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Column: There is only one choice for Clayton Kershaw: He must retire a Dodger

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw heads to the outfield to warm up before a game.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw heads to the outfield to warm up before a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sept. 13 at Dodger Stadium.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers opened the door for him to walk out. They are also holding it wide open in case he wants to come back.

The decision is now Clayton Kershaw’s.

Whether the currently injured Kershaw pitches for the Dodgers again is entirely up to him, Andrew Friedman telling reporters at the general managers’ meetings this week the organization “really” wants him to return.

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Friedman reiterated Wednesday afternoon that if Kershaw’s wish is to re-sign with the team as a free agent, “I’m confident we’ll be able to figure something out.”

In that case, the only choice for the 33-year-old Kershaw to make is about retirement.

Because if Kershaw pitches a 15th season in the major leagues, it should be for the Dodgers.

He should spend the remainder of his career with them.

He should retire with them.

Is there really a choice to be made here?

Kershaw often talks about not taking things for granted, whether it was wearing a Dodgers uniform, pitching in the postseason or reaching an individual milestone.

What about the opportunity to join the likes of Sandy Koufax and Jackie Robinson as a player who spent his entire career with the Dodgers? Or the chance to share a distinction with the likes of Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant as an athlete who spent his entire career in Los Angeles?

That’s not something to be taken for granted, either, especially at a time when rosters constantly turn over.

There are only three Hall of Famers who broke into the major leagues after 1990 and played only with the team that drafted or originally signed them: Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

Dodgers GM Andrew Friedman discussed during the general managers meetings the payroll hurdles the team faces if they want to retain several top players.

Kershaw, who was selected by the Dodgers with the seventh overall pick of the 2006 draft, could be another.

Which doesn’t mean Kershaw’s legacy will be destroyed if he plays for, say, his hometown Texas Rangers for a couple of years.

Whatever Kershaw does, the Dodgers will one day erect a statue in his honor. His plaque in Cooperstown will depict him in a Dodgers cap.

Kershaw pitching for the Rangers wouldn’t be Albert Pujols spending close to 10 reputation-ruining seasons with the Angels.

It would be more like Michael Jordan playing with the Washington Wizards or Willie Mays with the New York Mets, relatively short stints that made up a small proportion of their collective bodies of work.

Jordan is thought of as a Chicago Bull and Mays as a San Francisco Giant. Nonetheless, memories of them playing elsewhere are just kind of sad, aren’t they?

By not extending Kershaw a qualifying offer, the Dodgers have removed a potential obstacle for him to depart, as any other team that signs him wouldn’t have to forfeit a draft pick. Friedman said the team did this out of respect to Kershaw, who didn’t want to have to decide whether to accept what is essentially a one-year, $18.4-million contract while in the relatively early stages of rehabilitating a forearm injury.

There will be a temptation for Kershaw to sign with the Rangers. When The Times’ Jorge Castillo visited his home last winter, Kershaw and his wife talked about the difficulties they would encounter moving back and forth from suburban Dallas to Los Angeles as their children grew older.

That’s entirely understandable.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers a pitch against the Washington Nationals.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers a pitch against the Washington Nationals on July 3 in Washington.
(Nick Wass / Associated Press)

But it’s hard to imagine a competitor such as Kershaw pitching for a franchise as downtrodden as the Rangers, who have missed the postseason in each of their last five seasons.

There wouldn’t be any more important games in August and September. There wouldn’t be any more postseason games in October.

There would be with the Dodgers. There could be another World Series championship.

“It’s not just what he’s meant looking back, it’s also what we think he will do for our championship odds in ’22,” Friedman said.

Kershaw remains an effective pitcher when healthy. He was 6-2 with a 2.16 earned-run average in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He was 9-7 with a 3.39 ERA in the 18 starts he made before he went down with what he described as a flexor tendon injury. He pitched six or more innings in 14 of those starts.

There will be some economics to be sorted out, as Kershaw isn’t in the same position he was when he signed a three-year, $93-million extension after the 2018 season. But as his rehabilitation progresses and his season outlook becomes clearer, the two sides should have a better idea of his value.

The Dodgers did not offer pitcher Clayton Kershaw a qualifying offer, but team president Andrew Friedman said they definitely want him to return.

Kershaw and the Dodgers are confident he can resume pitching without surgery, but the question marks about his health offer more reasons for him to return. As he recovers from an injury that prematurely ended his previous season, he would benefit from the backing of an organization that knows him best. As he ventures into the unknown, he would feel emboldened by the support of a fan base that has cheered him on since he was 20 years old.

He is approaching a couple of major milestones, as he is 15 wins short of 200 and 330 strikeouts shy of 3,000. Those are achievements that should be celebrated in front of crowds that can fully appreciate what they mean.

No one will have the kind of farewell game that Bryant did when he scored 60 points for the Lakers. But Kershaw will have a chance to come close, so long as he has a worthy stage. That would be not at his home in Texas but at his baseball home in Los Angeles.


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