LOS ANGELES – Like any good mission, the Kershaws' began with Hope.
Theirs was 9 years old then, a little girl from the streets of Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia.
Hope had deep brown eyes and a warm smile.
"That's her right there," Clayton Kershaw said, pointing to her picture on the cover of the book he wrote with his wife, Ellen, "Arise: Live Out Your Faith and Dreams on Whatever Field You Find Yourself from the Major Leagues to Africa."
Hope is in a sleeveless red top and lime green pants. Her head is wrapped gently, like a scarf, in a playmate's arm.
In name and spirit, Hope defied her condition. She had no parents. She had nowhere to go. She had HIV.
"She just captured my heart," Ellen said. "She was so sick. All she knew was survival."
Clayton and Ellen sat Tuesday afternoon in a Costco, aisle 119, home to kitchen trash bags, Gucci watches, infrared heaters and Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Dozens of Los Angeles Dodgers fans curled to their right. The Kershaws autographed books, part of a tour that hadn't yet sapped their enthusiasm, his earnest pleases and thank yous, or her infectious smiles and laughs.
In ink of Dodger blue, he signed with his famous left hand, she with her right, their elbows grazing when he started his "C" and she ended her "w."
A man who'd had Clayton personalize a book to "Brooklyn" walked away, opened to the title page and said, "It's a funky signature, but you know it's his."
Others stopped and gawked, leaned in for photographs, told him about their sons and daughters who are left-handed pitchers like him. They were witnesses to his first days as a big leaguer nearly four years ago, to the promise that grew by the season, and then to the Cy Young performance in 2011, when he led the National League in wins, ERA and strikeouts.
He mentioned his offseason, how long it had been, how they always seem long when there are no playoffs. And he said he'd been working on his changeup, the same changeup he's worked on for six offseasons running, the one that won't seem to come no matter what. He's made do.
And he held up his book – their book – written with Ellen's sister, Ann Higginbottom. There's an awful lot in there for a man of 23, a lot about Ellen and his trips to Africa, the orphanage they're building, the children and community it will serve, how one day it might expand for farmland and a trade school. There's baseball, too.
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And there's God, a subject so fresh on the minds of American sports fans, a subject caressed and derided by American sports fans, especially since another big, young left-hander came along and sparked the conversation.
"Tim Tebow is adamant in his faith," Clayton said. "I respect that."
A year ago, Clayton got the idea to donate $100 for every strikeout to the children of Zambia. Ellen said she found it not at all accidental that, for the first time, Clayton then led the league in strikeouts. He nodded.
"Like it was ordained," she said. "People can call it a coincidence."
Their book might just carry them into the national conversation about sports and religion, and so about whether God is rooting for Kershaw strikeouts to help the poor or, say, Prince Fielder to hit one into the San Gabriel Mountains for the simple thrill of it.
And that's OK with the Kershaws. They do their thing, believe what they believe, and are happy to share it or not.
"There's a lot of people that are very opinionated about it, that are opposed to it," Clayton said. "At the same time, Ellen and I have the right and feel obligated to put our message out there. … Though I do remind myself it's not my job to convert people to Christianity. God will do that."
So, when Tebow praises God, or quotes God, or throws an overtime pass that beats the Pittsburgh Steelers and then takes a knee, Clayton said, "All he's trying to say is that's not him."
But, rather, Him.
Folks can do with that what they will. The Kershaws will fall in love with a little girl who has found no love, and they'll build her and a dozen others a place to live, and they'll call this place, "Hope's Home." She'll be warm and fed. She'll be looked after. Between thrice-weekly trips to the local clinic for her medications, she'll learn to read better and write better. Now that she's 12, maybe she'll look after some of the younger boys and girls, the Hopes that come after her, the ones that haven't yet been gathered up by the famous American pitcher and the wife who introduced him to the children of Africa.
"It is overwhelming to see the need over there," Clayton said. "Look at Hope, where she is now. That's one life affected. It's amazing what one life can do."
He gripped Ellen's hand, and she said she hoped their orphanage would become a place where children also learned to become self-sufficient, leaders and morally sound. And, yes, she said, good Christians.
"You start small," she said.
You start with Hope.
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