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Column: ESPN examines Clayton Kershaw’s mission to help victims of child sex trafficking

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Clayton and Ellen Kershaw talk with child sex trafficking survivors at a safe house in the Dominican Republic.
(ESPN)

It might not be the ideal time or place to look into the window of Major League Baseball’s soul, but if a lugubrious subject like children sex trafficking fits into a conversation on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” telecast, would everything be cool if Clayton Kershaw was the driving force behind it?

When the Dodgers face the Chicago Cubs on the upcoming Father’s Day national telecast from Dodger Stadium, there’s a decent chance this topic will come up.

Please don’t balk.

ESPN baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza found herself embedded on a trip to the Dominican Republic in January with Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, a learning tour about what actually happens in this lurid criminal world far beyond a baseball diamond.

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The Kershaw’s Challenge nonprofit organization, already doing social justice work with orphanages in Africa, dedicated its 2019 campaign to helping the International Justice Mission’s Dominican Republic initiatives. The trip to the Boca Chica region netted an imperative, heart-wrenching “SC Featured” story for ESPN, originally posted on the network’s YouTube channel. It has aired on various network platforms since, and more airings are planned this week tied to the Dodgers’ upcoming appearance.

Included in the piece is reaction from an undercover visit to the red-light district late at night to talk to sex trafficking victims. The Kershaws also hear stories of those who escaped to a nearby recovery center.

Mendoza explained that Kershaw’s camp made the initial offer for ESPN’s involvement, and she drew the assignment. It included five days in the Dominican as well as three more at the Kershaw home in Dallas — rare media access — for a more intimate profile gathering.

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“It’s one thing to donate to a cause, it’s another to raise money for an organization, but who signs up to actually go there?” said Mendoza, who also posted clips of the trip on her Instagram account. Links also are on Kershaw’s accounts and website.

“This is all right in your face, the emotions and tears and the difficulty these young girls are having,” Mendoza said. “Clayton wants to bring that attention back to our country — especially on a ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ game, to talk about human sex trafficking. That’s unheard of. But that’s the audience he wants to reach. That’s his ultimate goal.”

Mendoza, part of ESPN’s MLB coverage since 2014, understands there will always be blowback in broaching subjects that make viewers, or her employers, uncomfortable. Such material doesn’t necessarily have to be forced into the context of an otherwise inconsequential baseball game in the middle of June.

But Kudos to ESPN for seizing on multilayered storytelling, bringing dimension and empathy to those we watch playing the games. A practical entry point can be prickly, but the payoff can be profound.

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For example, Mendoza said she has been concerned and conflicted for several years about wanting to address the socioeconomic and political crises in Venezuela that impact many current major league players and their families. She believed it was appropriate to bring that up in a Brewers-Cubs telecast last month when Milwaukee pitcher Jhoulys Chacin and Chicago catcher Willson Contreras, two Venezuelans, faced one another.

“I had some resistance internally, but I kept pushing it,” Mendoza said. “The result was that I heard more positives from players around the league who were thankful it came up. Many fear saying anything because they could face major repercussions. Maybe they can’t talk about it, but I think I can.”

Open to suggestions

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Fox Sports’ rocky cart path in winning over golf fans five years into covering U.S. Golf Association major events might continue its pebble-in-the-shoe effect as the U.S. Open lands upon Pebble Beach this week. More network gadgetry tweaks and talent additions are ripe for more scrutiny.

An iconic course like Pebble Beach needs more tricking up for TV?

Zac Fields, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of graphic technology and integration, calls it the “most comprehensive and technologically advanced U.S. Open to date.” It means expanded shot-tracer graphics from more angles and places on the course as well as expanding to the driving range. Augmented views will expand to blimps and cranes. There’s also a drone tethered in the Pacific Ocean to a boat.

Joel Klatt, Fox’s top college football analyst, will be doing more on-course interviews.

The last two rounds of coverage will be prime-time friendly on the East Coast and will air on the West Coast from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Tune it in

More context to consume between corner kicks of the Women’s World Cup: “The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer,” by Caitlin Murray (Abrams Press, 352 pages, $26), circles back to the start of the U.S. women’s national team program in the 1980s and documents the ups and downs of U.S. pro leagues in the wake of World Cup successes. Many of the book’s references are to the works of former L.A. Times soccer writer Grahame Jones. More info: caitlinmurraysoccer.com.

Tune it out

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Take your pick of home run calls by current Angels broadcasters that sound like something from a minor league neophyte trying to be clever.

Exhibit A: On TV, Victor Rojas screaming “big fly for Ohtani-san!” to expand on the already trite “big fly” frivolity.

Exhibit B: On the radio, Terry Smith punctuating a Smithers-sounding call of a Mike Trout clout with “It’s Tr-outta here!”


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