GLENDALE, Ariz. – The stowaway in Clayton Kershaw’s(notes) luggage was big and blue and two-dimensional. It didn’t have a name, unless you wanted to use the one printed above its head, and let’s be honest: Not even the cruelest parents would name their kid Canvas Catcher.
Halfway around the world, surrounded by poverty and disease, trying to do the Lord’s work, Kershaw still couldn’t escape baseball. At 22 and on the cusp of stardom, the Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander refused to miss even a week of offseason workouts. Nor could he go another year without joining his wife, Ellen, on her life’s work: helping children in Zambia orphaned by AIDS. So he married his pursuit with his new bride’s, and off they went on their journey, one extra bag in tow.
Kershaw’s luggage included the Canvas Catcher, a thick sheet embossed with the outline of a batter whose stance resembles one of Cal Ripken’s. Underneath his elbow, and down to mid-calf, is an oversized strike zone that serves as a repository for thrown balls. A local welder provided the frame, Kershaw set it up and the big, mystical man from a place far, far away started firing little white pills harder than anyone there had ever seen.
Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt thought Kershaw was joking when he told him Ellen was going to bring her glove. But she did, and so did a few other friends on the mission for Arise Africa, and in between helping build a school and playing with the local kids, Kershaw kept his arm plenty loose.
“I was well-prepared over there,” Kershaw said, and he grinned a mischievous grin. He’s still young enough where he refuses to take off even a day, no matter how preternatural his gift. And when combined with a work ethic that his veteran catcher, Rod Barajas(notes), calls “the best I’ve ever seen for someone that young,” it should make Kershaw a trendy Cy Young pick this year and well beyond.
After Kershaw sharpened his control in the middle of last June, he morphed from potential ace into indisputable one. Kershaw added a slider two years ago, honed it last year and gave himself another weapon alongside his fastball. The ability to throw those two pitches for strikes allowed Kershaw to re-deploy his previous second pitch – a curveball that no less than Vin Scully dubbed Public Enemy No. 1 because of the ferocity and malevolence of its break – as a put-away offering.
The same hitters who sat on fastballs from the 20-year-old Kershaw could no longer bank on anything, and he generated as many dumbfounded looks as any pitcher in the NL.
“I don’t like to project,” Honeycutt said. “But he expects to be the total package. Other people settle. He expects every day to go out and improve himself, and that’s the joy in working with him. He can be the best.”
While it’s just spring training, the fashion in which Kershaw dominated Cincinnati in his start Saturday showcased his capabilities. In four scoreless innings, he struck out three. Two of those were by reigning MVP Joey Votto(notes), the first on a slider and second on a curveball. No. 3 came from Brandon Phillips(notes), who swung through a changeup.
“When it counts,” Kershaw said, “I’ll be more excited about it.”
Twenty-four days and it will. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly already tabbed Kershaw his opening day starter, and with reigning champion San Francisco traveling to Dodger Stadium, it provides not only – with all due respect to CC Sabathia(notes)-Justin Verlander – the most intriguing matchup of the day but certainly the most contentious.
Until then, Kershaw, as Barajas said, “always has a baseball in his hand, always has got his shoes on, is always doing drills full speed. And when he’s on his game and has his four pitches working, he’s as good as anyone in the game.” Coming from a catcher who regularly caught Roy Halladay(notes), Randy Johnson(notes) and Curt Schilling, it isn’t light praise.
Even more impressive, though, was the impression Kershaw delivered when Barajas arrived via trade last year. The politeness, the conscientiousness – “he helps build schools in Africa,” Barajas said, and he needed to say no more. Kershaw held a clinic in the Dallas area, where he grew up, to raise money for Arise Africa before the trip, then spent two days getting from there to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia.
“We just tried to give the kids some love,” Kershaw said. “Most of them are orphans. So much of the middle generation, between the kids and grandparents, has been wiped out with AIDS. Ellen felt called to go, so she did it, and I wanted to see what she has been talking about all these years.”
He’ll go again, and perhaps next time he’ll be compelled to leave Canvas Catcher at home. Kershaw tries all he can to balance his life – work, family and friends, his faith interspersed throughout each. It’s a struggle for every baseball player, and the path on which Kershaw walks necessitates sacrifice all around.
After he and Ellen were married this offseason, they jetted off to Mexico for their honeymoon. It lasted four days. Kershaw had to get back home. They’ve got plenty of years ahead to vacation and help the world. Baseball couldn’t wait.