Near the end of spring training, Clayton Kershaw brought a guest to a post-game interview. He beamed as he held his 1-year-old daughter. Cali Ann Kershaw wore a pink bow and pawed at the microphones pointed toward her father.
His wife, Ellen, was occupied that afternoon, so Kershaw merged his pitching schedule with his parenting schedule. He gave his daughter his iPhone to occupy her hands. She let out a small wail. His voice lowered to a coo to soothe her.
“Cali,” he said, “you have to let them talk.”
In his second year as a father, Kershaw has grown accustomed to lack of sleep and constant logistical puzzles. His heart no longer fills with fear when he hears Cali Ann cry.
At home, he dedicates his mornings to her. When his family can visit the Dodgers on the road, Ellen schedules activities, like in Chicago, where their daughter scampered across the deck of a boat tour.
Their responsibility will soon double. Ellen is due to give birth to a boy in November.
Heading into his second Father’s Day as a parent, as he makes a case for another National League MVP award, Kershaw reflected on how his life has changed in the last 17 months.
“I used to be trying to be in baseball mode from the moment I woke up,” Kershaw said. “And now she doesn’t let that happen. It’s awesome. I get to be a dad until I get to the field.”
His teammates say parenthood has mellowed him. A.J. Ellis and Scott Van Slyke, Kershaw’s closest friends on the club, use the word “soften” to describe Cali Ann’s affect on her father.
“Even game-day Clayton is a little different,” Ellis said. “His little girl is not going to allow him not to play with her on the day he pitches. And his wife’s not going to allow him not to change a diaper on the day he pitches. You definitely have seen a softening of Clayton.”
To longtime observers, the differences are subtle. Kershaw has a record 10-1 with a 1.58 earned-run average. He still radiates with purpose and smolders with intensity. He still regiments his life into five-day cycles, with precise requirements leading into each start. He still can be found most days running sprints in the outfield five hours before the night’s first pitch.
His dedication to routine is such that Manager Dave Roberts feels uncomfortable interrupting him for conversation. His prickliness on the day he pitches is legendary. Eyes narrowed into slits, Kershaw huffs around the clubhouse, clad in a hooded sweatshirt regardless of the temperature. Only a fool would dare speak to him.
“When you see Clayton on game day,” Van Slyke said, pausing, his eyes growing wide, “he’s like, ‘I’m going to go strike everybody out.’”
But no longer can Kershaw isolate himself from the world on those mornings and dwell on the task ahead. His daughter disarms him and defuses the tension.
“You don’t just close the door in a room by yourself,” Kershaw said. “I’m in the living room, and if she wants to play, I’m going to play. I’m going to play, because the mornings are my only time.”
Kershaw once believed he required 10 hours of sleep each day. Fatherhood has erased the notion. When he is at home, he said, he budgets 8 a.m. to noon for her.
Cali Ann often stays awake when her father’s games end late at night. She can handle the annoyance of air travel and bustles with energy around other kids. “I think she’s going to be the life of the party,” Kershaw said.
Over the years, Kershaw absorbed lessons from his teammates about parenting. He noticed how Van Slyke, the son of former Pittsburgh Pirates all-star Andy Van Slyke, handled his young children. He listened to Ellis “talk about the rewards and challenges of being a father in this game,” Ellis said.
The challenges, Ellis explained, include the sense of disconnection during the long season, the missing of milestones and the unfair strain placed on your spouse. The rewards involve the infusion of perspective.
“I’ll never forget walking out of a triple-A clubhouse after an 0-for-4 with three punch-outs, maybe two wild pitches, a tough loss,” Ellis said. “Just being pissed off and ready to go home and sulk. But you walk out and you see your little girl in a baby carriage, and all of a sudden she’ll just smile at you. It immediately evaporates.”
Kershaw can relate. The burden he places on himself surpasses the burden created by his franchise, his teammates say. Kershaw excoriates himself for failure and nitpicks after success.
After his last start, an 11-strikeout performance against Arizona, his most passionate moment was when he chastised himself for making his displeasure with an umpire so obvious.
His daughter cannot erase these feelings. But her presence helps. Kershaw recognized this after his lone clunker in 2016, when he surrendered five runs in one inning to Miami on April 26.
“It doesn’t go away,” Kershaw said. “But you wake up the next day, and she’s not mad at you.”
Even as he acknowledged the improved mindset, Kershaw referenced how fatherhood heightened his sense of duty toward his family.
“On the other side,” he said, “you’re like, ‘Well, you know what? I’m responsible for two people now, not just one. My success and failure is felt by everybody.’ So it’s like you’ve got one more person to take care of, that much more responsibility.”
Thus far in 2016, he has exceeded even his own lofty expectations. Heading into Friday’s game, Kershaw rated as the most valuable player in baseball, according to both FanGraphs’ and Baseball-Reference’s versions of wins above replacement.
He led the major leagues in ERA, innings (108), strikeouts (133), walks plus hits per nine innings (0.66) and a myriad other categories. His 19-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio would shatter the record of 11.63-to-1 set by Phil Hughes in 2014.
Kershaw has thrown three shutouts, one fewer than every pitcher in the entire American League combined.
With a baby boy on the way, Kershaw understands the complexity of his life away from the field will only increase. But at a time when he is dominating the sport like never before, he has still placed a priority on cherishing time with his daughter.
“I don’t turn off being a dad,” Kershaw said. “It supersedes being a baseball player.”