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Clayton Kershaw finds the words to honor Sandy Koufax: ‘No one more deserving than you’

LOS ANGELES — For much of the last week, Clayton Kershaw wasn’t sure what to say.

For years, he’s heard the comparisons. The dynamic left arm. The curveball that pops up and drops into the dirt. The historic franchise with a pitching legacy featuring two men in their own echelon at the top.

Beyond that, they’d formed a bond. Two men, inextricably linked, bookending a half-century of baseball and a city’s entire lifetime with the Dodgers. How can you put that into words?

So, Kershaw phoned a mutual friend, Harlan Werner, for some advice on the Dodgers’ off day on Thursday. Except when he picked up the phone, a familiar voice echoed on the other line.

It was Sandy Koufax.

“I heard you were struggling with your breaking ball,” the Hall of Famer said. “Let me help you.”

 

Kershaw, a day away from making a start on the mound where Koufax once dominated, listened as he has from the time he arrived in the organization as a teenager.

“(He) told me to stay tall, and that was it,” Kershaw said, managing to find the words he was searching for as he spoke Saturday, with Koufax to his right, as the Dodgers unveiled a statue honoring Koufax.

“It was simple. It was helpful. It was also caring. It was also genuine. Those are the qualities that I admire most in you.”

It was like most of the interactions the two have had as Kershaw has ascended to many of the same rarified heights Koufax reached. It was impactful, tactful and earnest, as is customary between two of the 11 men to win a Cy Young and MVP award in the same season.

Kershaw had been “indoctrinated” into the Dodgers history, and particularly its history of pitching excellence from the moment the club took him in the first round of the 2006 draft when he was 18 years old.

“But Sandy stood out,” Kershaw said. “He always did.”

The mutual admiration blossomed. Early in Kershaw’s career, he accompanied then-Dodgers manager Joe Torre (a contemporary of Koufax’s during their playing days) and Koufax on a flight to one of Torre’s charity events, expecting fully for the conversation to trend toward their playing days, looking down on the state of the game and its evolution.

“It was a far cry from that,” Kershaw said. “I got to know Sandy on that flight, and after that night I remember thinking, wow, Sandy genuinely cares about how I’m going to do in this game.”

When Kershaw succeeded, as he did in becoming the most recent Dodger to throw a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, exactly eight years ago to the day, he’d have a call from Koufax waiting. When Kershaw dealt with injuries, Koufax would be on the line. Even this winter, as Kershaw navigated a balky left elbow and an uncertain future during baseball’s lockout and his first taste of free agency, Koufax called to check on Kershaw, his wife Ellen, and their four kids.

It was, as Koufax put it, a friendship even more than it was a mentorship. And on Saturday, as Kershaw highlighted a career he’s paced for the last 15 years, his voice cracked. He choked up. He recalled what Koufax said of the retirement of Dodgers broadcasting icon Vin Scully, that the greatest treasure the two men shared was that they could call each other a friend.

“That’s the same for me,” Kershaw said, his voice catching. “I’m grateful for that, Sandy, and I know you don’t believe it, but there’s no one more deserving than you of this honor.”

It’s one that Kershaw will likely get to see one day, too, a statue likely depicting Kershaw in his full, unorthodox motion driving his leg and arms toward the sky as if on a string before bouncing toward the plate.

The line of great Dodgers starters is expansive, from the likes of Dazzy Vance to Don Newcombe, Don Drysdale to Don Sutton, to Fernando Valenzuela to Orel Hershiser. But Koufax and Kershaw stand in a different echelon. No one has recorded more strikeouts in a Dodgers uniform than Kershaw. And when the Dodgers snapped a decades-long title drought, one of the iconic images was that of Kershaw, hands on his head in disbelief.

It’s Dodgers history, the lore of which Kershaw at this point knows well. The statue, Kershaw said, is just part of Koufax’s legacy.

“Sandy,” Kershaw said at the dais, “one day, I hope I can impact someone the way you have championed me. You really have, left-handed pitcher or not, just in life.”

Kershaw had found the words. And in the moments after the blue cloth was removed from the statue bearing Koufax’s name and likeness, the man dubbed “the next Koufax” found his friend. He slid alongside him for a photo.

32 and 22.

Two men who have commandeered the mound at Dodger Stadium like no other.

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