LOS ANGELES – He couldn’t say what was in his heart, Clayton Kershaw said, if it was telling him to stay or go, if this was the end here or just another lousy October day here.
An hour had passed since he’d watched the Boston Red Sox win a World Series, with his chin resting on a dugout rail. He’d been had for three home runs in seven innings, three outfielders dangling on outfield walls, another one of those October days, and before that a whole season had passed again, quickly again, like they tend to do anymore.
There’d be no need to pack for a few cold days in Boston. No flight to catch. The creeping inevitability that came with the past week of baseball had caught him. Had caught them all. The Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of six division titles in a row, World Series participants for the last two of those, were again not good enough. They were beat, 5-1, on Sunday night in Game 5, and on another fall night hosted a party they were not invited to.
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He’d been here 11 years. Eight falls. Now he could choose to go. He has, he said, three days to decide. In the moment, Chase Utley across the room saying he was ready to go be a full-time dad, Kenley Jansen nearby saying he was scheduled for that heart procedure, Yasiel Puig in Spanish saying they’d all go home with regrets, Dave Roberts in the interview room deflecting questions of his own future, Kershaw smiled a sleepy smile and said he simply didn’t know. These were the questions he’d perhaps intended to address while drenched in a happier occasion.
Would he start over again here? Would he start over again somewhere else? And what sort of pitcher, at 30, would he be when he got there? Would it be as fun? Would it ever be as familiar? Is it the money? Is it something else? What would his wife, Ellen, want? Where would he raise his children? Could somewhere new live up to his expectations? Could he live up to its?
How does this all go from here?
What is in his heart?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t.”
About an hour after sunset, the sky having gone from purple-gray to black, Kershaw left the Dodger Stadium mound. He’d pitched seven innings on the final Sunday of October, the final day of the baseball season. He didn’t win. None of them did. A year ago, on the final day of that baseball season, he’d pitched four innings, and he – they – didn’t win that either.
Kershaw crossed the field, managed the stairs into the dugout, sat on the bench. He lay his glove on the bench, his cap on his glove. This was it, he was done pitching, and Roberts’ handshake was welcome but unnecessary. While it had become popular conversation to wonder where his velocity had gone, if it would return, and what sort of pitcher he’d be if it didn’t, he was also the guy who’d posted a 2.73 ERA across 26 regular-season starts, who every day established the professional standard for anyone who bothered to watch, who for a very long time was as good a pitcher many had ever seen.
“Clayton is the Dodgers,” veteran Rich Hill said. “He’s the heart and soul of this organization. When you look at a guy like that, who has put it on the line for so many years and had so much success here, as a Dodger I just hope they do the right thing.”
Kershaw watched the Dodgers as they were set down in order by David Price in the bottom of the inning, then stood. Leaving his cap and glove behind, he walked the length of the dugout and turned left. He spoke to no one. No one spoke to him.
They’d once run into a blossoming Houston Astros team. Then a 108-win Red Sox team. They were eliminated on their own field, in front of their own fans, who gave way to Red Sox fans. In the course of those half-dozen NL West titles, the Dodgers also were 31-30 in the postseason, ultimately a win short last year, three short this year, and they threaded some satisfaction from that, though not very much.
“It sucks,” catcher Austin Barnes said.
They’d batted .180 against the Red Sox. Machado helped only a little, batting .182 himself. Cody Bellinger hit .063. Across two World Series, he hit .114. Kershaw’s ERA in two starts was 7.36. Jansen blew two saves. Roberts battled matchups and bullpen management, often paddling against the greater talent, that ending predictably.
The Dodgers will return a decent bet to be good at this again. Corey Seager, their shortstop, will be back. Walker Buehler and Julio Urias, 24 and 22, will be regular starters. A bullpen isn’t so hard to rebuild. Roberts is good at this and it would be a surprise – and a mistake – if he were not back. There’ll be plenty of money to spend. They’ve won without really winning, which remains a problem, and now they start over again.
With Kershaw. Without him. He couldn’t say. Or wouldn’t. He’s due about $70 million over the next two seasons. It is not, yet, the team’s decision whether that – he — is the best way to spend $70 million, but could be if today’s opt-out becomes tomorrow’s negotiation.
“Look, you know, I know the future questions are coming for myself,” Kershaw said. “I don’t want to take away from tonight, obviously, and what everybody is feeling. I never want to put the focus on just me or anything like that. This was a tough one for us tonight. It really was. Myself, personally, you know, it was tough. … I’ve got three days to think about all of that stuff before anything happens. And so it will be an eventful three days for me and I’ll try to figure it out.”
His hair wet from a shower, he walked from the clubhouse, beneath a clock that read 9:15. He hugged a security guard. He waved as he made his way down a quiet hallway, away from a party that raged without him. It would not be him, again. It would not be them.
Another lousy October day.
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