Many of us enjoyed or will enjoy our 21st birthdays by taking advantage of the lifted restrictions that come with the age. Many of us turn 21 in the center of our college years. That magic number allows us to enter the intimidating world of adulthood — the world of responsibility, accountability, unpredictability; an unpredictability of what the future entails that frightens us into a quarter-life or a sixth-life crisis. Just 19 days ago, Clayton Kershaw turned the mystical age of 21 and he had none of the aforementioned fears. He is second in the rotation for the National League West favorite Los Angeles Dodgers.
On March 19, Kershaw enjoyed his first beer and got to reflect on the life God has given him. He has a fastball that can whiff the best hitters in major league baseball, and a curveball that buckles you so much, even from the seat, that legendary announcer Vin Scully immediately dubbed him “Public Enemy Number One.” He is doing all this, at 21 years old.
This isn’t Kershaw’s first year in the majors. He was called up last year from the minor leagues on May 24 and made his debut the very next day against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Dallas native pitched six innings, allowing two earned runs and recorded six strikeouts. Because of his youth, the Dodgers were hesitant about bringing him up to the big leagues so quick, and even had him return to Triple A before being called up again for the playoff run. His talent was ready for the big leagues, but at 20 years old he might not have been so ready mentally.
Talk to him now, and he sounds like a 21- year- old with a good head on his shoulders. His take on pressure: “As long as you put enough pressure on yourself, you don’t have to worry about anyone else.”
His advice for aspiring major leagues, keep in mind again that he is only 21: “It’s not an easy lifestyle, going up and down between whatever levels you are is not easy,” Kershaw said. “All you can focus on is how you play that day … as long as you play everyday and you play well, everything is going to take care of itself. I kind of learned that the hard way.”
The lefty wooed the nation in 2006 when he went 13-0 and posted a microscopic .77 ERA with 139 strikeouts in 64 innings in his senior year of high school. The Dodgers took him with the seventh overall pick in that year’s draft, and Kershaw’s life has accelerated since.
He has gone through what most major leaguer goes through to get to the Bigs, but at a much faster rate. His experience wasn’t necessarily an easier one; in fact, it was harder. Imagine being an 18-year-old with high expectations of being a star in the major leagues within the next two years.
It would seem that given the situation Kershaw is in now that he must be mature beyond his years. His maturity lies in the mind, but the 21- year-old in him dominates it.
He talks about being a fan of “The Office” and “CSI Miami.” He is admittedly a big Taylor Swift fan. He considers the biggest perk of being the most prolific young star next to Andrew Bynum in Los Angeles sports in Hollywood is kicking it with James Van Der Beek. Kershaw was too young when Van Der Beek rose to the apex of his fame in Dawson’s Creek, but Kershaw remembers him more as Johnny “Mox” from the 1999 teen football film “Varsity Blues.”
Naming their toughest competition is often difficult for professional athletes. They like to exhibit the most confidence. However, Kershaw replies with no hesitation. “Albert Pujols. That’s easy.”
He even shies away when asked about his rookie hazing.
“We got dressed up and went to San Francisco. Let’s leave it at that,” Kershaw said.
While Kershaw still remains your average kid who is transitioning into adulthood, he hardly seems his age when he talks baseball. “It sounds pretty simple [but throw strikes?] Not so much throwing strikes, but getting ahead of hitters. That’s what I’m trying to focus on.”
He cites Dodger pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt, and retired pitcher Greg Maddux as two mentors of the game. He knows what he needs to improve and what kind of mentality he needs to have.
“I don’t set goals. It only limits yourself. Goals and expectations are kind of overrated. As long as you pitch the best you can every start, that’s all you can really ask for. You try to get better every start … if you start setting goals individually, that’s where you get in trouble,” Kershaw said.
Are you sure this guy is 21? twenty-one-year-olds shouldn’t already be at the top of their profession. Twenty-one-year-olds shouldn’t be giving that kind of advice. Twenty-one-year-olds shouldn’t be making older competition look silly.
He contends that he is no different than any other 21-year-old, but acknowledges what others his age are currently doing.
“Yeah, that’s weird. It’s funny to think about. We are all the same; we aren’t any different. It just happened that God gave me the ability to do this,” Kershaw said. “It’s not like I am any different from anybody. I was given a talent to do this, and I’m trying to use it to the best of my ability. It’s not that I deserved it more than anyone else. It’s pretty fun to think about.”
When asked what he would be doing if he weren’t playing baseball, Kershaw offers a fitting 21-year-old major leaguer response.
“I’d be in college right now trying to figure out what to do with my life,” Kershaw said.
Clayton, you may empathize with us, but you don’t even know.