Clayton Kershaw and Life’s Failures

You all know who Clayton Kershaw is. The man has three Cy Young awards, an MVP, eight All-Star games, and even a Gold Glove. He will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, likely garnering more than 95% of the vote. His career earnings total right around $200 million, with more to come. I assume that the vast majority of baseball fans, if asked, would say they are jealous of the all-time great. Yet, I feel no envy for Kershaw. In fact, at the moment I’d imagine he wishes to be someone but himself.

The date is Wednesday, October 9, 2019. The Los Angeles Dodgers are playing the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS. Walker Buehler has thrown an excellent 6.2 innings, striking out 7 while allowing just 1 run on 4 hits and 3 walks. He exits with runners on first and second, but with 2 outs and a 3-1 lead. Kershaw is summoned into the game to face left-handed hitting Adam Eaton, the potential go-ahead run.

Now let me pause to get personal. I am a person whose very early life was defined largely by success. Through the age of 14 I was atop my class academically, socially one of the more important figures in my school, among the leading hitters on my baseball teams, and the dominant player in middle-school quiz bowl. At this time, I was at the absolute peak of my powers. I was Kershaw, racking up top honors the way he did ERA titles, and breezing through life as he did a lineup.

Kershaw starts to run in from the bullpen to face Eaton in this all important Game 5. The friends I’m watching the game with forecast doom for the Dodgers. Throughout his illustrious career, Kershaw has been merely average in the postseason, to the tune of a 4.33 ERA in 158 innings before this night. His success (or lack thereof, rather) he become the butt of many jokes. A few of them are cracked now. A knot forms in my stomach.

Freshman year of high school was a bit of a culture shock to me. The class size quadrupled, the social scene became more treacherous, and the teachers were harder. I managed to hold my own that year, transitioning quickly enough to maintain some of the life I had had in years past. It took considerably for effort than it once had, but I was essentially the former version of myself.

The commercial break is over, and Kershaw stands on the mound. His first pitch to Eaton is a fastball fouled nearly straight back. One of my friends remarks that with just a slight adjustment, that ball is hit very hard. I grow more nervous. The second pitch is a slider for a called strike. My mind is set a bit at ease by this, but not too much. With bated breath, I watch as Eaton swings through the third pitch, another slider, to end the inning. He has done it. A heroic moment for Kershaw. Alas, things would change quickly.

It was in sophomore year that things started to unravel for me. Grades dropped, a brief foray into the murkier areas of socializing went horribly wrong, and pain ensued. This continued for much of junior year as well. Several years later, I would be told that it was likely at the time I was suffering from a form of depression. But knowing why it had happened offered little comfort from the hurt I had experienced.

To start the top of the 8th inning, Kershaw is left in the game. He throws to the first batter he faces an 89mph four-seam fastball several inches below the strike zone. The batter crushes it high into the Los Angeles night, with it landing over the left field wall for a homerun. It just so happened that the batter was Anthony Rendon, a likely MVP finalist, and owner of a 158 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers this season. Kershaw threw a pretty good pitch, and it turned into a homerun. He knows the context that created his failure, but I doubt it lessens the blow.

Senior year was a last chance at a redemption arc for me. As you can probably guess, as you know what happened next with Kershaw, I failed. My high school years included a large amount of near misses. I finished barely outside of the top ten in my class, missed my goal on the SAT by ten points, was twice the last person cut from the baseball team, came in second at regionals in quiz bowl by one question, and, most painfully of all, had been waitlisted at the college I expected to attend. When the four years came to a close, I was left licking my wounds, wondering what I could have done differently.

Back to Kershaw. I won’t beat around the bush. The next batter was Juan Soto, one of baseball’s most talented hitters. He launched a long homerun off of the first Kershaw pitch he saw. The game was tied.

Even before the ball landed I was up and leaving the room. I couldn’t bear to watch any longer. Clayton Kershaw was a generational pitcher. My player ranking methodology has him as the 15th greatest pitcher of all-time, and the 51st player overall. I personally believe those both underrate him. But right now he looked anything but himself. It was all I could do to hold back tears.

Eventually, things improved for me. In currently my second year of college, I am doing much better. I have wonderful friends, a loving family, and a girlfriend who means the world to me. I’ve gotten help for the issues that plagued my mind in years past, and continue to improve. Still, I have not forgotten my high school failures, or the pain they caused.

Kershaw will be fine. He too has, presumably, an excellent support system in his family and teammates. But he hasn’t shaken the narrative of his failures in the postseason, nor is it likely that he ever will. He will feel better, maybe even today he does. The memory and feelings of pain, though, will probably never escape his mind. Hopefully, he will have a moment next season to replace the ones from last night. But for now, he’s left sitting in the dugout like this:

It’s impossible for me to not empathize with him.

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