MOBILE, Ala. – The theme of the day is worship, and the chaplain at the front of the room hopes the six young men sitting in front of him understand its importance.
“We need to worship,” Bobby Butler says in his shrimp-and-grits voice. “We want to worship. I want to worship.”
One of the men is Clayton Kershaw, and the lesson rings familiar. He is a believer. He is also believed in. It’s not that people worship Kershaw, exactly. It’s just that he is a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher playing at Double-A Jacksonville in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization with a fastball that crackles at 97 mph and a curveball that, hyperbole aside, is probably the best in the world, and for those reasons, people worship the idea of him: of limitless potential, of youth unshackled, of the unknown and unseen.
“Let’s have a word of prayer,” Butler says.
Seven heads bow. It’s Sunday, and 24 hours from now, Kershaw will make one of the most important starts of his career, against the Mobile BayBears. If he pitches well, the Dodgers will consider calling him up to the major leagues and making him the youngest pitcher to debut since Felix Hernandez in 2005 and the third youngest this decade.
Kershaw closes his eyes and listens as the smoke detector in this spare room at Hank Aaron Stadium, in need of a new battery, provides the melody for Butler’s final thoughts.
“Look over these boys in their travel.”
“And always remember.”
“It’s OK to worship.”
There is the great prospect, and there is the great prospect. The two are entirely different beasts. Great prospects excite fans. Great ones turn them rabid, hungry for information, minutiae, minor-league box scores. Scouts one up each other with plaudits, as though they’re critics trying to get quotes on movie posters. Executives blanch, proud the kid is in their organization, wary of creating excessive expectations, trying to toe the middle and almost always failing to do so.
Clayton Kershaw is a great prospect. On March 9, the world found out why.
In the press box at Vero Beach, Fla., sat Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame announcer who, at 80, still turns phrases and gilds them with his mellifluous voice. On the field stood Kershaw, 19 at the time, in his second spring training appearance with the Dodgers. He had retired the first two Boston batters when up stepped Sean Casey, a lifetime .300 hitter and a difficult mark for strikeout pitchers. Kershaw worked the count to two strikes before he unfurled one of those curveballs.
Casey had never seen a pitch like it. His knees jellied. The ball moved like a magic bullet, starting behind him, ending up flush in the strike zone. Scully, who has been broadcasting for 59 years, at first offered nothing more than a guttural noise of incredulity before bestowing a nickname that should stick.
“Holy mackerel,” Scully said. “He just broke off Public Enemy No. 1.”
The legend of Kershaw’s curveball spread around Dodgertown that day, each tale a little more exaggerated than the previous. Witnesses told stories to those who missed it, and from thereon, everybody made sure that the next time Kershaw was scheduled to pitch their work for the day was done.
For the rest of the spring, they saw near perfection. Kershaw threw 14 consecutive scoreless innings, struck out 19 and, as Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti says, “looked like he could pitch opening day.”
All of the Dodgers’ work scouting Kershaw had borne an orchid. They knew of him long before the mercy-ruled perfect game in high school when he struck out all 15 hitters, and they chose him with the seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft out of Highland Park, Texas, and gave him $2.3 million.
“We hoped we got Sandy Koufax, because when you’re out there drafting, you’re praying,” says Logan White, a Dodgers assistant general manager and then-scouting director. “You hope for a Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan. Whether Clayton will sniff an element of Sandy, there’s a lot of years.”
Two days after Public Enemy No. 1 arrived, Koufax visited Dodgers camp. He watched Kershaw throw a bullpen session and offered a few tips. And then the best left-handed pitcher ever, the one who created hysteria before it was de rigueur, told Kershaw to stay healthy, because the way he threw the ball, there was no way the Dodgers could keep him in the minor leagues much longer.
The decision is never easy.
Bring him up.
No, keep him down.
But he can help the Dodgers win now.
You don’t want to ruin him by rushing him.
It’s defeatist to think like that.
Well, it’s naïve to think otherwise.
“We have to be fair to the player and fair to the organization,” Colletti says.
Devil’s advocacy was prevalent this week at Dodger Stadium. With Esteban Loaiza on the disabled list, the Dodgers need a starter for Saturday, and Kershaw, with a 1.08 earned-run average in his first six starts, makes sense. He’s better than Chan Ho Park, and Hong-Chih Kuo has been so good out of the bullpen, why mess with that?
Six days before that open rotation spot gets filled, Kershaw is watching an NBA playoff game. He knows the Dodgers might summon him, that they’re sending Bill Lajoie, Colletti’s top advisor, to his next start, and that they want him to throw more changeups.
“If you start hearing all the injury reports and listening to the rumors, it’s going to drive you crazy,” Kershaw says. “What will ultimately dictate when I get up there is how well I pitch here. I’m trying to take care of that right now. I’ve got a start, and we’ll see how it goes. If it happens, great. If not, I’ll keep going.”
Of the things Dodgers executives love about Kershaw, his humility ranks with his curveball. He’s not so much aw-shucks as awww, shy around strangers, polite as a soft breeze. He’s definitely not L.A. He’ll wear cowboy boots before suits. He listens to Christian rock and says he doesn’t drink. He’s had the same girlfriend for years. Kershaw can’t watch “The Natural” enough, and he finds no irony in that.
Even the name – Clayton Kershaw – smells like Stetson.
“Yeah, but as soon as somebody mentions his name,” Jacksonville pitching coach Glenn Dishman says, “everybody immediately breaks into a huge smile.”
On cue, Dishman grins and cranes his neck toward the third-base line, where Kershaw is throwing with a teammate. Brent Leach jumps twice and shakes his glove hand. He drew the unfortunate assignment of playing catch with Kershaw, which comes with a free visit to the trainer’s room.
“It always comes good out of his hand,” Leach says. “It jumps, and you can never tell when that jump’s going to come. He’s special, man. Special. They say once in a lifetime you see a freak? He’s my freak. And I’m enjoying watching him as long as I can.”
Which might not be much longer. At the beginning of the season, Kershaw made sure to get a month-to-month lease in Jacksonville. He didn’t buy any furniture, either, patio chairs and stools sufficient to support his video game habits.
“Subconsciously, you don’t want to be there,” Kershaw says. “If you’re living month-to-month, you don’t get too comfortable.
“When I go up, I don’t want to come back. I expect to stay there when I get there. I’m not going up there for one start to be a fill-in. I’m going to succeed up there. And it’s not because I’m being cocky or confident. It’s what you have to expect when you’re a pitcher.”
Expectations, of course, are malleable. There is a left-handed pitcher named Greg Miller who plays for the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas, and five years ago he was Clayton Kershaw.
In 2003, as an 18-year-old, Miller leapt to Double-A in September. Before he could throw an inning in 2004, he underwent minor shoulder surgery. It didn’t take. He had another surgery. When he returned in 2005, it was as a reliever, and Miller’s control had disappeared.
“People can become enamored watching prospects play in the minor leagues,” Colletti says. “It’s always been there. It’s heightened with the way communication is now. The Internet. Cell phones. The interest is overwhelming.”
The cult of the prospect is one of baseball’s great phenomena. It is why the impatience of Cincinnati Reds fans grows every time Jay Bruce hits a home run at Triple-A and why Tampa Bay earned universal praise for signing Evan Longoria to a potential nine-year deal only six days into his major-league career and why every blue-clad Angeleno wonders in what parallel universe starting Chan Ho Park over Clayton Kershaw is a good idea.
“What can be lost on them in the excitement of accomplishment is how good the big-league player is,” Colletti says. “I believe it’s difficult to play in the big leagues. I always try to measure what I’m seeing myself and what I’m hearing, and how that will play in a different environment. I have to hold back from time to time.”
He hears the reports from Dishman, how Kershaw is starting to command his fastball better, and how his curveball looks tighter, and how even his changeup is working. Colletti was the assistant general manager in San Francisco when the Giants summoned a 20-year-old Matt Cain, and that worked out just fine.
Then Colletti remembers Edwin Jackson, with the Dodgers under a previous regime, and Matt Riley and Rick Ankiel and David Clyde and a dozen others summoned too early. Fractured psyches or arm troubles or control issues or burnout – all of them, up as teenagers, bombed hard.
Rare has the veneration approached that of Todd Van Poppel, the right-hander from Arlington, Texas. Atlanta wanted to choose him first in the 1990 draft. His bonus demands were too high, so Van Poppel fell to 14th, where Oakland selected him, and the A’s followed with three more pitchers in the first round. The Four Aces were born.
None came close. Van Poppel ended up a middling reliever. Kirk Dressendorfer spent a month in the major leagues. Don Peters and Dave Zancanaro didn’t make it. The biggest success out of that Oakland draft, in fact, was Tanyon Sturtze, a 23rd-round pick who spent 11 seasons in the major leagues.
“Kershaw’s unbelievable,” says Sturtze, now 37 and a teammate of Kershaw attempting a comeback from shoulder surgery. “Everyone who throws a pitch wishes they could do it like him. He carries himself like a major leaguer.
“But I hope he knows that people always think everything’s going to work out perfectly. It doesn’t always happen that way.”
It’s the second inning Monday, potentially one of the biggest nights of Clayton Kershaw’s career, and he just gave up his first run after 20 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. It came on a curveball that bounced away from the catcher, not the most distinguished way to break the streak.
He kicks the grass. Already Kershaw has been roused from his rhythm by a local kid racing Rocky the Rotten Roach around the bases before the bottom of the first. And he’s got a 65-pitch limit to keep his arm fresh for later in the season. Now this, in front of Lajoie, who, by the time Kershaw is in the shower, will have placed a call to Colletti.
So Kershaw composes himself and steps back on the mound. Two strikes remain on Mobile catcher Frank Curreri, a left-handed hitter. Kershaw throws the pitch. Curreri ducks to avoid it. Only instead of careening toward his head, the ball bends back for a called strike three. If the pitch to Casey was Public Enemy No. 1, this is No. 1a. Natural laws of physics seem no match for Kershaw’s curveball, and neither does Curreri.
“He legitimately threw it behind my head, and it somehow ended up over the plate,” Curreri says. “I was trying to get out of the way. If it was straight, it was hitting me in the head. Apparently, it was a curveball.
“I knew it was bad when I turned and the catcher hadn’t moved.”
In the fourth row, a kid wearing a Dodgers hat squeals. He can’t believe what he saw. He pulls out his cell phone to text friends about Kershaw’s hook. The scouts behind home plate look at each other like they just saw a ghost, which they sort of did. Kershaw jogs off the field, the picture of nonchalance.
When he returns the next half-inning, his changeup, the pitch on which he’s supposed to work, doesn’t feel right. It matters not how much praise people foist on him or the depth of the plaudits; if Kershaw loses his touch, he’s going to get hit, even at Double-A.
Mobile starts to pepper him. Single. Stolen base. Hard-hit RBI single. Harder-hit RBI double. Single. Just like that, Kershaw, who has cruised through three innings in 39 pitches, is on his last batter. And though he induces a flyout, the runner on third tags up and scores, and he leaves with his most unsightly game of the season: 3 1/3 innings, five hits, five runs and one blown opportunity.
Anger builds on the 30 steps from the mound to the dugout. As Kershaw hits the first step, he transfers his glove to his throwing hand. He cocks his arm. He leans forward once. Twice. No. It would be a damn shame if he blew out his arm throwing his glove in frustration. So instead he pushes it toward the wall, sits and sulks.
“I hadn’t had a day like that in a long time,” Kershaw says. “I didn’t think I was going up anyway, but not after that. No way.”
He’s right. The Dodgers confirm that, barring another injury, Kershaw will remain at Jacksonville for at least another start, and probably until the end of the month. Kershaw broods. He’s mad at himself, because there’s this dictum he tries to follow: the game is between him and the target. In this case, it was an allegory: hit the small target, the glove, and he might hit the big target, a Dodgers uniform.
Even the can’t-miss miss sometimes.
Is it OK to worship?
Deification comes with a price. When Clayton Kershaw arrives in Los Angeles later this year – and he will – the masses will converge. They will discover that he is a good kid and a bad driver, great at ping-pong, not so great at “Halo,” goofy and humble, introverted and swaggering, and they will want to know why he is all of these things. They will try to dress him in suits and lure him to Hollywood and turn him into a commodity.
“It’ll be sooner rather than later,” Colletti says.
Whenever it is, the unknown will play out in Los Angeles, the mystery will lift and the idea of Kershaw will no longer be of such grand intrigue. Something disappears in the evolution from prospect to major leaguer, as if the most fun part is waiting to see the player rather than seeing him.
So for now Kershaw rides on buses, stretching his 6-foot-3 frame on the floor across an entire row. He goes to places like Montgomery and Knoxville and Mobile, and on Sundays, he sits in makeshift rooms and meets new chaplains and sponges in the word.
In the middle of Butler’s sermon, after he transitions from football metaphors to bible verses, he tries to explain the meaning of worship. Kershaw, melted into the couch, sits up to listen.
“Worship is an open expression of love,” Butler says. “Worship is knowing you’ve got a relationship with someone who is truly special.
“Worship is belief.”
Clayton Kershaw nods. And then he says amen.