’t fill up your tank all the way today.’ I remember that. ‘Hey, I have ten dollars. Go get as much gas as you can.’” Most of his friends might forecast their futures throughout limitless horizons. Kershaw apprehensive his personal path was circumscribed. His mom might barely afford to hold him in a very good public faculty. Paying for school felt not possible. “When I got old enough to figure that out, I had that anxiety built in,” Kershaw mentioned. “Just like, ‘Man, how are we going to do this?’”

The reply got here in the type of his left arm. He had cherished baseball since boyhood. In his adolescence, he realized he might not deal with it like a recreation. That was when the cycle began. He hated going to faculty on the days he pitched. He couldn’t focus in school. He couldn’t all the time management his pregame meal or implement silence round him. But he nonetheless radiated depth. “Just imagine a kid sitting on a bench, with a mean mug, staring off into a blank space,” mentioned childhood good friend and former Dodgers teammate Shawn Tolleson. Added youth coach Tommy Hernandez, “He was not a lot of smiles.”

To fortify himself, he regarded inward and upward. He made the varsity baseball staff as a chunky freshman with aggressive zeal and an honest curveball. He underwent a progress spurt after his sophomore yr. As faculty coaches {and professional} scouts flocked to his video games, he related his rising stature to a bigger objective.

A month earlier than his fifteenth birthday, Kershaw visited a lady’s locker. Ellen Melson was pleasant and bubbly, enamored with the drill staff and the Backstreet Boys. When he requested her out, she mentioned sure. The Melsons turned a surrogate household, providing the heat he had longed for in his own residence. Clayton and Marianne joined them for holidays. Kershaw tagged alongside to Sunday service at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Through dialog with Ellen, he reshaped his religion. Kershaw had seen God as a distant presence. Ellen satisfied him the Lord was close to, that God’s grace was throughout him.

He got here to see his personal rising athletic expertise as a present from above. His left arm was not simply an appendage. It was an instrument. The potential thrust upon him, he determined, meant he owed one thing. A verse from Colossians 3:23 turned his favourite: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

In time, Kershaw noticed his religion deepen. He developed from a very good highschool pitcher into an important one. When the Dodgers chosen him with the seventh total choose in the 2006 draft, Kershaw felt his religion in the Lord had been rewarded. What the draft didn’t do was dismiss the accountability he felt towards himself and his mom. One of the first issues Kershaw did with the $2.3 million bonus was repay Marianne’s money owed.

Granted monetary freedom for the first time, Kershaw didn’t relent. He discovered the rhythms of the skilled pitcher’s five-day cycle. The cycle sustained him as he introduced himself as considered one of the recreation’s most promising younger gamers. At each stage, there was a brand new motivation. Reaching the majors. Making tens of millions in arbitration. Conquering opponents at the highest degree. “There’s always some new reason to climb the mountaintop,” he mentioned. By the time Kershaw had checked all these different packing containers, by the time in 2014 he signed a record-setting $215 million extension that eased his monetary worries for good, he was consumed by the one field he had not checked.

Few males are nice sufficient to be outlined by what they can not do. For a very long time, Clayton Kershaw was a type of.

Kershaw’s excellence constructed an aura of invincibility. “To be that good every year, for that long, it’s f—ing impossible,” former teammate Alex Wood mentioned. Friend and foe used the identical language to describe him. “To me, he’s the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time,” New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole mentioned. Madison Bumgarner, a longtime foil with San Francisco, was much less equivocal. “I think he’s the best pitcher to ever play,” Bumgarner mentioned. Brandon Belt, one other former Giant, known as Kershaw “the best pitcher that I faced, every single year in the big leagues.” Greinke had pitched in twenty big-league seasons. “I think the highest of him of any pitcher I’ve played with,” Greinke mentioned. Paul Goldschmidt, a longtime National League West rival, known as Kershaw “my favorite guy in baseball. My favorite player. I hate to say that about a pitcher.”

Kershaw threw arduous, however others threw more durable. His curveball and his slider have been sharp, however others have been nastier. He was an enormous man, with an unconventional supply, however others stood taller and moved in stranger methods. “You have to look at the man, how competitive he is,” former Giants supervisor Bruce Bochy mentioned. “It doesn’t work unless you have that inside you.” To Andrew Friedman, the architect of the Dodgers’ late-aughts juggernaut, Kershaw was “the greatest competitor I’ve ever seen firsthand.” Brandon McCarthy, a teammate for a number of seasons, puzzled if Kershaw’s potential veered into the supernatural. “Is this just a gift?” McCarthy mentioned.

Which made what occurred to Kershaw in October so confounding. The Dodgers reached the postseason yearly from 2013 to 2019. In every of these seasons, the Dodgers failed to win the title. On 5 events, Kershaw value his staff the remaining recreation. After some time, Kershaw’s postseason failures morphed from an odd coincidence right into a nationwide fixation. He turned the central determine of October baseball. Why couldn’t he do it? Why couldn’t he win all of it? When would he hoist the World Series trophy that had eluded his franchise for thus lengthy? The Dodgers had not known as themselves champions since 1988, once they received the title on the sturdy again of Orel Hershiser and the gimpy legs of Kirk Gibson. Kershaw was supposed to finish the drought. Instead, he was blamed for extending it.

In 2017, Kershaw collapsed in the World Series towards the Houston Astros, unaware of his opponents’ unlawful sign-stealing system. “I still have PTSD about that,” he mentioned. In 2019, he surrendered a pair of game-altering residence runs towards the Washington Nationals. In the dugout, he hung his head and gazed into the gloaming of Chavez Ravine. All round him, his teammates bristled with tears and stewed with rage on his behalf. They knew what number of innings he had thrown in his twenties, earlier than his physique broke down. They noticed him sacrifice a day from his valuable schedule to pitch on quick relaxation in October, which made him an anomaly amongst his friends in the 2010s. “Some pitchers flat-out refuse the ball, unless they’re at full strength,” former teammate Michael Young mentioned. “Kersh has never done that.” They witnessed all the hours he poured into his craft. They lived by means of his fifth day they usually acknowledged how a lot it meant. “Every time he failed, I know how deeply that hurt him,” mentioned former teammate Josh Lindblom.

At occasions, teammates and associates apprehensive about the weight on Kershaw’s shoulders. The Dodgers had staked a lot on him. He was a first-round choose, a No. 1 starter, the face of the franchise. From his earliest days as a Dodger, he drew comparisons to Koufax, the southpaw who starred as the staff transitioned from Brooklyn’s Boys of Summer to the kings of Southern California. “He’s the savior for the Dodgers, and he’s the next coming of Sandy Koufax for the Dodgers,” former Dodger Justin Turner mentioned. “That pressure on his back in following Sandy’s footsteps is a real thing.”

Despite a fifty-two-year hole in age, Kershaw and Koufax have been associates. But Kershaw rejected the notion that he wanted to comply with in anybody’s footsteps. “I was like, ‘The next Sandy Koufax?’ I have no interest in being Sandy Koufax,” Kershaw mentioned. “And I don’t want to live up to that. I had no interest in being that. I had different reasons and different motivations.”

Despite their age distinction, Koufax and Kershaw turned shut. (Kirby Lee through AP)

The weight Kershaw hauled was his and his alone. After the loss to the Nationals, he stood shell-shocked inside his clubhouse. He puzzled aloud if all the things about his fame as a choker was warranted. He stared into an abyss and solely noticed himself. He knew he wanted to change. So he did, in methods that have been delicate and profound, embracing new ideas with out shedding sight of himself. When the staff lastly received the World Series a yr later, in a season upended and truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic, his overriding emotion was reduction. “You don’t know the burden that you carry,” he mentioned. “Because at some point, you just get used to the weight on your shoulders.”

After an injury-plagued 2021 and the disappointing finish to 2022, Kershaw contemplated the depth of his causes and motivations. As he ready to resume the five-day cycle, he had to take inventory. He didn’t want the cash. His case for Cooperstown was full. “I have no individual goals,” he mentioned. His physique might use relaxation after 20 years of pitching-inflicted trauma. But the chance of one other championship nonetheless beckoned. And so the cycle loomed.

The day after Santa Claus visited Highland Park, Kershaw stood inside the kitchenette of his charity’s workplace, a three-minute drive from his residence. He had completed a throwing session after he dressed and fed his youngsters. He usually instructed associates that his dream job after baseball could be crossing guard at their elementary faculty. But he knew there could be extra hours to fill. Maybe the household would purchase an RV and take a tour of America that wasn’t constructed round ballparks. He had traveled a lot in his profession, however seen so little. He had by no means been to Hawaii, by no means been to continental Europe. He couldn’t plan a visit that didn’t embody time to throw. On his honeymoon, at a resort in Mexico, he introduced baseballs to chuck into bed room pillows.

“Does part of you,” I mentioned, “look forward to—”

“Yes,” Kershaw mentioned. “One hundred percent.”

“Like, not being in this cycle,” I mentioned.

“It’ll be great,” Kershaw mentioned. “I can’t wait for that. There are so many great things about both. The hard part is not wanting the other thing.”

He considered one thing Ellen usually instructed him: “Don’t take your time for granted.” He was the uncommon man who might nonetheless make his residing taking part in a recreation designed for boys. Among his brethren, he was the rarest of the uncommon, one who could be remembered lengthy after he threw his final pitch. He needed to honor that reward. He wanted to work at it with all his coronary heart. “I’m never, like, trudging through another season,” Kershaw mentioned. “This was our choice. I didn’t have to play. We decided we wanted to do it. I wanted to do it.”

The RV journeys, the gig as a crossing guard, and the many years of freedom might wait. For now, he had agreed to one other yr of fifth days. Because of that, he felt, he owed his franchise, his teammates, and himself nothing in need of all the things.

(Top photograph: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)