May 2011

One by one, the children came.

They came from ramshackle villages and tarp-covered homes, their gaunt frames running barefoot through unkempt fields of grass to a skinny dirt road on the outskirts of town. Temporarily leaving behind their hardscrabble reality of hunger, disease and death, they lined both sides of the path to marvel at a new sight.

 
Clayton and Ellen Kershaw with local children on their recent trip to Zambia

They came to see the odd ritual of the musungu.

The white man had arrived from America just a few days earlier. He was tall and powerful—a wellnourished Texan towering over them at 6 feet 3 inches and 215 pounds. On his right hand, he wore an oversized leather glove of some kind. In his left hand, he held a small, white sphere with red stitching, which he tossed to another musungu about 30 yards away. Back and forth, back and forth. Gawking eyes followed every throw.

Before long, the big foreigner stooped over and gave a mitt to one of the young onlookers. Bright smiles spread across every face. And there, under the hot African sun, Clayton Kershaw played a simple game of catch with some young Zambians—for nearly three hours.

For Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top starting pitcher, that afternoon was one of many highlights during a short-term mission trip he and his wife, Ellen, took last winter to the small, south-central African nation.

“[The children] were absolutely enamored with it,” said Ellen, who has made five such trips. “We were talking about it later: If you did that with most kids in America for even 30 minutes, they would’ve gotten bored.”

Ten time zones—and an indescribable difference in culture—away in Los Angeles, a similar fascination has been brewing about Kershaw. The hype surrounding this extraordinarily gifted athlete has been growing like a tribal legend ever since his high school days when he was proclaimed the best prep prospect in the nation. He is the kind of rare jewel that every major league team hunts for—a young, hard-throwing southpaw whose propensity for sending batters back to the bench is matched only by his makeup. And, if last year is any indication, he is on the cusp of super-stardom.

But here’s the changeup: Kershaw, a strong Christian, is a fascinating dichotomy. He is both extraordinarily talented and disarmingly modest. Rarely is this refreshing mix seen at baseball’s upper echelon—or in the entertainment capital of the world, for that matter. As he competes in the glow of Sunset Boulevard, he is prayerfully and humbly walking the straight and narrow road of Jesus Christ.

Said Kershaw, “You have to understand what this platform is for.”

Welcome to the intersection of athletic and spiritual greatness.

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Rick Honeycutt remembers “Fernandomania” well.

A former 21-year major league pitcher, Honeycutt arrived in Los Angeles in 1983, when the national craze over Dodgers’ ace Fernando Valenzuela was going strong. Two years earlier, Valenzuela—a pudgy, 20-year-old lefty with a quirky, look-to-the-sky delivery—had taken the majors by storm, winning his first eight starts of the 1981 season, earning the National League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards and leading the Dodgers to their first World Series title since 1965.

 
Clayton Kershaw #22
1

Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Born: March 19, 1988
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
Height/Weight: 6’3”/215 lbs.
Major League Debut: May 25, 2008
Bats/Throws: Left/Left

Los Angeles went wild for the out-of-nowhere sensation from Mexico, and fueled by Fernandomania, the Dodgers became the first major league team in history to draw three million fans in a season. Hispanic ticket sales to Dodgers games soared, and Valenzuela was forced to hold press conferences in each city on road trips because of the overwhelming media interest.

Thirty years later, while Kershawmania hasn’t quite reached that level, Honeycutt, now the Dodgers’ sixth-year pitching coach, sees parallels between the two.

“He’s creating an excitement where [fans] want to follow him,” Honeycutt said of Kershaw. “I was there when Fernando played. It’s getting to be kind of like that hype. The fans are putting their hopes on this guy to lead the team back to greatness and the World Series, either this year or in a short period of time.”

Far-fetched fantasies? Maybe not.

Consider this: In 2010, only his second full big league season, Kershaw held opponents to a .214 batting average (ranked fifthbest in baseball), registered 212 strikeouts (10th), and posted a 2.91 ERA (12th)—all at age 22.

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Laid-back Southern California has been atwitter about Kershaw since 2006, ever since the Dodgers drafted him out of Highland Park High School in Dallas with the seventh overall pick (three spots ahead of two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum) and gave him a $2.3 million signing bonus.

Kershaw’s accomplishments at Highland Park have become legendary. He was virtually unhittable as a senior with a 13-0 record, a 0.77 ERA and an astounding 139 strikeouts in 64 innings. In a regional playoff game that season, he threw a perfect game by striking out all 15 batters in a mercy-rule game. He ended his prep career as Gatorade’s 2006 National Baseball Player of the Year and Baseball America’s top-ranked prep star.

“Not many hits were made or even made contact,” said Jeff Hale, Highland Park’s FCA Huddle Coach. “He could bring it.”

Kershaw’s legend continued to grow in 2008 after he turned pro. During a spring training game against Boston, he struck out three-time All-Star Sean Casey on an 0-2 curveball that was so wicked, renowned Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully declared it “Public Enemy No. 1.”

After torching the minors, Kershaw debuted in L.A. on May 25, 2008, at just 20 years and 65 days old, becoming the youngest player in the majors that year and the fourth-youngest starting pitcher in Dodgers history. In 2009, his first full big league season, he went 8-8 with a 2.79 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 31 games and made two playoff starts, including Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against Philadelphia.

“At that time of year, he was our best pitcher and the guy you wanted to take the mound,” Honeycutt said. “That says a lot.”

Last year, though, fans and staff felt like something special was brewing. In 32 starts for what was considered an offensively challenged team, Kershaw went 13-10 and registered more strikeouts than any other left-hander in Dodgers history not named Valenzuela or Koufax.

Last September, newly-named Dodgers manager Don Mattingly appointed Kershaw as his 2011 opening day starter, making him, at age 23, the franchise’s youngest pitcher in that coveted role since Valenzuela in 1983.

Just like that, Kershaw was thrust into the long, iconic shadows of names like Drysdale and Hershiser.

“He realizes there’s more to life than baseball. With Clayton, he’s always had a greater perspective.”
                                                        – Ellen Kershaw

Said Honeycutt, “What he’s accomplished at such an early age, very few guys have been able to do that.”

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As Tinseltown tingles with anticipation over this once-in-ageneration talent, Kershaw isn’t buying into his own hype. He avoids attention and downplays any comparisons to the 128-yearold franchise’s immortals.

“I don’t really think about it like that,” he said. “They’re all great pitchers—Hall of Fame-type pitchers—but I’ve got a really long way to go.”

There is, in fact, nothing remotely Hollywood about Kershaw. He could be the guy pumping gas next to you, and you’d never know it.

“He’s the most humble person you’ll ever meet,” Ellen said. “If you see him in a restaurant, he’ll do everything he can to avoid [his status as a major leaguer] coming up. It’s actually pretty funny.”

Kershaw’s inconspicuous nature isn’t just reticence or shyness. It’s humility that stems from a deep-rooted faith in Jesus Christ.

He grew up in Dallas, the big, brass buckle of America’s Bible Belt where churches are as abundant as barbecue joints, and, Kershaw says, many people “assume Christianity is the only way.” So, he figured he was a Christian, too.

Kershaw, an only child, attended Highland Park United Methodist Church, where he was confirmed in sixth grade. Near the end of high school, his general spiritual knowledge matured into a saving faith in Christ—a decision, which was aided by FCA. He started attending his high school’s Huddle as a freshman and was actively involved all four years.

“In high school, everybody called themselves Christians, but FCA brought it to the forefront,” Kershaw said. “It really helped me grow and showed me that it’s a lifestyle. Jesus is your Savior, and you live for Him. Everything you do is for Him, and athletics are a part of that.”

 
Kershaw with Highland Park FCA Huddle members

Even now, he and Ellen return to Highland Park each offseason to speak to Hale’s FCA Huddle.

“Clayton is very humble,” Hale said. “You’d just never guess he’s a major league pitcher the way he carries and presents himself. He’s just one of the guys.”

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Kershaw met Ellen when they were both freshman at Highland Park. Despite barely knowing each other, he asked her to go steady one day in the hallway before lunch. Last December, they got married.

“Clayton and I were definitely awkward freshmen at that age,” Ellen recalled, laughing. “Neither of us had ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend before, and I’m sure we didn’t speak for the first year of our relationship except at our lockers and in large groups at lunch. But my family took him in as one of its own. It was kind of a sweet way for us to start off.”

As Kershaw was building a career on the field, Ellen was developing a passion for mission work in Africa. She took her first trip to Zambia after her freshman year at Texas A&M and has returned every year since. Last December, when the opportunity arose for them to make a trip together during the offseason, the Kershaws jumped at the chance.

Partnering with Arise Africa, a charitable organization started by Alissa Hollimon, one of Ellen’s college friends, the Kershaws and a small group of other Christians spent a week in the capital city of Lusaka and its remote surrounding areas to care for some of the country’s massive orphan population.

Ellen tried to prepare her husband for the culture shock of Zambia, but how could she explain a place where homes are spaces underneath battered plastic sheets and people subsist on less than a dollar per day? How could she describe villages where two shirts are a luxury, running water doesn’t exist and raw sewage fills the streets? How could she explain a country where 13.5 percent of all adults carry HIV or AIDS—the sixth-worst rate worldwide—and roughly half the population is age 16 or under because of the disease’s staggering death toll?

“The AIDS/HIV virus has pretty much knocked out an entire generation,” Kershaw said. “It’s kids raising kids or grandparents raising kids. It presents an overwhelming task because you can’t get to every kid.”

But they tried. The Arise Africa group constructed a new, four-room building for the Greenhill School and hosted a Bible camp for approximately 200 children at Destiny School. They also delivered 2,000 pounds of supplies to both schools, which double as orphanages, and cared for various impoverished children and families. Kershaw also got to meet 20 young orphan girls that Ellen has spiritually mentored over the years.

“God really uses Ellen,” he said. “She’s so passionate about it.”

While there, Kershaw brought baseball to Zambia. Hollimon had a local welder create a makeshift pitching backstop for him, and he also went running with some fellow American travelers to stay in baseball shape.

But training never trumped servanthood. In fact, Kershaw was so moved by the trip that he launched “Kershaw’s Challenge” (kershawschallenge.com), an Arise Africa fundraiser to build another orphanage in Zambia, and he and Ellen are already praying about returning after this season.

“He has a heart of gold,” Hollimon said. “He jumped right in with whatever we were doing, and I think he liked seeing Ellen in her element.”

 
“Jesus is your Savior, and you live for Him. Everything you do is for Him, and athletics are a part of that.”   – Clayton Kershaw
This, more than his impressive four-pitch repertoire and bulldog mentality on the mound, is what makes Kershaw unique among elite major leaguers. Few players sacrifice precious offseason time and put their multimillion-dollar arms to work with paintbrushes, hammers and a compassionate touch in the forgotten corners of the world.

“It comes back to faith,” Ellen said. “He realizes there’s more to life than baseball. With Clayton, he’s always had a greater perspective. He’s using all the opportunities he has for good and not to glorify himself.”

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Kershaw stands on the precipice of greatness.

It’s an enviable position, but one that comes with the burden of vast expectations. Fair or not, Dodgers fans will probably be disappointed by anything less than a total breakout season for Kershaw and a deep postseason run. The team’s last trip to the World Series was in 1988 when Tommy Lasorda’s inspiration, Hershiser’s grit and Kirk Gibson’s gimpy knee brought warm fuzzies to SoCal. And the search for a long-term staff ace in Chavez Ravine has been going on, really, since Hershiser left in 1994.

No pressure.

Honeycutt, for one, believes Kershaw is ready to assume the mantle. He loves his prodigy’s preternatural composure on the mound, not to mention the slider and changeup Kershaw recently added to compliment his devastating hook and heater.

“He wants to be the best,” Honeycutt said. “He doesn’t shy away from it. Even at an early age, he doesn’t mind a challenge. The sky’s the limit. He has a chance to be one of the best around.”

Most importantly, Kershaw understands who gets the credit.

“It’s for His glory—to make people aware that it’s not something where I was just lucky to be able to throw a baseball,” he said. “In Matthew, it says God gives everyone at least one talent. One guy hides his talent and gives it back, and God says, ‘Cursed are you.’ He doesn’t want us to hide our talents. He wants us to put them in the spotlight and glorify Him. That’s a pretty cool thing.”

Now playing in Hollywood: “The Clayton Kershaw Story.” Grab a seat and settle in. This should be good.

BRINGING IT HOME

Clayton Kershaw is at the center of sports celebrity. Not only is he the No. 1 starter in a major league pitching rotation, he’s also a professional athlete living in a very high-profile and status-minded city.

Thankfully, Kershaw knows enough about what is true to keep from being devoured by the lies of fame.

Truth is an interesting concept. And, when it comes to what is real, we are fed many different opinions. The American Dream tells us success and money will bring happiness. The media tells us status will be fulfilling. And human nature speaks to us that pursuing personal gain of any sort is the best way to live.

Unfortunately, anyone who has bought into those theories has found out the hard way that they are all untrue. No matter how much we achieve, earn or succeed, we will never find real fulfillment until it comes from a stable source that cannot be stripped away by time or circumstance.

But does such a source exist? It certainly does. And it is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Think about it. Money is easily spent or lost, and fame is relentlessly fleeting. Even the American Dream is exhausting, as it begs us to always keep up with the family next door. Every source of satisfaction we associate with this world is temporary.

But that’s where Christ differentiates from the pack.

Through Jesus Christ alone, we find a Savior who loved us enough to die on a cross to pay for our sins and bridge the gap between us and God. Because our sins created a chasm of punishment that separated us from our Creator, God, in His love and mercy, provided a way for us to return to Him by sending Jesus to pay our penalties for us.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not. Unlike the empty promises of the world, this is one offer that will not disappoint. All we need to do in order to receive this gift of grace is believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and turn our lives over to Him as Lord. Then, we can start living and walking in His love and forgiveness by engaging with Him on the personal level He desires.

What about you? Do you desire true fulfillment apart from the hollow promises of the world? If so, turn to Jesus Christ and invite Him to be the Lord and Savior of your life. Call out to Him in prayer, confess your sins to Him, and begin living in a personal relationship with Him. Not sure how to start? Visit morethanwinning.org or call FCA’s National Support Center at 1-800-289-0909.

Choosing Christ will be one decision you never regret.

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.

Courtesy of Jon SooHoo/LA Dodgers; Jeff Hale; Ellen Kershaw; Juan Ocampo