Clayton & Ellen Kershaw
At a time when most kids are graduating college and entering the real world, Clayton Kershaw had become one of the best pitchers in baseball. At a mere 24 years old he’s already won the Pitching Triple Crown, Golden Glove, and the prestigious Cy Young Award, plus he’s a two-time National League All-Star. Being a talented left-handed pitcher, and playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has many comparing him to the likes of Sandy Koufax. But Kershaw’s abilities don’t stop off the field. He recently wrote a book with his wife highlighting the starting of an orphanage in Zambia and their journey together. Risen sat down with the Major Leaguer and his wife Ellen, to talk about his career, God’s place in baseball and beyond, and their heart for the kids overseas.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: At a young age you showed promising ability, how serious did you take baseball growing up?
Clayton Kershaw: I was an only child and my dad played catch with me a lot. I enjoyed playing and I love to play baseball. I played all the sports growing up and they were equally important to me, but once I got to high school I start focusing on baseball. I think it was a matter of not being good at any of the other sports, so I just started focusing on baseball.
RM: At what point did you realize your arm was a talent? And was pitching always your preferred position?
CK: I love to hit and play first base. I got to do those when I didn’t pitch. I knew I was okay at pitching, but I think it was my junior year of high school when colleges really started to take a look at me. I thought I might be able to play baseball past high school and by my senior year, I thought I might be able to do this as a job.
RM: What sacrifices were needed to become an elite ballplayer in high school?
CK: I think a lot of people made sacrifices for me. My mom was driving around to Timbuktu letting me play baseball in the summers. There was a lot of time, and a lot of practice. But that’s part of doing what you’re doing. I really love baseball and feel pretty blessed to get to do it everyday. It was more fun than sacrifice.
RM: You were in a great position coming out of high school, but it’s a tough question, go pro or go to college? What influenced you to make your decision?
CK: Well the short answer would be money. The financial relief was a huge blessing to my mom and me, and that was kind of what made it an easy decision for us. (Clayton turned down a scholarship at Texas A&M to sign with the Dodgers in 2006, with a bonus estimated at $2.3 million.)
RM: Looking back at the decision to go pro, how do you feel you handled the pressure, and the paycheck, that comes with being in the majors?
CK: I don’t think it really affected me. It definitely gave my family and myself some security and relief, which was great, but other than that it didn’t really mean much.
They were mesmerized, not only by a large white man being in their territory, but alsobecause they had never seen a baseball before.
RM: Describe the feeling of your first game as a Dodger?
CK: It was awesome. Walking out for the first time was definitely a little nerve-racking but I had a lot of fun. And I had a lot of family there, it was awesome.
RM: How does that compare to now when you take the mound?
CK: Similar. I still get the butterflies in my stomach every time I pitch. But I think now I’m a little more comfortable and understand what to expect when I’m out there. I’m just a little bit more prepared now.
RM: In a relatively short amount of time you’ve achieved so much including the Cy Young award last year (2011). How do you hope your career looks moving forward?
CK: I hope we win. I think that’s any baseball player’s goal. No one wants to be sitting at home watching the post season. I want to win as team. That’s the only goal I ever set for myself… just to win.
RM: It’s evident each year you get better and better. What’s your recipe for continued improvement and growth?
CK: No recipe, I think it’s just keep working as hard as you possibly can and don’t become stagnant. If you don’t get better, you’re getting worse. Try to stay at that level of work ethic which got you there and continue to work on that constantly, day in and day out.
RM: Baseball is a career, like for many others who may be a dentist or lawyer or schoolteacher, but with pro sports it seems so many other factors blur into one’s mindset. How do you view baseball in your life?
CK: It is just a really, really fun job. Sure there is some extra pressure at times, but it’s such a fun thing to get to do everyday. I definitely don’t take that for granted.
RM: Do you think there is a place for God in baseball?
CK: Absolutely. I think there is a place for God everywhere.
RM: What does your faith look like?
CK: The ultimate goal is to try and fit Jesus into every part of my life. I think that is a good basis to put Jesus in everything you’re doing instead of just making him one part of your life. I’m on the baseball field 10 hours a day… so if you just go by time management, baseball is the biggest priority in my life. I think if you put Jesus in the center of everything that you’re doing, he will get the glory and in turn you will feel a lot more centered in your own life too.
RM: Do you pray before games when you pitch?
CK: I say a real simple prayer every time I get on the field. I say, “God, whatever your will is, let it be done here.” And that’s it. I don’t pray for a win or anything. I just want to glorify the Lord out there. That’s the only prayer for me.
RM: Moving off the field, talk about your relationship with your wife. When did you meet Ellen? And at what point did she become the one in your mind?
CK: Ellen and I started dating our freshman year of high school. I think for us we were just more of friends, and then started dating. It kind of stayed that way through high school. I would say we got closer when she went to college and I stared playing professionally. We both kind of figured out stuff on our own. I think that really helped our relationship now. As for when she became the one? I really don’t know. I guess somewhere late in high school, or early college.
RM: Ellen, at what point did Clayton become the one for you?
Ellen Kershaw: I think our relationship was more of a friendship like Clayton said. We really had to work on our relationship when I was in college and he was in the minor leagues. I think we both realized it was definitely worth making an effort and towards the end of my college career, we both realized our lives were so much better when we were together than when we were apart. We could accomplish so much more; with my passion for Africa and Clayton heading into his career in baseball, it felt like the Lord was up to something pretty cool with both of our passions.
RM: Clayton’s passion in high school was baseball; your passion was Africa… how did these different interests come together?
EK: During college. I was kind of jumping in and out of his baseball life, getting to come visit him on weekends, or just hanging out. When we got married it was very important for me that Clayton understand and see first hand my passion for Africa. I think the perfect picture of it was when we were in Africa and about every night Clayton would go on the dirt outside the complex we were staying in and throw a baseball with the kids. I remember such a vivid picture of the sun setting and Clayton throwing [the ball] to this other American on our team… just seeing all these little Zambian children lining the side of the dirt road to watch him throw. They were mesmerized, not only by a large white man being in their territory, but also because they had never seen a baseball before. Clayton started playing catch with the kids and teaching them how to throw and wear a glove. For me that was kind of an Ahha! moment where I felt like the Lord is up to something really cool by connecting our two passions. Clayton was kind of in his element using his unique ability to glorify the Lord over there.
RM: Both of you have a heart for Africa and just over a year ago you started Hope’s Home in Zambia. How did this come about?
EK: I had met a girl named Hope years ago, and Clayton got to meet and get to know her on these past couple trips. We had been fostering her and it’s been a huge blessing in our lives to see the growth in her life. To see what can happen when you provide a child with education, medicine, and the food that they need. Over the course of our visits, I think we continued to see that something very important was missing in her life and that was a home to go to at night, and parents that would love and nurture her and empower her to be the chance her country needs, and to be whoever she wants to be and reach her potential. And so for Clayton and I, it was a pretty simple natural commitment that the Lord was leading us to. We needed to build a home for kids where they could really feel loved and nurtured and could reach their potential. We came home [from that trip] and it was Clayton’s idea to do “Strike-out to Serve”. He wanted to donate $100 for every strike-out he made towards this project of building Hope’s Home. That’s kind of how it all started.
RM: There are many more great stories and insight into your trip in the recent book you both wrote called, Arise – what made you want to put your experiences on paper?
EK: I don’t think it was anything we expected to do. At our age we didn’t really feel like we had enough life experience to be able to help others. It really was just an opportunity that presented itself and we were hesitant to jump into it at first, kind of seeing our inadequacy. But the Lord really moved us to realize that I don’t think we’d ever consider ourselves perfect or in a place to do this. Regal (book publisher) had contacted us about doing this and we thought about it, and prayed about it, and I guess we just realized that if we started writing maybe we would see the Lord’s blessing on it. And we definitely did. We got to see the Lord’s will played out, and it’s an incredible story of his faithfulness in both of our lives… growing up separately, then entering marriage, and beginning Kershaw’s Challenge.
Clayton was kind of in his element using his unique ability to glorify the Lord over there.
RM: It’s great to see you use your fame as a platform to inspire youth and also by spreading the word about how God is making a difference in lives. What do you hope readers take away from your book?
EK: We hope people take away that we all have a platform; we all have a really important purpose that the Lord puts in each of us. I think that it’s never too early to start speaking out and to start putting that into action. Clayton and I are just like everyone else. I don’t think that we see ourselves any different from any other 24 or 25-year-old. I think that we both had a very normal upbringing and we were both raised in the church. I think we both have a personal faith. I think too many times we wait until we are financially secure or we are career bound or excelling if different ways or until we figure out what our passion is. I also think we feel inadequate and that someone else will do a better job of it. What is important to take away, is that the Lord is the only way to be fulfilled.
RM: You’ve taken outreach a step further and actually donate $100 to the charity for every strike-out you pitch. How did you come up with this plan?
CK: It’s kind of a fun way for us to give to our own cause and also try and get some people involved. I don’t remember how I thought of it or why, I think it was kind of a fun idea and alternative instead of a normal donation.
RM: Hopefully, you will continue to have a long and successful baseball career. Since you’re involved in everything from books, to speaking, family and church, have you given thought to what life might look like after the game? Do you think you’ll always have a part of you connected to the baseball industry in some way or will you be ready for a complete new adventure?
CK: I have no idea. I don’t know. I love baseball right now and I’m going to try and play as long as I possibly can. Hopefully something will present itself after. Maybe God will keep me in baseball, or maybe I’ll need to find something else to keep busy, but right now I can honestly tell you I have no idea.
RM: Are there any other hobbies or interests you have?
CK: I’m a great ping-pong player, humility aside. For hobbies, I hang out with my buddies and that’s really about it.
RM: When people look at your life many probably they think you have it all – pro athlete, loving wife, solid faith and direction – and let’s be real, you do. When you look at your life, what fulfills you? And what advice would you share to others on the idea of having it all?
CK: I think there are a lot of people out there that have tons and tons of wealth and positions and they aren’t very happy. In going to Zambia, the people just have their basic needs met and they are the happiest, most joyful culture that I’ve ever come across. And you start thinking to yourself, “Why is that?” I think faith is at the center. Not even faith, Jesus is at the center of that. I think he can fulfill you no matter what your circumstances are and what you have and what you don’t have. All the other stuff is great if you treat it the right way, but I think Jesus is the ultimate fulfiller in anybody.
RM: Do you as a couple want to have your own children? Maybe adoption?
CK: I’ll let Ellen answer that one.
EK: [Laughter] I don’t know, we have thought of that a little bit. We are so happy with where we are right now, but I think anything is possible. I think up until now the Lord has been really faithful about revealing to us what the next step is, so I am confident he will continue to do so in our lives, whether that’s with our own children or adopting.