ARLINGTON - He's a starting pitcher on one of the most recognized clubs in all of sports. He's fast becoming a household name in one of the largest cities in the world. For most of the last year he's been the youngest player in the major leagues, and his ascent into the bigs marked one of the fastest climbs in history.
You'd think that Clayton Kershaw returning to his hometown for the first time as a pro baseball player would draw more attention on this hot summer Saturday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Yet after the game there's Kershaw walking unnoticed past a huddle of Dodger fans on the ground-level mezzanine following LA's 5-1 win over Texas.
They're holding baseballs and pens and programs waiting to greet anyone from their favorite team. And right past them walks what appears to be the next great Dodgers pitching phenom who only one year into the majors is already mowing down National League hitters with regularity.
Finally in the post-game, I got an entree full of the Kershaw humbleness I remembered talking to him so many times at Scotland Yard. But I also got a side dish of 'Hey, I'm in my hometown tonight, it's late, and I got people to see."
And suddenly it occurs to me that although I'm in a major league locker room, I'm talking to what would otherwise be just a college kid waiting to see his girlfriend and other friends home for the summer - just like every other 21-year-old is doing on a Saturday night in the Park Cities.
I had an allotment of questions that was counting down quickly, and we both knew it.
Back upstairs, could it truly be that the Dodger fans didn't recognize him? Maybe they were thrown off by a player with no tattoos, no earrings, no trademark facial hair, and apparently no ego. At least not yet.
Attention from two baseball greats sets the stage
Kershaw caught Dodger fans' imaginations from the moment he was drafted seventh overall out of HPHS in the 2006 Major League Draft. They watched from afar as he progressed from the Gulf Coast League, where he struck out 21 batters in 11 innings in his only two starts, to the Great Lakes Loons of the Single-A Midwest League up to Double-A Jacksonville, Fla.
"The die-hards were excited about him from the start," said Dylan Hernandez, the Dodgers' beat writer for the Los Angeles Times. "As he was coming up to Double-A, we were hearing about him from the writers and the scouts that he was pretty special. Then in spring training of 2008 he pitched great right away. Everyone noticed then."
Joe Torre, only weeks into his new manager's role in LA, started the buzz with one of his first public comments about Kershaw. Cautioned by writers that Kershaw only only had two pitches, Torre responded:
"That's all Koufax had, too, starting out." The veteran manager's comment may have been a slip, but it marked the first turning point in Kershaw's nascent career in the majors. And ever since, Dodgers fans haven't allowed the left-hander to escape the comparison to Sandy Koufax, their beloved left-hander and one of the club's all-time greats.
Days later came another turning point. Drawing accolades from Vin Scully, the long-time Dodgers broadcaster who's seen plenty of pitching booms and busts, is one thing. Throwing a curve ball that becomes a YouTube.com favorite for the next month is another.
In a spring training start against Boston, Kershaw sent a curve ball that started out at batter Sean Casey's head and dropped into the strike zone.
"Oh, what a curve ball. Holy mackeral. He just broke off Public Enemy No. 1. Look at this thing . . . it's up there . . . it's right there, and Casey is history."
"I had wanted to write something Dodger-related that people beyond baseball would want to read, something a basketball fan might come across in the headlines and stop to read it," Hernandez said. "Kershaw was that story."
Later in the season, Jacksonville realigned its pitching rotation to make Kershaw available for LA, and his major-league stage was finally set.
An up-and-down debut in the bigs
LA purchased his minor-league contract on May 24, 2008, and he made his debut on May 25 against St. Louis. He pitched six innings, allowed two runs and had seven strikeouts but didn't get a decision in a game LA won 4-3 in 10 innings. From the date of his debut, Kershaw was the youngest player in the majors for a full year. He's now second by seven months to Fernando Martinez of the New York Mets.
Stamina and a tendency to overthrow the ball hampered his first few starts. He was optioned back to Jacksonville five weeks later on July 2.
But back in Double-A, in 18 innings (two starts and a seven-inning relief appearance) he allowed only two earned runs, lowering his ERA to 1.91.
If that was his final stay in the minors, he ended it having racked up 264 strikeouts in just over 202 minor-league innings.
It took a while - nine starts spanning two call-ups to LA - to get that first win in the bigs. It came on July 27 against Washington, where he pitched six-plus shutout innings while allowing four hits, a walk, and striking out five.
Still that humble, likeable fellow
LA doesn't follow its Dodgers like a second religion the way Red Sox fans in Boston do. But they're praying that Kershaw's humbleness and quiet savvy can return them to the National League Championship Series the Dodgers lost last year.
Watch Kershaw's starts on SportsCenter highlights, and you'll usually see him sporting a three-day beard. Yet the bright lights and big city haven't changed Kershaw from his Highland Park days when he couldn't grow stubble.
When LA called him up the second time last year, he stayed in a hotel for the remainder of the season. No fancy houses for this guy despite a $2.3 million signing bonus out of high school. This season he's living in an apartment in downtown LA.
"I pretty much stay at home and go to the park," he said of his daily life. "Nothing special."
He's bought a house for the off-season back in the Park Cities, but don't expect much there either. In an interview for an Los Angeles Times blog, he admitted the house was pretty much couch-TV-bed for now.
"Going slow," he called it.
What, no Uptown condo with a view?
He doesn't need much space, it seems, not even for the few trophies, awards and momentos he's collected.
"The first start, I have that ball in a closet somewhere," he told The Times' blog. "But the first win and the first hit, they're somewhere at mom's house."
How many major league players still talk about mom in an interview these days?
Always close to home
Kershaw wasn't scheduled to pitch in this weekend's series. Normally, that would be a bummer for a youngster coming home for the first time as a pro player. But he's still just a college-aged kid, remember?
"It gives me more time to spend with my friends and family," said Kershaw, who stayed at his house during the weekend rather than the team hotel next to the ballpark. He also found time Saturday morning to take a tour of the new Cowboys Stadium.
Besides, he had already pitched twice at the Rangers Ballpark, throwing a few innings without earning a decision in HP games against Garland Naaman Forest and Southlake Carroll in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
His high school days seem like a blink of an eye to HP fans, yet it's forever ago for Kershaw.
"I have all sorts of great memories from high school," who threw a perfect game with 15 strikeouts in a playoff game against Justin Northwest in one of his final pitching apperances for the Scots. "But nothing stands out there compared to this. It's awesome, and it's so cool to be here. It's a dream come true for me."
Yet comig home offers him an escape as well as an anchor from a life he hasn't fully adjusted to yet.
"When I come home, nothing changes. My girl friend from high school is here, and I still see my best friends when I come back. Home is still the same for me."
Rush to the majors still questioned
Kershaw fought through some difficult times last year, struggling with his control and a habit of walking leadoff batters. That prompted questions as to whether the Dodgers rushed him into the majors too fast.
Even now, a year later, some baseball people think making him a regular starter at his early age is a mistake. Torre defends Kershaw to the extent that by recovering from those rookie mistakes and not losing his edge, mentally or physically, he's improving.
In his best outing of the season last month he proved both theories - that he's got the arm and the stuff to counter any questions of his majors-readiness, but he can still pitch himself into corners he's not seasoned enough to get out of from a team vantage point.
In a May 17 game at Florida, Kershaw took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in just his 29th start in the majors. He had struck out nine before yielding a leadoff double to Florida's Cody Ross. His enemy had become the clock, not the opponent in the best and longest outing of his young career.
The Dodgers' four-run eighth was a long one, and Torre suspected Kershaw's extended time in the dugout was more a factor in him leaving a fastball up for Ross than his career-high 112 pitches.
"Any time it's a long inning, it's been hard for me to get loose," Kershaw said. "I just left a pitch up and he did what he's supposed to do."
Torre and Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt keep close tabs on Kershaw's workload. He hasn't pitched into the seventh inning since that May 17 game at Florida, and hasn't made it to the eighth this season. He averages 99 pitches per outing. He opened the season throwing 61 percent of his pitches for strikes in four April starts, and now has a 59-percent strike average (758 of 1,281) in 13 starts.
"The fact that LA is winning allows the team to escape some of that criticism," Hernandez said of the he-was-rushed critics. "I think they'd admit that it's not ideal to have a 21-year-old as a starter. He earned his spot, but they're being very mindful of his arm."
Torre, not one to shower undeserved praise just to prop a player up, nonetheless has nothing but positives to say about Kershaw.
"I've never seen anybody with his polish at his age," Torre said before Saturday's game. "He's still developing, and like a lot of 21-year-olds, he can't rush it. It's not happening as quick as he'd like, but he'll get better. It's a process. But he has no hesitancy to him."
Kershaw got to glean plenty of tips from in-game conversations with former All-Star pitcher and since-retired Greg Maddux last season.
Honeycutt, a former Ranger, says much of Kershaw's improvement will be subtle things. He's been adamant that Kershaw stay centered on the rubber and not cheat over toward the third-base side. Developing a reliable third pitch after his fastball and curveball remain his top priorities. Beyond that, learning the opposing hitters and their tendencies can only come with time.
Which is what Kershaw has plenty of. He celebrated his 21st birthday on March 19 with a one-hitter during spring training, retiring the first nine Colorado batters he faced and facing the minimum 15 batters over five scoreless innings. He also hit a solo home run.
"We always keep in mind who he is, and keep his age in mind," Torre said.
Kershaw finishes a one-year contract with LA this season, but the club is almost sure to extend it prior to next season. He's become a fan favorite and shows nothing but lofty potential to Torre and the club.
Josh Rawitch, the Dodgers' public relations director, said fans are taken by how humble Kershaw is, and position him as the leader of what has become a successful youth movement in LA. He's also among the players' favorites and blends in well with the rest of the Dodgers' clubhouse.
Watching him Saturday, he was the first one to high-five players returning to the dugout from defensive innings three times. He was the only player to congratulate LA centerfielder Matt Kemp after a diving catch robbed a hit from the Rangers' Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
"I've played with these guys for a year now, so I'm more comfortable in the clubhouse," Kershaw said. "They supported me a bunch last year, so I want to support them too. The high-fiving is just part of being on a team."
In one of those early interviews, Kershaw's humility came through in an unexpected, wonderfully naive way. Asked by a writer about his first hit in the majors, Kershaw talks about how cool it was to have St. Louis' Albert Pujols get the first hit off of him.
The writer's question referred to Kershaw's hitting, not an opponents'. But you have to like a kid's mindset who thinks about the hit he gave up first, rather than his own.
The personality HP folks grew to appreciate years ago is catching on in LA, too, even if its fans don't always recognize him in a crowd yet.