Every fifth day — the mentality that drove Clayton Kershaw to greatness: Excerpt

Every fifth day — the mentality that drove Clayton Kershaw to greatness: Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from “The Last Of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw and the Burden of Greatness.” Copyright @2024 by Andy McCullough and reprinted with permission from Hachette Books/Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved. Available now. 

The five-day cycle would begin again soon, and so Clayton Kershaw tried to diagram how it had defined his existence for the past twenty years. He pressed his fingertips into his kitchen table. The rewards of the cycle surrounded him. The fireplace crackled in the living room. Above it hung a row of stockings, one for each of his four children. A pile of Amazon Prime packages lay by the front door. That night, Santa Claus would ride on the back of a fire truck and greet the families of Highland Park, the posh Dallas neighborhood Kershaw had called home for most of his life. Christmas was two weeks away.

In the winter of 2022, when he invited me to his home, Kershaw was only two months removed from standing at a crossroads. He had faced this juncture before, and he would face it again. He had chosen to keep playing, which meant he had chosen once again to divide his life into five-day schedules. This was the standard for pitchers in Major League Baseball. For four days, they prepare. On the fifth day, they perform. This cycle shaped Kershaw and enriched him and tormented him.

For more than fifteen years, the fate of the Los Angeles Dodgers — one of baseball’s glitziest, most prestigious franchises, a financial behemoth worth approximately $4 billion, during that stretch the winners of eleven division titles, three National League pennants, and the 2020 World Series — had revolved around Clayton Kershaw’s fifth day. He was the best left-handed pitcher of his generation, the spiritual heir to Sandy Koufax. On his way to becoming a 10-time All Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, and the first pitcher to win the National League MVP award since Bob Gibson, Kershaw reveled in the four days of training, the camaraderie of teammates, the trappings of athletic stardom. As he approached his thirty-fifth birthday, there were times he thought he could stay in this cycle forever. But then he remembered how the last day, when he had to pitch, made him feel.

“It’s just the fifth day that is — it’s a lot,” Kershaw said. “The stress. The preparation. The pain. All that stuff, it takes a toll.”

For once, his body did not ache. During the summer of 2022, he dealt with persistent back trouble. Discomfort accompanied most pitches. A sense of apprehension greeted him most mornings: Is my back going to hurt today? With rest and rehabilitation, the pain faded. He felt better than the previous winter. After an elbow injury had sidelined him for the 2021 postseason, Kershaw worried he would need the first surgery of his life. He avoided going under the knife, but still felt persistent reminders of his sudden frailty. He could not shampoo his hair or write his name. When he picked up a baseball to throw again, his elbow barked for a month. “But I kept throwing,” he said. “And finally it got better.”

And so he did what he had done every spring since the final days of his boyhood. He reported to spring training with the Dodgers. Kershaw had debuted at Dodger Stadium two months after his twentieth birthday. He soon set the industry’s standard. He starred like few others before him. He suffered for his achievements. “He’s gotten some injuries over the years, where you’re always like, ‘This might be the one,’” former teammate Zack Greinke said. “And then it seems to never be the end of it.” In recent years Kershaw had damaged the cartilage of his hip, torn a lat muscle, frayed tendons near his elbow, and herniated a disc in his back. He had recovered from each of these without surgery, but the toll was mounting. Some of his ailments represented the natural result of a profession built around the unnatural act of repeatedly throwing a spherical object overhand. Some of it resulted from his unconventional delivery, the heavy thudding of his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame into the earth, the violent trajectory of his left arm behind it. “It’s like a car crash every time he throws,” another former teammate said. And some of it stemmed from Kershaw’s unique combination of precociousness and effectiveness. He was so good, so young, and depended upon so much, there was bound to be a bill.

By the end of 2015, when he was 27 and had already won three Cy Youngs, he had accumulated more than 1,600 innings — a total surpassed by only two other pitchers at that age during the past 35 years. CC Sabathia never made an All-Star team after 32. Félix Hernández never threw another pitch in the majors after 33. In 2022, at 34, Kershaw started the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. The honor served as a valediction as Kershaw approached the sunset, but it was not without merit. He finished the season with a 2.28 earned-run average, better than all but five other pitchers. Even in decline, few could touch him. His career 2.48 earned-run average was the lowest of any starting pitcher since the sport livened its baseball in 1920: better than Koufax, better than Pedro Martínez, better than Greg Maddux, better than all who came before or after.

The 2022 season had ended earlier than expected. The 111-win Dodgers had fallen to the upstart San Diego Padres. Kershaw lost his only postseason start. A few years earlier, his outing would have produced howls about his inability to perform in the postseason. But Kershaw had tempered that narrative when he won two games for the victorious Dodgers in the 2020 World Series. The championship ended a seven-year crucible of October agony and checked the final box of his Baseball Hall of Fame résumé. It also made others wonder, as the injuries accumulated and his children grew older and the stress of the five-day cycle compounded, about the end. “At this point,” said A.J. Ellis, Kershaw’s former catcher and one of his closest friends, “it’s like, what keeps driving him?”

Clayton Kershaw finally won the World Series in 2020. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Two months before another spring training, Kershaw was thinking less about why he kept going, and more about why he might stop. His kids. His back or his shoulder or his hip. Or, he admitted, he might retire for a more primal reason. The burden of greatness, the standard he alone set for himself, the strain it took to be Clayton Kershaw — all of it was growing tougher and tougher to tolerate. He could only give his all so many times.

“That’s ultimately what will drive you to stop, when it becomes too much to get ready for that day, every day,” Kershaw said. “I probably put more stress on it than most.”

One day in the summer of 2013, a movie star visited the Dodgers clubhouse. This was not unique for Hollywood’s home team, save for two things: The star showed up late. And the star showed up on a day when Clayton Kershaw was pitching.

When the man entered the room, the group erupted. The players hollered catchphrases immortalized on the silver screen. Kershaw stewed at his locker, in full uniform, his No. 22 spread across his back. He slipped into a jacket, which he wore before every start, with “that zipper that zips all the way to the top no matter if it’s April or July in f—ing Miami,” one former teammate said.

Kershaw stood up. In his left hand, as he usually did, he held a baseball. His right hand carried his black Wilson 2000A CK22 glove, the same glove he had worn since his rookie season. He was a product of routine and a captive of routine. He believed his devotion to habit girded him through the 162-game season. Others believed it left him vulnerable to failure in the moments of the highest pressure. In his early years, before the game humbled him and sent him searching for answers, he would not deviate from his schedule, diagrammed down to the minute. The routine called for him to walk into the Dodgers dugout at 6:20 p.m. He did not have a second to spare, even for Hollywood royalty.

“Clayton!” the actor shouted, holding up a hand as Kershaw stomped past. “My man!” Kershaw would not meet his eye. He saved his death stare for later, when he saw the team official who set up the visit. He stormed out. He left Samuel L. Jackson hanging.

It was worse before he became a father.

In the years before Cali Ann Kershaw was born, in January of 2015, her father had built a reputation for dominating opponents during games and spooking teammates before them. For the four days between starts, Kershaw was a dedicated worker and a delightful presence. On sunny days, he sported outdated flip-down sunglasses in the dugout. He played cards on the team plane and unleashed righteous flatulence. While sauntering through the cafeteria one afternoon, he swiped a chicken finger off a teammate’s child’s plate. He projected wholesome goofiness. “He’s the only guy I ever played with,” said former teammate Dan Haren, “who I would let date my wife.”

The fifth day was different.

It started before he arrived at the ballpark. “You wake up in a mood where you don’t want to talk,” Kershaw said. He was silent but not still, his legs restless, his mind racing, his heart thumping. He considered vomiting. He was not exactly angry or nervous, although it sometimes looked that way. He just felt consumed by the task that awaited him, when he needed to climb atop the pitcher’s mound, alone, and be Clayton Kershaw. He loathed interactions, even with his wife, Ellen. “It’s like, I don’t even want to waste the breath,” Kershaw said. “I couldn’t even get the words out.”

Before his final season in high school, Kershaw received tutoring from a local pitching guru named Skip Johnson. Johnson barely charged Kershaw for the lessons. Kershaw never forgot that kindness. Years later, the University of Oklahoma hired Johnson as its baseball coach. When he got the job, Johnson texted Kershaw. It took two messages before Kershaw responded. Worried about an emergency, Kershaw sounded thrilled when Johnson shared the news. Johnson asked for a favor. The athletic department was putting together a press release. Could Kershaw say something nice about him? “Skip, I can’t give you a quote,” Kershaw said. “I’m pitching tonight.”

To ease into those fifth days, after Ellen moved to Los Angeles following their wedding in December 2010, the couple watched television. Clayton consumed episodes of CSI before starts. Ellen learned not to bother him. The edict passed through his inner circle. He rarely returned calls. He ignored texts. His friends used separate group chats on the fifth day. After Cali was born—and followed by sons Charley, Cooper, and Chance—Kershaw stowed his morning misanthropy. Instead of watching Grissom and Willows solve crimes, he spent the hours with “the kiddos,” as he called them. The children used him as a bearded jungle gym. “He, at all times, has one of the kids in his lap, wrestling him, hugging him,” Ellen said.

After Kershaw became a parent, the transformation took place as he drove to work. Upon arrival, he slipped into his uniform, spikes and all. “That’s not normal,” former teammate Tony Watson said. Several hours before one game, one of A.J. Ellis’s minor-league managers visited the clubhouse. The man made a request. “My son,” the manager said, “is the biggest Clayton Kershaw fan. Is there any way he can sign a baseball for him?” Ellis knew the proposition was dicey. But he figured it worth the risk. Kershaw did not say a word. He scribbled his name, glaring at Ellis the entire time.

Kershaw conserved syllables but made noise. He paced the clubhouse, bouncing a baseball against the walls. He flipped curveballs, burning off energy, searching for the right feel. In his early years, veterans like catcher Brad Ausmus tried to snatch the ball and loosen Kershaw up. It never worked. As time passed and Kershaw’s stature grew, the pranks ceased. “You felt like the season was on the line every time he pitched,” former teammate Skip Schumaker said. The environment alternated between edgy and festive. Tension mingled with the excitement of teaming with the best pitcher in the world. Former Dodgers reliever J. P. Howell called Kershaw “Off Day,” because no one else was necessary when he started. Another reliever refused to wear cleats to the bullpen when Kershaw pitched. Yet almost all dared not goof off around him. The players learned to peek around corners and keep their ears open. If they heard the tell-tale pock-pock-pock, they turned around. If they crossed his path, they averted their eyes. Some teammates cracked jokes about not wanting to purloin his oxygen. Everyone understood to whom the precious resource belonged. “When he walked in, his demeanor, his attitude it was like, ’S—, I can’t mess around today,’” former Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said.

Kershaw’s schedule was hard-wired into him and did not permit distractions. He ate a turkey sandwich before every start, the same meal dating back to high school. In the majors, he prepared his own at the ballpark: mustard and cheese were necessities, lettuce and onions preferable, mayonnaise forbidden. When he settled into the clubhouse cafeteria, seats emptied and conversation cooled. “You have to sit there, and you’re like, ‘You just sucked all the energy out of the room because of your psychosis over having to pitch in a couple hours,’” Ellis said.

After Kershaw ate, he repaired to the training room. An unoccupied table awaited him. On his first day as a Dodger, Chase Utley hopped onto the table. Utley commanded respect around the sport. Even so, Dodgers massage therapist Yosuke Nakajima warned him that he needed to move. “He’s going to be here in about three minutes,” Nakajima explained. “I suggest you get up.” Nakajima, who had spent more than twenty years with the Dodgers as a massage therapist and was known to all as “Possum,” served as Kershaw’s gatekeeper. Jansen often lounged on the table before Kershaw appeared. “That’s Kershaw’s table!” Nakajima would say. “Get up!” The staffers prepped the space for him. Kershaw required a Red Bull and a protein bar. Late during his time in Los Angeles, third baseman Justin Turner barged into the room, famished after a workout. He spotted the protein bar sitting on the table and wolfed it down. Nakajima cried out: “What are you doing?” Turner begged Nakajima to find a replacement.

The training room was Kershaw’s sacrosanct space. Once he arrived, fully dressed, cleats on but unlaced, he controlled the real estate. The television always showed a baseball game. He demanded quiet. Kershaw once menaced utility player Kiké Hernández for blaring a Snapchat video.

A couple of years later, rookie Kyle Farmer sat beside Kershaw at his locker on his day.

“What’s up, Kersh?” Farmer said. Kershaw grunted, stood up, and left. Hernández walked over.

“Don’t talk to him,” Hernández warned.

“What?” Farmer said.

“He will rip your f—ing head off if you talk to him,” Hernández said.

Kershaw’s intensity on the days he pitched was well known. (Brandon Sloter / Image Of Sport / Getty Images)

Hernández, an impish fellow, did not do as he said. Over the years, he enjoyed trying to make Kershaw giggle on the fifth day. He could identify Kershaw’s defense mechanism. Kershaw would pull his mouth sideways to stifle a grin, and compulsively stretch his hamstrings, kicking his legs in the air. Laughter was not an option.

Few other Dodgers were so brazen, even those who knew him best. Ellis often checked the trainer’s room to see if Kershaw was napping. A slumbering Kershaw foretold misery for the opponents. A sleepless Kershaw meant Ellis might need to calm his ace during the game. The duo often discussed the need to “play with no regrets,” Ellis said. “Like, have you done everything you can mentally, spiritually, physically, emotionally to be ready to play this game?” On the four days before the fifth day, while Kershaw might have made for more pleasant company, he maintained a meticulous regimen of lifting, running, and scouting. He fortified his body so he could pitch as long as possible on that fifth day, and he sharpened his mind so he could dissect opponents as efficiently as possible on that fifth day.

The pregame study became apparent two hours before every start, when Kershaw convened with Ellis and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. Ellis and Honeycutt met before the meeting, to make sure they were in lockstep. Once the session began, the catcher and the coach listened as Kershaw diagrammed how he would attack each hitter, not just once or twice or three times but four times. Kershaw outlined how he would start the game and how he would finish it. He discouraged dissent, Ellis explained: “I might say, ‘You know, I think backdoor slider—’ ‘No!’ And I’d be like, ‘I think backdoor slider—’ ‘No! Did you hear what I said? No backdoor sliders!’” Kershaw required evidence to change the plan he had formulated. And even if the suggestion had merit, he might not take it. “I was stubborn,” Kershaw said. “I was stubborn.”

He was slow to trust. He kept a small circle of friends, the same group since high school. He kept others at a distance. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts considered Kershaw “the hardest player I’ve ever had to manage, as well as the fiercest competitor,” because he was so talented and so obstinate and so wary of change. Kershaw liked to do things the way he liked to do them. He was precise about everything. If Kershaw entered the dugout at 6:20 p.m., as he did the day he did not make Sam Jackson’s acquaintance, that meant Nakajima had cocooned his left arm in heat packs and slathered his lower back with Cramergesic ointment at 5:58 p.m., he had chugged the Red Bull at 6:10 p.m., and he was due to stretch in the outfield at 6:23 p.m. A coach came to stretch him at 6:36 p.m. He threw the same sequence of pitches in the bullpen. He spoke the same prayer: “Lord, whatever happens, be with me.” And then he treated the opposing hitters with the same disdain he treated conversation on the fifth day.

“He is as nice a guy as there is,” former teammate Jamey Wright said. “But on that fifth day, he is an animal.”

What almost all of his teammates did not understand, in part because Kershaw did not tell them, was the anxiety at the root of his relentlessness.

One day when he was a boy, a couple of years after his parents divorced, Clayton Kershaw asked his mother, Marianne, a question.

“Mom, we’re rich,” he told her. “But we’re not Highland Park rich, are we?”

Kershaw was a perceptive child. He resided in a different economic stratosphere than his schoolmates. The Kershaws, not wealthy by most standards, were renters in a district that sold forever homes. Highland Park represented a cocoon of privilege, a land of endless opportunity both academic and athletic — his childhood friends would become bankers and real estate developers and, in the case of Matthew Stafford, a Super Bowl–winning quarterback. After the divorce he saw less and less of his father, a musician named Christopher Kershaw. Marianne worked long hours as a graphic designer but still borrowed money to stay in Highland Park.

For a while, Clayton split time between his parents. His father was often late picking him up. When his mom was in charge of transportation, he begged her to take him hours before games, so he wouldn’t be tardy. The powerlessness affixed him with anxiety. He vowed that once he controlled his whereabouts, he would always be on time. Chris eventually remarried and faded from the picture. He resided on the periphery of his son’s life, not exactly absent, but far from present. Most of Marianne’s hours were consumed by work. Clayton often ate dinner at friends’ homes. He learned to fend for himself. “I don’t feel like Clayton has ever been able to feel a weightless joy, if that makes sense,” Ellen said. “He has been responsible for so long.”

In high school, Kershaw recalled, “money became an issue.” He picked up hints. “I never was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have enough shirts to wear,’” he said. “It was never to that point. But it was like, ‘Hey, don’t fill up your tank all the way today.’ I remember that. ‘Hey, I have ten dollars. Go get as much gas as you can.’” Most of his peers could forecast their futures across unlimited horizons. Kershaw worried his own path was circumscribed. His mother could barely afford to keep him in a good public school. Paying for college felt impossible. “When I got old enough to figure that out, I had that anxiety built in,” Kershaw said. “Just like, ‘Man, how are we going to do this?’”

The answer came in the form of his left arm. He had loved baseball since boyhood. In his adolescence, he realized he could no longer treat it like a game. That was when the cycle started. He hated going to school on the days he pitched. He couldn’t concentrate in class. He could not always control his pregame meal or enforce silence around him. But he still radiated intensity. “Just imagine a kid sitting on a bench, with a mean mug, staring off into a blank space,” said childhood friend and former Dodgers teammate Shawn Tolleson. Added youth coach Tommy Hernandez, “He was not a lot of smiles.”

To fortify himself, he looked inward and upward. He made the varsity baseball team as a chunky freshman with competitive zeal and a decent curveball. He underwent a growth spurt after his sophomore year. As college coaches and professional scouts flocked to his games, he connected his growing stature to a larger purpose.

A month before his 15th birthday, Kershaw visited a girl’s locker. Ellen Melson was friendly and bubbly, enamored with the drill team and the Backstreet Boys. When he asked her out, she said yes. The Melsons became a surrogate family, offering the warmth he had longed for in his own home. Clayton and Marianne joined them for holidays. Kershaw tagged along to Sunday service at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Through conversation with Ellen, he reshaped his faith. Kershaw had seen God as a distant presence. Ellen convinced him the Lord was near, that God’s grace was all around him.

He came to see his own growing athletic talent as a gift from above. His left arm was not just an appendage. It was an instrument. The ability thrust upon him, he decided, meant he owed something. A verse from Colossians 3:23 became his favorite: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

In time, Kershaw saw his faith deepen. He evolved from a good high school pitcher into a great one. When the Dodgers selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft, Kershaw felt his faith in the Lord had been rewarded. What the draft did not do was dismiss the responsibility he felt toward himself and his mother. One of the first things Kershaw did with the $2.3 million bonus was pay off Marianne’s debts.

Granted financial freedom for the first time, Kershaw did not relent. He learned the rhythms of the professional pitcher’s five-day cycle. The cycle sustained him as he announced himself as one of the game’s most promising young players. At every stage, there was a new motivation. Reaching the majors. Making millions in arbitration. Conquering opponents at the highest level. “There’s always some new reason to climb the mountaintop,” he said. By the time Kershaw had checked all those other boxes, by the time in 2014 he signed a record-setting $215 million extension that eased his financial worries for good, he was consumed by the one box he had not checked.

Few men are great enough to be defined by what they cannot do. For a long time, Clayton Kershaw was one of those.

Kershaw’s excellence built an aura of invincibility. “To be that good every year, for that long, it’s f—ing impossible,” former teammate Alex Wood said. Friend and foe used the same language to describe him. “To me, he’s the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time,” New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole said. Madison Bumgarner, a longtime foil with San Francisco, was less equivocal. “I think he’s the best pitcher to ever play,” Bumgarner said. Brandon Belt, another former Giant, called Kershaw “the best pitcher that I faced, every single year in the big leagues.” Greinke had pitched in twenty big-league seasons. “I think the highest of him of any pitcher I’ve played with,” Greinke said. Paul Goldschmidt, a longtime National League West rival, called Kershaw “my favorite guy in baseball. My favorite player. I hate to say that about a pitcher.”

Kershaw threw hard, but others threw harder. His curveball and his slider were sharp, but others were nastier. He was a big man, with an unconventional delivery, but others stood taller and moved in stranger ways. “You have to look at the man, how competitive he is,” former Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “It doesn’t work unless you have that inside you.” To Andrew Friedman, the architect of the Dodgers’ late-aughts juggernaut, Kershaw was “the greatest competitor I’ve ever seen firsthand.” Brandon McCarthy, a teammate for several seasons, wondered if Kershaw’s ability veered into the supernatural. “Is this just a gift?” McCarthy said.

Which made what happened to Kershaw in October so confounding. The Dodgers reached the postseason every year from 2013 to 2019. In each of those seasons, the Dodgers failed to win the title. On five occasions, Kershaw cost his team the final game. After a while, Kershaw’s postseason failures morphed from an odd coincidence into a nationwide fixation. He became the central figure of October baseball. Why couldn’t he do it? Why couldn’t he win it all? When would he hoist the World Series trophy that had eluded his franchise for so long? The Dodgers had not called themselves champions since 1988, when they won the title on the sturdy back of Orel Hershiser and the gimpy legs of Kirk Gibson. Kershaw was supposed to end the drought. Instead, he was blamed for extending it.

In 2017, Kershaw collapsed in the World Series against the Houston Astros, unaware of his opponents’ illegal sign-stealing system. “I still have PTSD about that,” he said. In 2019, he surrendered a pair of game-altering home runs against the Washington Nationals. In the dugout, he hung his head and gazed into the gloaming of Chavez Ravine. All around him, his teammates bristled with tears and stewed with rage on his behalf. They knew how many innings he had thrown in his twenties, before his body broke down. They saw him sacrifice a day from his precious schedule to pitch on short rest in October, which made him an anomaly among his peers in the 2010s. “Some pitchers flat-out refuse the ball, unless they’re at full strength,” former teammate Michael Young said. “Kersh has never done that.” They witnessed all the hours he poured into his craft. They lived through his fifth day and they recognized how much it meant. “Every time he failed, I know how deeply that hurt him,” said former teammate Josh Lindblom.

At times, teammates and friends worried about the weight on Kershaw’s shoulders. The Dodgers had staked so much on him. He was a first-round pick, a No. 1 starter, the face of the franchise. From his earliest days as a Dodger, he drew comparisons to Koufax, the southpaw who starred as the team transitioned from Brooklyn’s Boys of Summer to the kings of Southern California. “He’s the savior for the Dodgers, and he’s the next coming of Sandy Koufax for the Dodgers,” former Dodger Justin Turner said. “That pressure on his back in following Sandy’s footsteps is a real thing.”

Despite a fifty-two-year gap in age, Kershaw and Koufax were friends. But Kershaw rejected the notion that he needed to follow in anyone’s footsteps. “I was like, ‘The next Sandy Koufax?’ I have no interest in being Sandy Koufax,” Kershaw said. “And I don’t want to live up to that. I had no interest in being that. I had different reasons and different motivations.”

Despite their age difference, Koufax and Kershaw became close. (Kirby Lee via AP)

The weight Kershaw hauled was his and his alone. After the loss to the Nationals, he stood shell-shocked inside his clubhouse. He wondered aloud if everything about his reputation as a choker was warranted. He stared into an abyss and only saw himself. He knew he needed to change. So he did, in ways that were subtle and profound, embracing new concepts without losing sight of himself. When the team finally won the World Series a year later, in a season upended and truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic, his overriding emotion was relief. “You don’t know the burden that you carry,” he said. “Because at some point, you just get used to the weight on your shoulders.”

After an injury-plagued 2021 and the disappointing end to 2022, Kershaw pondered the depth of his reasons and motivations. As he prepared to resume the five-day cycle, he had to take stock. He didn’t need the money. His case for Cooperstown was complete. “I have no individual goals,” he said. His body could use rest after two decades of pitching-inflicted trauma. But the possibility of another championship still beckoned. And so the cycle loomed.

The day after Santa Claus visited Highland Park, Kershaw stood inside the kitchenette of his charity’s office, a three-minute drive from his home. He had finished a throwing session after he dressed and fed his children. He often told friends that his dream job after baseball would be crossing guard at their elementary school. But he knew there would be more hours to fill. Maybe the family would buy an RV and take a tour of America that wasn’t built around ballparks. He had traveled so much in his career, but seen so little. He had never been to Hawaii, never been to continental Europe. He could not plan a trip that did not include time to throw. On his honeymoon, at a resort in Mexico, he brought baseballs to chuck into bedroom pillows.

“Does part of you,” I said, “look forward to—”

“Yes,” Kershaw said. “One hundred percent.”

“Like, not being in this cycle,” I said.

“It’ll be great,” Kershaw said. “I can’t wait for that. There are so many great things about both. The hard part is not wanting the other thing.”

He thought about something Ellen often told him: “Don’t take your time for granted.” He was the rare man who could still make his living playing a game designed for boys. Among his brethren, he was the rarest of the rare, one who would be remembered long after he threw his last pitch. He wanted to honor that gift. He needed to work at it with all his heart. “I’m never, like, trudging through another season,” Kershaw said. “This was our choice. I didn’t have to play. We decided we wanted to do it. I wanted to do it.”

The RV trips, the gig as a crossing guard, and the decades of freedom could wait. For now, he had agreed to another year of fifth days. Because of that, he felt, he owed his franchise, his teammates, and himself nothing short of everything.

(Top photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)