Clayton Kershaw: The stuff of legend?
LOS ANGELES -- Don Newcombe was speaking at a dinner not long ago, to a crowd of about 4,500, when he made a comparison that had to have some of the attendees choking on their chicken cordon bleu. The legendary Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher was talking about Clayton Kershaw, who can no longer be counted out of any discussion about the best starting pitchers in the major leagues.
"I told them they should remain Dodgers fans because there is a young man you will see in the very near future, and there is only one other pitcher like him," Newcombe said. "This young man reminds me of the greatest pitcher I ever saw in a Dodgers uniform, and I'm talking about Sandy Koufax."
Hyperbole comes cheap, especially when it comes from younger fans who make comparisons without ever having seen Koufax pitch. But when a statement like that comes from someone such as Newcombe, one of the most revered figures in the organization, a man who measures his words carefully, it comes across not as hyperbole but as an opinion you can take to the bank.
Still, Kershaw has a long way to go to become the pitcher Koufax was. He hasn't pitched a no-hitter, something Koufax did four times, and there hasn't been a command performance to wrap up a World Series, something Koufax delivered in 1963 and '65.
But when we sat down at Dodger Stadium last week, Newcombe told me what really reminds him of Koufax when he sees Kershaw isn't so much the way Kershaw pitches. Newcombe said it was more about his comportment, his coachability, his ability to take advice, apply it and have success with it.
For example, Newcombe noted one instance in which he saw Kershaw field an easy comebacker and then throw a lollipop to first base. To Newcombe, who along with all the other pitchers for the Brooklyn Dodgers would immediately get an earful from first baseman Gil Hodges if they ever did such a thing, this was simply unacceptable.
"The next day, I went up to him in the dugout," Newcombe said. "I told him to never do that again, and right away, he said, 'Mr. Newcombe, I won't.' He is a quick learner and a listener. With Koufax, it was the same thing. Sandy came to Brooklyn in 1955, and he was a bonus baby, so the laws of baseball at that time said he had to be on the [major league] team. He wasn't well-liked on the Dodgers at that time because people felt he was taking a roster spot. It was a tough spot for him.
"But Sandy hung on. He learned, and he listened. He talked to guys, and one of the guys he talked to was me. He asked me questions, and I answered them."
When Kershaw first arrived in the majors in 2008, he was a lot like that, inquisitive, soaking up as much information as he could and doing his best to learn from mistakes he made on the mound. He still isn't a finished product -- Newcombe pointed out Kershaw only now is learning to use his curveball when he is behind in the count -- but the fact Dodgers pitching greats are comparing him to other Dodgers pitching greats speaks volumes about how far Kershaw has come in three short years.
Even so, at least one Dodgers legend disagreed with Newcombe's characterization that Kershaw is a budding, modern-day Koufax -- not because he doesn't think Kershaw has the potential to be that good, but because Kershaw shouldn't be expected to be that good at a point when he still is just 23 years old.
"You can't do that to him," said Tommy Lasorda, the team's Hall of Fame former manager.
So, if Kershaw doesn't remind Lasorda of Koufax now, does he remind him of anyone in the pantheon of Dodgers pitching greats?
"He reminds me a little bit of [Johnny] Podres," Lasorda said. "Just the way he pitches, his delivery, his stuff. But let's see how many of those W's come up. That will tell you how good he really is."
The lack of wins was an issue for Kershaw early in his career, but he won a career-high 13 last year, and barring a complete collapse, he should blow that away in 2011, when he already has 13 wins. But in a league full of talented starting pitchers, Kershaw's makeup sets him apart, and that isn't lost on those who watch him regularly.
"This kid has the attitude," said Lasorda, himself a former left-handed pitcher. "His attitude is great. He loves to pitch, and he is dedicated to his position. He is a great, great young man to have on your team. Some guys who have accomplished what he has are hard to get along with. They're too independent. But not him."
What also makes Kershaw special is that he has a certain charisma, and former Dodgers center fielder and longtime broadcaster Rick Monday believes the team's fan base is beginning to pick up on that. Monday likened it, on a smaller scale, to Fernandomania, the phenomenon that swept through Chavez Ravine when Fernando Valenzuela came onto the scene 30 years ago.
Given the current state of the Dodgers, Kershaw's home starts aren't sellouts any more than anyone other Dodgers pitcher's are. Still, Monday says, there is something about the games Kershaw pitches that isn't there on the other four days.
"With Fernando, every night was like a fiesta," Monday said. "If you look at Clayton Kershaw, he is beginning to bring that increased attention, not just from fans, but also from scouts. Whenever we go into a new ballpark or have a conversation with the scouts here, inevitably, the name of Clayton Kershaw comes up because it has captured their attention.
"When you look at a pitcher who is starting to really blossom, you don't see people going to the concession stand until the half-inning is over. You hear that moaning and groaning with each pitch. It actually feels like there is a rhythm to the sounds in the stadium. But Clayton is oblivious to it, which I think says a lot about him."
Monday went on to talk of Kershaw's complete lack of self-satisfaction, of how driven he is to improve. Given the level he's already at, the thought that Kershaw only wants to get better is a reason to get excited about what should be a brighter future for the Dodgers. Kershaw is one of the cornerstones of that future, and whether you are as comfortable comparing him to Koufax as Newcombe is, or as uncomfortable with it as Lasorda, there is no disputing Kershaw evokes memories of past Dodgers glories, when there seemed to always be at least one ace who made every fourth or fifth game practically a lock.
And that, as much as anything, could qualify Kershaw for that legendary list of Dodgers starting pitchers. Perhaps one day, his name will be at the very top of it.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.