The Dodgers’ bullpen is a dizzying array of beards and tattoos, its inhabitants marked by checkered pasts and chips on shoulders.
All of which makes Kenley Geronimo Jansen the weirdest one of all.
“You don’t have to look like a tough guy,” he said softly. “When the situation comes up, you just have to be a tough guy.”
Jansen, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound closer whose midseason emergence has made a Puig-like impact on the pitching staff, takes the mound looking like a giant kid in his pajamas.
His giant arms have no tattoos. His whispery voice has no edge. His soft eyes are wide and wandering. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t party. He is 25 years old and still lives with his parents, both in his hometown on the southern Caribbean island of Curacao and when they visit for long stretches in Los Angeles.
Many members of the Dodgers bullpen, which has been the National League’s best since midseason, wear their hearts on their sleeves. Jansen wears his on his back. It can be found in his number 74.
There is a story behind the origin of this number. Earlier this week at Dodger Stadium, the story was told by both Jansen and his mother in tones both joyful and reverent. One gets the feeling it is a story they will be telling forever.
“To understand what happened, you have to understand my blessed, blessed boy,” his mother Bernadette said while standing outside the stadium’s family section.
The story begins in the fields of Willemstad, the largest city on Curacao, a small Dutch island off the Venezuelan coast and birthplace of several good major leaguers. Jansen was a tough young catcher who lived up to his middle name of Geronimo, which was given to him by his grandmother for inspiration.
When Jansen was 12, he needed that inspiration. His father Isidro, a construction worker, suffered a stroke and could no longer draw a paycheck. His mother, a travel agent, exhausted herself between work and caring for him.
Jansen and his two older brothers became fearful that they would lose the family home. Between juggling jobs and bills and regular visits to church, Bernadette continued to tell them each night that everything was fine.
“But everything was not fine. . . . Sometimes I was so tired, I cried,” Bernadette remembered. “I was trying to do everything myself with the help of God. It was hard to pay everything, but I tried.”
Kenley knew there was trouble. He occupied himself with school and baseball, but he couldn’t ignore his mother’s weary eyes.
“We had a tough time paying for the house,” he said. “We hung on for the longest time but, at some point, my mom just couldn’t do it anymore.”
When things were really grim, Jansen, lacking any other options, would hug his mother and make a promise that he had no idea whether he could ever fulfill.
“He would tell me, “Mama, please believe, one day, we will have victory, you will enjoy our life, I’m going to do whatever I can to let you feel that,” Bernadette recalled.
It was around that time, at age 17, that Jansen signed a free-agent contract with the Dodgers. For the next four seasons, he was able to send a little money home each month as he struggled to hit as a minor league catcher. In the middle of the 2009 season, team officials finally realized that a guy with a giant arm and puny bat should be a pitcher.
“I think they made up their mind when they saw me throwing to second base on my knees,” Jansen said.
He was such a natural that a year later he was pitching in the major leagues. Then, before the 2011 season, he signed his first full-season contract, worth $416,000. It was a small number in the baseball world, but it was more money than he had ever seen in his life.
Jansen looked at his first paycheck, and knew exactly what to do with it. He did the same with every other paycheck that season. He sent virtually his entire salary home to Curacao to pay off the house.
“After a while, I wouldn’t even look at my check, I would just send it home,” Jansen remembered. “After all my mother had done, I wanted to give her peace.”
His family would phone him wondering if he wouldn’t rather buy a new car, or some fancy clothes. Each time, he told them he would take care of himself later.
“What kind of boy today does something like that?” Bernadette said. “But he kept saying, ‘Mama, I want to finish what you started. . . . I want to pay off the mortgage.”
Today, the mortgage has been paid. The family’s future is set. His parents have been living with him in his Los Angeles apartment during most of his recent 18-for-18 save streak, attending every home game and waiting for him in the parking lot afterward. This winter, they will return to the Curacao house, and Jansen to his childhood bedroom, where it remains untouched, complete with trophies and plaques.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like Little League,” he said with a grin.
But he works in the big leagues, and that jersey is seen by millions, so he wanted to use it to show the world what is beating underneath.
His uniform number is the bricked number on the site of so many tears and so much triumph.
In Willemstad, the blessed, blessed Jansen family lives on Kaya Kokolishi 74.