Markazi: Clayton Kershaw explains why he'd choose family over quarantined season

Arash Markazi
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw plays with his children after his team defeated the Colorado Rockies to win the National League West Division at Dodger Stadium on Oct 1, 2018.  (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

I’m supposed to get on a Zoom call with Clayton Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, at noon, partly to allow Kershaw to explain his objection to playing under quarantine if it meant being separated from his family. But as a novice to videoconferencing, I log in early in case of unexpected hiccups.

As I open the window for our meeting, Clayton and Ellen are already there, smiling and waving at me from the kitchen of their Texas home like a happy couple awaiting an arrival at the airport.

“Hey!” Clayton says as he picks up his laptop and walks toward the dining room. “We’re going to move rooms. The last time we did this here, our service wasn’t good.”

The Kershaws have become Zoom pros while most of the country is under stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have Zoom game nights with Clayton’s teammates and their wives, and Clayton has done Zoom television interviews as he tries to figure out if he will pitch again this year.

“It’s been weird,” Kershaw said. “It’s been hard not to have baseball. I miss not going to the field every day. I miss Dodger Stadium. I didn’t realize how much I would miss it, I think. This puts it all into perspective, and we’re not ready to quit anytime soon. We still love it. I miss it a lot.”

Kershaw, 32, entered this season with two years left on his contract, and some wondered if 2021 would be the final season of a Hall of Fame career that has included an MVP and three Cy Young awards. That is no longer a thought for Kershaw as he adjusts to life without baseball.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a month away from baseball, especially a month when you’re supposed to have it,” he said. “I’ve been hurt before obviously, but at least you’re still around the guys and in the clubhouse and you know you’re going to play at some point. It’s been good for me in terms of having a perspective of how much I do love it and miss it when I don't have it.”

The Dodgers have won the NL West seven consecutive seasons and advanced to the World Series in 2017 and 2018, but there was a different feeling as Kershaw prepared for his franchise record ninth opening day start March 26. Not only was he healthier than he had been in years, but the Dodgers also had gone all-in to win. They traded coveted prospects Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong to the Boston Red Sox for 2018 MVP outfielder Mookie Betts, who will be a free agent next offseason, and former Cy Young Award winner David Price.

“That’s the most frustrating thing,” Kershaw said. “We brought in Mookie and David and traded some really good talent to get them, so to not have a season would be hard.

"The Dodgers have been built to win a World Series every year that I’ve been here, but to not get that chance this year with the talent that we have would be frustrating. So I’m hopeful we can get something started because we had a lot of optimism.”

Whether there will be an MLB season and what form it would take are unclear. One much-discussed plan would have all 30 teams quarantined in Phoenix-area hotels and playing games primarily in spring training ballparks without fans. As much as Kershaw would like a season, he is against a plan that would take him away from his family for several months.

“We all want to play baseball. I get that; I want to play baseball too,” Kershaw said. “But there is something about being in the big leagues and you can’t compromise that. Playing in spring training stadiums and quarantining for months without your family and certain things like that, I don’t think that’s doable if you’re talking about doing it for four to five months.

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw celebrates his no-hitter in 2014 with wife Ellen at Dodger Stadium.  (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

"You just lose the product on the field because guys aren’t in their natural element. We’re all ready to take drastic measures to make this season happen, but there’s also certain things that will affect the product on the field, and that’s what you have to be careful about.”

Kershaw is a self-admitted baseball traditionalist, but he understands “this season is going to be unlike any season we’ve encountered before.” He’s fine playing without fans, shortening games to seven innings, and playing doubleheaders, but he is drawing the line at being away from Ellen and their children — daughter Cali, 5, and sons Charley, 3, and Cooper, 3 months.

“[Clayton] does his workout and throwing first thing in the morning and right around lunch time is when he truly becomes a full-time dad," Ellen said. "Clayton has been teaching Cali how to ride a bike, and Charley is obsessed with all sports, so Clayton is kind of running a kids camp in our backyard most days, and we have Cooper. It’s rare for a baseball player to get to be around his kids every single day.”

Kershaw built a gym at his house in Dallas five years ago so he could be home more during the offseason. It has allowed him to continue working out during this time off, but the biggest issue is pacing himself without a definitive start date for the season.

“It’s hard to know how much to throw,” Kershaw said. “I think us as starting pitchers, we’re probably the most vulnerable in terms of being not prepared. I think position players and even relievers will tell you they only need two or three weeks to get ready. A starting pitcher needs to be built up. You need time. You can’t just go from one inning to six innings. That’s been the hardest part for me. I’m kind of working off the idea that we might be back in June or July."

The Kershaws were scheduled to hold their annual Ping Pong 4 Purpose fundraising event May 7 at Dodger Stadium, which benefits Kershaw’s Challenge, their nonprofit organization that seeks to serve vulnerable and at-risk children living in Los Angeles, Dallas, Zambia and the Dominican Republic. The organization raised $2 million last year and has raised $12 million since its inception in 2012.

In an effort to raise money in the absence of fundraising events, the Kershaws have committed to matching every dollar donated through April 28, and Clayton has committed to Zoom calls with 15 fans — five of whom will be selected out of a hat; 10 others will get 10 minutes with him through $5,000 donations.

What if the donation comes from a San Francisco Giants fan who misses heckling Kershaw?

“I actually thought about that,” he said. “I committed to being there for 10 minutes. The tone of the meeting is up to the person, but I’ll be there for 10 minutes. If they want to banter, we can do that. I've had my share of interesting conversations with fans, especially in San Fran.”

Kershaw doesn’t know when he will get the chance to again chase a World Series title that has eluded the Dodgers for nearly as long as he's been alive. This season may be the team’s best chance, but if it’s not meant to be, Kershaw isn’t worried about that tarnishing his career.

“Legacy is not that important to me, honestly,” Kershaw said. “It’s just not something I’ve ever been focused on or really care about, what people are going to say about me 10, 15 or 20 years from now. But the things I do off the field, I know it’s going to impact people. This gift of baseball I was given is allowing me to impact other people’s lives even when I’m not playing baseball as much as I want to be playing right now.”