LOS ANGELES – Might as well start in the graveyard.
In the darkness of a Waxahachie, Texas, night, Marianne Kershaw's phone rang. The parking lot at the high school baseball game she'd come to watch had filled up, so she landed in the auxiliary lot in a local cemetery, and now she couldn't find her car, which made the phone call of minimal importance until she noticed it was from her son, Clayton. At first she tried to explain how freaked out she was, at least until Clayton let her speak no more.
"So do you want to know why I called?" he asked.
It had happened. Friday might not go down in Dodger history. The moment the Los Angeles Dodgers summoned Clayton Kershaw to the major leagues might end up an overhyped note of inconsequence if he bombs in his major-league career. Then it will be looked upon as more a day of lament than anything.
For now, though, there is celebration, from the Dodgers and their fans and Kershaw and his mom alike, because in his first start Sunday afternoon, he played the 20-year-old who might as well go by Zeus for all the mythology that accompanies him. Kershaw struck out the side in the first inning, gave up two runs over six innings and kept the Dodgers in a game they won in the 10th inning, 4-3 against the St. Louis Cardinals, to put a happy face on the debut of the left-hander who, as much as anything, just wanted his mom to be there to see it.
"We finally found the car, and he kept telling me to go and buy plane tickets," Marianne said. "But it was supposed to be a secret, and there was someone else in the car, so I couldn't say anything. Clayton was getting kind of mad."
Over the next 48 hours, Kershaw didn't have time to worry. Twenty of his closest friends and family would make it here, and he would figure out the logistics of getting to Dodger Stadium, and the tiniest details, such as his girlfriend, Ellen Melson, grabbing him a pair of black dress shoes from DSW to match his suit, would come together.
Kershaw needed to focus on pitching. The Dodgers yanked him from his start with Double-A Jacksonville after one inning Friday to save his arm for Sunday's game. They didn't want him debuting at Wrigley Field, where the team begins a series Monday, preferring a love-in at Dodger Stadium.
And it was. On Saturday, they feted Kershaw, even though he had accidentally reached into the wrong locker, grabbed Jason Schmidt's jersey and wore it. No one bothered to tell Kershaw, of course, and let him meander the field looking like Schmidt minus a few pounds and plus a shaggy toupee.
Sunday went better. A limo taking Kershaw's family on a tour of Los Angeles dropped him off at the stadium at 9 a.m. He surfed the Internet a bit, went over some cursory scouting reports with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, squared away his signals with catcher Russell Martin, pantomimed his motion, chatted with Schmidt and tried to wile away the nerves.
At 1:10 p.m. PT, Kershaw threw Skip Schumaker a fastball for a ball, and his career was officially underway. Schumaker struck out swinging through a fastball. He walked Brian Barton and gave up a run-scoring double on an eight-pitch at-bat against Albert Pujols before throwing a 97-mph fastball by a swinging Ryan Ludwick and freezing Troy Glaus with a 75-mph bell curve.
The inning took 32 pitches. Kershaw's next four innings took 43. He settled down and dominated, striking out seven and walking one, and as Kershaw introduced himself to the major leagues, the hype began to calcify, the hoopla come into focus.
"A left-hander that throws 96 with a snapdragon curveball and nasty changeup? That's pretty good," Martin said. "Not a lot of guys have that stuff in the majors."
In the fourth inning, Kershaw changed his rhythm and started throwing more changeups. After a spring training in which he finished with 16 consecutive scoreless innings, Kershaw went to Double-A to work on the pitch. He threw three to Pujols alone, and the only other run against him came on a poor throw home by third baseman Blake DeWitt ruled a fielder's choice.
"This kid's got a nice way about him, how he goes about his business," Honeycutt said. "These guys don't come along often. There's been other guys – Doc Gooden comes to mind – who get it at this early an age."
Kershaw deserves the elite company, even if the Dodger Stadium radar gun does flash generous by two or three miles per hour. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called him "legitimate." Torre said he was "the real deal." They have a combined 58 years of managerial experience and have seen enough busts to know the difference.
The postgame crush overwhelmed Kershaw. He was used to the Southern League, where a bad outing – few and far between as they were – drew maybe a question or two. Here, there were a pu-pu platter of cameras and recorders and microphones and people who wanted to know how nervous he was, and he kept saying he really wasn't, so the fifth time it was asked, Kershaw got a little agitated. Otherwise, he was composed, well beyond 20.
"You can't really explain how it feels out there," Kershaw said. "You can't know how it feels. You just know you've reached the plateau of baseball, and it's a pretty good feeling."
Some of Kershaw's naïveté shone through. He talked about how he had never been to New York and that he was excited to see next weekend Shea Stadium, which, among major-league ballparks, is a finger painting to the modern Monets and Chagalls. And he certainly looked his age, the stray blonde whiskers from his didn't-bother-to-shave morning catching the light.
Before Kershaw left the clubhouse to meet with family and friends, he grabbed three baseballs. One was autographed for a friend. The other two were his first pitch and first strikeout.
When he saw Marianne, he handed them to her. Over the winter, when Kershaw was living with Marianne in Highland Park, Texas, he said he wanted to buy a house before the next offseason, and that it would be his last hurrah with mom. The two balls won't replace him. They will remind her, though.
"I think this was the second-happiest day of my life," Marianne said. "The day he was born was the happiest. And the day my boy's dream came true is next."
Marianne beamed, having seen Clayton Kershaw from cradle to, this week, graveyard, and onto a future with so many possibilities.
- Clayton Kershaw