Clayton Kershaw’s friends crave for his success — and anguish in his struggles
Calvin Jones hasn’t washed the jersey since 2008.
That’s when the former Dodgers scout, the one who followed Clayton Kershaw in high school and convinced the club he was worth a seventh overall draft pick in 2006, was given the white No. 22 Dodgers uniform by the pitcher himself.
“I only break it out when he’s pitching in these games,” Jones said, standing at the top of a Globe Life Field concourse Thursday night, his eyes directed toward the mound and following Kershaw’s every move during the first inning of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.
“I’m not going to wash it until they win the World Series.”
What Jones really meant was until Kershaw wins the World Series. Because as much as the Compton-born, Dodger-diehard wants to see the team win a championship again, a title for Kershaw is what he yearns for more.
The Dodgers are routed by the Atlanta Braves 10-2 in Game 4 of the NLCS and are one loss away from being eliminated from the postseason.
So many other people of the pitcher’s past — old friends and former coaches and almost anyone else who knew him before his days of MLB superstardom — do too, craving his success almost as much as they feel his pain.
“You find yourself putting yourself in his shoes,” said Charley Dickenson, one of a dozen of Kershaw’s childhood friends from his nearby hometown of Highland Park who were also at Globe Life Field for Thursday’s game.
“Whether he pitches a complete game shutout or he gets shellacked and it’s the other end of the spectrum, you feel the excitement and the frustration with whatever’s happening.”
At first, Thursday’s game seemed headed toward the former. Through five innings, Kershaw had allowed only one run, keeping the Dodgers in the game despite their offense’s sudden disappearance.
But then the sixth inning began with a Ronald Acuña Jr. chopper that bounced over Kershaw’s head. Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna doubled in the next two at-bats. In a flash, Kershaw’s night was done, a four-run, five-plus-inning outing leading to another postseason loss.
Socially distanced in a section down the right-field line, his friends slumped in their chairs in disbelief.
Clayton Kershaw’s struggles in the sixth helped the Braves win Game 4, but the blame for the loss runs through the batting order and into the front office.
“Remember when I said we were bad luck?” Dickenson sighed.
The group has seen nights like this before. Traveling to watch Kershaw make postseason starts has become a near-annual tradition for them, many of whom have known him since high school.
And while there have been highlights along the way, each year ends with their friend in bitter disappointment.
“I don’t know if somber is the right word,” Dickenson said, recalling previous Dodgers playoff losses they witnessed first-hand. “But it’s certainly not as fun.”
They weren’t the only ones Thursday left in helpless despair.
“I feel as bad as he probably feels,” said Skip Johnson, a pitching instructor of Kershaw’s when he was in high school. “I’m sitting there going, ‘Man, how could this happen.’”
If not for Johnson, Kershaw might have never reached a big-league mound. Johnson met Kershaw in November 2005, back when he was the baseball coach at nearby Navarro College and the pitcher was a high school junior with electric stuff but erratic mechanics.
They spent three months that winter revamping Kershaw’s release and routine. By the next spring, Kershaw had blossomed into a bonafide top-round talent.
Since then, Johnson, who is now the coach at the University of Oklahoma, has rarely missed watching a Kershaw start.
Few left him as anguished as Thursday’s, a night he thought Kershaw’s slider was superb and his performance much better than his stat line suggested.
“Baseball ends up revealing your character,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t care how you feel. You can make a quality pitch just like he did and a guy hits a chopper.”
Johnson and Dickenson have seen the lengths to which Kershaw pushes himself. They know how badly the left-hander wants to succeed in October.
When Kershaw returns to Highland Park every winter, he often invites his friends over to his offseason home.
“None of us have a house like that,” Dickenson said, chuckling. “So we all just go to his place and hang out in the game room and catch up on things.”
They immediately fall back into their old familiar grooves, playing video games and ping-pong (Kershaw is notoriously competitive with a paddle, going back to when his high school baseball coaches challenged him and his teammates in intense doubles matches) and debating their fantasy football teams.
The Dodgers boast first-rate analytics and a payroll most general managers would die for, and yet they are on the brink of another lost playoff run.
“Usually when you hit college, and after college, things can kind of fade,” Dickenson said. “That’s something that we feel is really special, that all of us have stayed really close.”
Sometimes, they just sit and talk. About stories from the past. About their lives in the present. And about their hopes for the future.
It made Kershaw’s regular season this year, a bounce-back 6-2, 2.16-ERA campaign in which he regained some of his previously diminishing form, a joy for his friends back home.
“The stuff he talks about when he’s home for the offseason, what he’s working on, what he feels like he’s struggling with,” Dickenson said, “seeing him actually executing his goals and everything that he’s shared with us during the offseason is really, really cool.”
All they hope for now is that one of Kershaw’s postseasons will end on such a high as well.
“Without knowing how many more years he has left in him, we realize it’s not a lifetime career path,” Dickenson said. “Any chance we get to see him be successful, in the playoffs … we want to be a part of all of it.”
There hasn’t been a playoff setback that’s discouraged Kershaw yet. Those offseason hangouts at Kershaw’s place? They happen only once his vigorous morning training routine is complete.
His annual youth baseball camp in the Dallas area? He’s never blown it off, not even in 2017 when it was scheduled just days after the Dodgers’ seven-game World Series defeat to the Houston Astros.
“His humility, that’s what people don’t see in him,” Johnson said. “If every pitcher had the skill set that he does, his work ethic, there would be a lot of good pitchers out there. And there are, but not with the execution of what he does.”
Johnson acknowledged he’s probably biased. But he embraces it. He feels like one of the lucky ones. He’s had a front-row seat to Kershaw’s historic career.
“This game right here,” he said, “doesn’t define who he is. His body of work defines who he is. And his humility really defines who he is.”
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