LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers fans were beginning to worry -- which, under the circumstances, was a reasonable reaction.
After all, it had been about a year since the team and the best pitcher in baseball began discussing a contract extension. The sides couldn’t lock up a deal during spring training, the deadline Clayton Kershaw had set.
By late summer, reports started cropping up that Kershaw had walked away from a couple of record-breaking offers. Hmm.
The fall and winter dragged on and the Dodgers kept doing deals that were out of character for this ownership group. One might even call them fiscally restrained.
The fog of New Year’s Eve cleared, and people were beginning to wonder if what Kershaw really wanted one day was to pitch for his hometown Texas Rangers. Or, was it the glamor and pressure of Yankee Stadium he coveted? He waited this long for free agency. What was another 10 months?
Members of the Dodgers’ front office began to talk cryptically about how they “hoped” he wanted to be a Dodger for the long run. Yeesh. Hoped?
Then there was actual news. It didn't come from unnamed sources; it came from the players' association. On Tuesday, Kershaw filed for salary arbitration along with 145 other major leaguers, including two Dodgers teammates, one of whom is his best buddy on the team, A.J. Ellis.
It was a routine bit of procedure, really. If you have spent enough time in the big leagues, it’s just what you do to get paid.
Still, it spurred more fears he would pitch 2014 under a one-year contract with the Dodgers -- essentially a red carpet to free agency and quite likely another team's jersey.
Now? With news that Kershaw has agreed to a seven-year, $215 million extension, it’s all gravy. The rest of this offseason is about joy rather than fear, about possibilities rather than limitations.
The Dodgers could sign a veteran second baseman. They could go all-in on Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka. They could just let the rumor linger that they were involved, driving up the price for the Yankees. That’s always fun.
Even the terms of the Kershaw deal seem about right for everybody involved. The Dodgers get off relatively easy, only having to sweat out the next seven years instead of the next 10. Kershaw will reach free agency again in 2020 -- or two years sooner, if he opts out -- and who knows what teams will be paying 32-year-old multiple Cy Young Award winners by then.
What the Dodgers owners have done by locking up Kershaw is transfer the stress from their fan base’s collective shoulders to their own. That's a gift in itself.
Let’s not give them too much credit, though. The backdrop to all of this is the deal with Time Warner Cable, which launches its new Dodgers channel next month. Before it ends, that deal will net those owners about $6 billion, which kind of puts this Kershaw deal in a new light. So reach around and pat yourself on the back for one day, having to pay an extra $5 or $10 every month on your cable bill so Kershaw can remain a Dodger.
The question now isn’t whether Kershaw will walk, but if he’ll live up to his salary, the richest in history for a North American athlete. While smarter people than myself, such as Dan Szymborski, will argue that Kershaw is worth every penny -- maybe even a few billion more -- let’s not pretend this deal isn’t fraught with some peril. The Dodgers’ biggest investor, Mark Walter, was the one who said a couple of Octobers ago that the team would tread lightly when it came to signing pitchers. He told the Los Angeles Times: “Pitchers break.”
Since then, Walter and the Dodgers have spent more than $450 million to sign pitchers. The only ones who have broken so far, Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett, were already under contract when Walter spoke.
But injuries aren’t the only fear. Those are inherent in any sport. If you’re going to pay entertainers who run around and throw things fast and slide and dive this kind of dough, you’ve got to just accept injury worries and shut up. But what about underperformance? The previous pitcher to reach this point of arbitration with two Cy Young Awards under his belt, Tim Lincecum, has gone 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA since then. Don't act like Lincecum wasn't great a couple of years ago.
So, yeah, it’s a gamble all right, no matter how good it feels as the news settles in. But there’s also the narrative form, the storybook quality that people in the sports business sell. If Kershaw were a Mariner or a National or a Ranger for these upcoming years of his prime, it just wouldn’t have felt as pure. It wouldn’t have looked right. If you love sports, you like to remind yourself -- or at least pretend -- that there’s some purity left in the games, corrupted as they are by money and pressure.
Sandy Koufax made $27,500 in his age-26 season and he took a raft of grief from fellow players because he had been a bonus baby. Going into that season, Koufax was one game over .500 and had a career 3.94 ERA. Had free agency existed and had Koufax walked, a previous generation of Dodgers fans never would have gotten to bask in the glory of 1963 through 1966, maybe the most dominant stretch of pitching the game has seen.
Let the Koufax comparisons roll on. Let’s watch Kershaw build his legacy. Let’s see if he can erase the latest, bitterest memories from the minds of Dodger fans, of that Game 6 start against the St. Louis Cardinals, the worst of Kershaw’s season. We know enough about him to imagine that, even with all of this money flowing in, he’ll come in angry this spring to move beyond that ugly night.
The good news is, he’s got another seven years or so to make it up to Dodgers fans. If we gauge this team's intentions and talent level right, there should be plenty more Game 6's and 7's in the interim. If you're a Dodger fan right now, you're wishing Kershaw could pitch every one.