The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse (9 page)

BOOK: The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse
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3
THE ACE

O
n the morning of
April 1, 2013, Clayton Kershaw was asleep in bed next to his wife when the alarm on his cell phone jolted him awake. He checked the time. Seven a.m. He stood up, walked to the bathroom, considered vomiting, thought better of it, trudged to the kitchen, poured himself a bowl of cereal, and flipped on the television. He didn’t like to set an alarm on the days he pitched, preferring instead to sleep until 10:30, 11, or whenever his lanky body floated into consciousness on its own. But it was opening day, and he was scheduled to throw the first pitch at 1 p.m., which meant rolling out of bed at an hour unholy to him.

Kershaw was not a morning person, which made him like every other Major League Baseball player since the invention of stadium lights. Being a ballplayer was like working a second shift.
Go to work around one, out by eleven. Lather, rinse, and repeat more than one hundred times per year. Any hope of surviving in the big leagues meant one must attune his body to achieve peak physical strength,
mental acuity, and emotional equilibrium between the hours of 7 and 10:30 every night. Because the adrenaline rush of triumph or the uneasiness of personal failure stayed in the bloodstream for hours after the last out was recorded, the average player knocked out around two. The guys who were wired the tightest—or partied the hardest—often greeted dawn.

On days he did not pitch, which was 80 percent of the time, his wife, Ellen, would wake him by eleven so they could spend as many hours as possible together before he left for the ballpark. They were twenty-five years old. Married for three years, but together since they were freshman classmates at Highland Park High School in Dallas.
Kershaw had taken another girl to the homecoming dance in ninth grade, but that was the only date he’d ever been on in his life with a girl who wasn’t Ellen. They’d been sweethearts for ten years but somehow hadn’t yet run out of things to do together. On the mornings of days he wasn’t pitching, they’d hit up museums, television tapings, maybe drive a half hour to try a new breakfast joint before she sent him off. Ellen always had something planned. Four days out of five he was like any other young husband very much in love with his wife, finding bliss in otherwise mundane domesticity. But every fifth day he turned into something else.

At just twenty-five years old, Clayton Kershaw woke up on opening day 2013 with the weight of the Dodgers’ franchise on his broad shoulders. Having already established himself as one of the best pitchers in the game at such a young age, it was not outside the realm of possibility that he could one day be crowned the greatest ever. He had won his first Cy Young Award at age twenty-three and finished as the runner-up at twenty-four. Of the 6,797 starting pitchers who had taken the mound since the live-ball era began in 1920, Kershaw had posted the lowest earned run average of any starter through his first thousand innings. By giving up just 2.70 runs per nine, he bested Hall of Famers Whitey Ford (second at 2.75) and Dodger legend Sandy Koufax (third, 2.76)—among everyone else.

Kershaw had been MLB’s ERA champ at age twenty-three and
then turned around and did it again at twenty-four. In that same time frame he’d also struck out more batters than anyone else in the National League. Those statistics were nice, but they didn’t impress him much. It was Kershaw’s belief that while strikeouts and earned run average got the glory, the best way to measure a starting pitcher’s greatness was in how many innings he gave his team. (He’d led the NL in that category over the past two seasons, too.) The Dodgers hadn’t won a world championship since the year he was born. In the year they owned the team, the Guggenheim group had added hundreds of millions in player salary to the payroll to make that happen. But they weren’t going anywhere without Kershaw.

When he was called up to the big leagues in 2008 at age twenty, he was the game’s youngest player. To prove he belonged he took a typical tack. “I tried to strike everyone out,” he said. The problem with going that route is strikeouts are tiring: each one takes at least three pitches if you’re lucky, but more often cost five, six, or seven. Starters are given 100 to 110 or so pitches before they’re removed from games. If they try to strike everyone out, they can burn through their bullets by the fifth inning, and leave the next four innings up to the bullpen. Kershaw learned that if he wanted to stick around deep into games to have more of a say in the outcome, he’d have to learn how to get as many cheap, one- or two-pitch outs as he could. In his first season he went seven innings just twice. In 2012 he did it twenty-two times.

But being great wasn’t enough for Kershaw to sleep well at night: he pushed himself to be perfect. Kershaw had a gift for making hitters fail in spectacular fashion. He had done this, generally, by moving about the world as if he were a machine on the days he pitched. And he’d done it specifically by crafting
two of the nastiest pitches opposing hitters had ever seen. In his five big-league seasons, Kershaw had used his left hand to spin 1,688 curveballs toward home plate—many of those right into the wheelhouses of
men who were paid millions of dollars a year to identify mistakes and pulverize them. Just one of those pitches had been hit for a home run.

Kershaw’s breaking ball, christened
public enemy number one by Dodger broadcaster and high priest Vin Scully, moved like a symphony when he snapped it off right. Sometimes it started out high and huge, like a harvest moon heading toward the batter’s eyes. Other times it looked like a strike forever. No matter where it began it would fall straight down like an anchor as it hurtled toward home plate. When hitters were looking fastball they often fell over the pitch on their front foot. And even when they guessed right, when they sat back and waited on it and swung as hard as they could, their wobbling knees made it damn near impossible to generate any power. When Kershaw’s curve resulted in a called strike three, as it often did, the average batter shook his head in defeat and began the slow walk back to his team’s dugout because there was nothing else to do. A good hitter collects a hit 30 percent of the time. Against Kershaw’s breaking ball they stood a 10 percent chance.

Most pitchers are lucky to have one breaking pitch they can use to strike out hitters. Kershaw had two. Halfway through his second year in the big leagues, batters realized that swinging at his curveball was futile, so they stopped doing it and sat on his fastball. Kershaw began to struggle, often needing 100 pitches to get through five innings. There was even talk of sending him back down to the minors.
Before a game at Wrigley Field, he was getting ready to throw a bullpen session with catcher A. J. Ellis. The Dodgers’ bullpen catcher at the time, Mike Borzello, approached Kershaw with an idea. “He asked me if I could try throwing a slider,” said Kershaw.

Ellis had caught Kershaw when he was working on a new pitch before, with mediocre results. At the beginning of the 2007 season, Kershaw skipped High-A ball and went from Low-A ball to Double-A Jacksonville. Because he didn’t yet have an effective changeup, the Dodgers wanted him to throw fifteen of them a game, no matter what, to try to develop one. They didn’t care if batters hammered it. Though Ellis and Kershaw would later become the best of friends, their first meeting was no lovefest. Ellis went to catch one of Kershaw’s bullpens
in Jacksonville when Kershaw was working on his changeup. Frustrated by the pitch’s lack of deception, he kept throwing it high and away so the batter wouldn’t swing at it. Ellis called out to him and said: “Hey! Get the ball down!” Annoyed, Kershaw looked back at Ellis and yelled: “Hey! Relax!”

“And that was when I realized it was better if I didn’t try to talk to him when he pitched,” said Ellis.

It was a fluke that Ellis wound up being present for the moment at Wrigley Field two years later that changed the course of Kershaw’s career. It was May 2009 and Ellis had just been called up to the big leagues that morning to be the third catcher on the Dodgers’ roster, to be used only in an emergency. Joe Torre told him he was going back down to the minors after the weekend. Borzello mentioned to Ellis that he had Kershaw toss him a few sliders the day before on flat ground, but he wanted the kid to try throwing the pitch from a mound. “So Clayton steps on the mound, and the very first one he throws is just, like, unbelievable, and my eyes are huge and Mike’s eyes are huge and we’re just looking at each other like did you see that?” said Ellis. “And Clayton walks over to us kind of shy and asks, ‘So what do you think?’ And I’m thinking, Well, no one’s ever going to talk about you going to the minors again.”

Kershaw’s curveball may have gotten him into the show, but his slider made him a star. When he threw it where he wanted to it darted across the strike zone from ten o’clock to four o’clock, a perfect complement to his 12-to-6 curve. It approached the plate traveling anywhere from 82 to 86 miles per hour, which made it even trickier for hitters to pick up his mid-90s fastball or his mid-70s curve. Not that it mattered much. Even if batters knew what was coming, when he located the slider where he wanted it was damn near invisible.

“You just don’t see that pitch,” said Arizona Diamondbacks manager and former Dodger great Kirk Gibson. “He buries it down and in, and you wonder, Why are hitters swinging the bat? They don’t see it.”

Most hitters study the opposing pitcher’s tendencies before his
starts, looking for tics and tells to solve him. With Kershaw, however, the best use of a batter’s time might be spent in a pregame prayer asking that his slider not be working that night.

“You watch tape, or you watch him on TV, and you come up with a game plan,” said Arizona’s left fielder Mark Trumbo. “But then when you get in the box it’s totally different. You’ve gotta trust what your eyes see. But when he’s on the mound nothing adds up. You think the ball’s going to be in one area and it ends up being somewhere else and then you’re just not quick enough to get to it.”

Kershaw may have been better at spinning baseballs 60 feet and 6 inches than anyone else, but as he tucked into his cereal a few hours before opening day in 2013 there was something bigger on his mind than his start versus the San Francisco Giants. In a few hours he would embark on the most important year of his life. Kershaw had two more seasons under the Dodgers’ control until he became a free agent, at which point he would be allowed to auction off his prized left arm to the highest bidder. He had only ever worn Dodger blue. The club’s new owners had promised the city of Los Angeles multiple championships. Locking Kershaw into the top of their rotation for as long as they could was their number-one priority, and had been for months. The stakes were enormous, and both sides knew it. What no one knew was how much it would cost the Dodgers to extend his deal to take him off the market before they potentially lost him forever. Kershaw had played his contract negotiations so close to the vest that even his closest friends had no idea whether he would stay.

To help stack their rotation behind Kershaw, four months earlier the Dodgers had signed another brilliant starting pitcher and former Cy Young winner, Zack Greinke, to a six-year contract worth $147 million. It was the second-most lucrative deal for a pitcher in baseball history, behind only the seven-year, $161 million contract the Yankees gave to C.C. Sabathia. Greinke and Kershaw shared the same agent, Casey Close. J. D. Smart had represented Kershaw since the beginning of his career, but when Smart joined Excel Sports Management at the
end of 2012, Close, the head of its baseball division, began assisting in Kershaw’s contract negotiations. Six weeks earlier,
Close approached the Dodgers with an idea for an offer he found suitable for Kershaw: seven years, $195 million with an opt-out after five, just in case the marriage wasn’t working out. Close had negotiated the same escape clause in Greinke’s deal, and Kershaw knew he wanted it, too. It wasn’t that Kershaw didn’t want to be a Dodger for the rest of his career. It was just that at twenty-five,
when he tried to imagine his life beyond thirty, he couldn’t do it.

There was something else, too. Kershaw didn’t care about money. Well, of course he cared about money, but not in the way professional athletes who worship the Louis Vuitton quarterly catalog did. The team dress code required players to wear slacks on travel days. Aside from those occasions—and when he was in uniform—one of Kershaw’s goals for 2013 was to make it through the season without having to put on long pants. (He made it a month before a forty-degree day in Baltimore forced him to change out of shorts and throw on a pair of jeans.) For special occasions, like Cy Young announcements and all-star press conferences, he might break out his favorite dress shirt: a red and blue checked long-sleeve button-down he liked to roll up to his elbows. But other than that he preferred plain T-shirts and basketball shorts.

It wasn’t that Kershaw didn’t think he deserved to be paid for his talent. His competitiveness inspired him to fight for every dollar. It was just that wearing money on his feet or around his neck embarrassed him. A devout Christian, Kershaw believed that his wealth could best be used to help others in need. His faith had taught him that he needed only enough money to ensure his family never had to worry. The rest was for giving away. Major League Baseball had recognized him for his work with orphans in Zambia months earlier by presenting him with the Roberto Clemente Award, the prestigious honor given annually to the player who best exemplifies the Pittsburgh Pirate legend’s service to others. Besides, Kershaw believed that money didn’t change who
a person already was: it only amplified it. He had spent his entire life struggling to surrender to things he couldn’t control. Promising five prime seasons to the Dodgers seemed long enough. The new owners said they wanted to win, sure, but before they bought the team the Dodgers had been run by a professional litigant who rode into town making the same glittery championship promises before driving the organization into bankruptcy. Kershaw had no reason to think it would happen again. Except: what if it did and he was stuck? No, he wanted to sign for five years. Any longer than that was terrifying. But the Dodgers had something else in mind.

BOOK: The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse
3.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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