Kershaw Could Cash In On Rapid Rise

In suburban Dallas, the Highland Park High baseball coaches have a routine each fall. They make a habit of stopping by the football field to take a glance at the freshman class, measuring up some of the players who might be on their field come spring.

They focus first on the quarterback, and four years ago they liked what they saw when a 15-year-old freshman was firing passes with zip and accuracy. It was Matthew Stafford, who played baseball one season and went on to be the nation’s most sought-after high school quarterback before accepting a scholarship to play at Georgia.

Clayton Kershaw? He was Stafford’s center, and was hardly noticed that afternoon.

“When I was a freshman I was short and fat and just sort of thumbing up breaking pitches every time I threw,” Kershaw says. “And I just grew and started working out. It’s funny to think about how far physically I’ve come from freshman year.”

Unlike Stafford, Kershaw wasn’t pegged as a prospect since his Little League days. But thanks to a growth spurt and developing repertoire of pitches, the lanky lefty has blossomed as the top high school prospect in the Class of 2006.

He was putting the final touches on his senior season, and less than a month from the draft was considered a cinch first-round pick, and possibly the first high school player selected. He has committed to Texas A&M, but his rise to prominence could carry him right past College Station to professional baseball.

“Clayton is not one of those kids who was always a hoss in baseball,” his mother Marianne says. “He had a period before puberty when he wasn’t doing that well. So he cherishes this now because he knows what it’s like to not be on top.”

High Riser

Kershaw is accustomed to being an underdog, though. He lives in an area that’s well-known for its athletics, but also known for its money. One of the wealthiest United States cities with a population of at least 1,000, Highland Park’s median household income is estimated near $200,000. When it was developed near the turn of the 20th century, the same landscape designer who planned Beverly Hills had a hand in the city’s layout, and Highland Park has all the swank of Southern California’s more famous home of the upper crust.

Marianne, a graphic designer, and her husband Chris divorced when Clayton was 10, but she chose to remain in the upscale suburb even though she was one of few single mothers in the area.

“Highland Park is the old-money neighborhood,” says Ken Guthrie, coach of the Dallas Bats summer youth team. “And I would say that Clayton would be the black sheep of that community, in terms of the financial situation.”

Clayton did not get a car until his senior year, and he said his 1997 Ford Explorer doesn’t exactly blend in with the Lexus SUVs that fill the school parking lot each morning.

Marianne likes to tell a story of driving her only child home from school one afternoon when Clayton was 12. As they pulled into their driveway, Clayton said something that showed his perceptive personality.

“He just looked up at me and said, ‘Mom, we’re rich, but we’re not Highland Park rich, are we?’ ” she says. “He had an understanding of those types of things early on.”

“He’s a little different than some of those guys,” says a scout with an American League organization. “He’s not living in the mansion part of town. He has a single mom . . . and they don’t have the BMW sitting out in the driveway. It’s not like he came from the mean streets, but there aren’t any concerns you’re getting the spoiled kid who expects everything on a silver spoon.”

Role Play

No, Kershaw has had to earn his notoreity. As recently as last summer, he was not considered one of the nation’s elite prospects. He wasn’t even the best player on many of his teams. His Dallas Bat club last summer featured two higher-profile pitchers: righthanders Jordan Walden and Shawn Tolleson, both of whom threw harder and had performed well on youth baseball’s biggest stages.

Walden ascended follow lists last summer when he lit up radar guns with 98 mph heat. He was the starting pitcher for the West at the Aflac All-American Classic in August and began his senior season at Mansfield High, south of Dallas, as the top high school senior in the country.

Tolleson, a senior from nearby Allen High, has a hard sinker and a feel for pitching as good as any high school pitcher in the draft class. In Mexico at the Pan-Am Championship last summer, he tossed 5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief against Cuba for USA Baseball’s junior national team in the gold-medal game. Kershaw watched from the bullpen and pitched just four innings in the tournament.

“If you wanted to put a number on them, you probably could say he was the No. 3 starter,” Guthrie says of Kershaw’s role last summer. “But I always thought that he would go the furthest and be the closest to big league ready, just for his body type and frame. And his maturity–it borders on brilliant.”

Guthrie’s gut feeling proved right, aided by Kershaw’s pitching lessons with Navarro Junior College coach Skip Johnson. Kershaw said Johnson helped him improve the break and command of his breaking ball, which was a slurvy, inconsistent offering last summer.

While Kershaw has dealt each time out this spring–he was 9-0, 0.46 with 12 hits, 104 strikeouts and 21 walks in 46 innings–Walden, who remains a probable first-round pick, has performed inconsistently. And Tolleson went down with an injury, having Tommy John surgery in March.

Kershaw took the news hard. The two had played together on travel teams since they were in junior high, and Kershaw considers Tolleson his best friend. “I was devastated for him,” Kershaw says. “I know how much Shawn loves to pitch and how good he is. It was terrible to think he had to go through it.”

Kershaw drew interest initially because of his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame and loose arm. As his pitches and velocity have improved, scouts began investigating his background and makeup, and universally praise his work ethic and demeanor, a welcome discovery in a prep class full of makeup questions.

Yet Kershaw is not without his idiosyncrasies. He still wears–noticeably tilted to one side–the same Highland Park High cap he wore as a freshman, refusing to retire it despite its deteriorated condition. “It’s got the sweat marks and it’s faded,” Marianne says. “We have a dog that loves it so much, Clayton gets home and takes it off and the dog rolls in it. I think it smells so delicious to him.

“Every year he’s issued a new cap, and I’ve got a closet full of them, but he will not let that freshman one go.”

Kershaw set a school record when he won his 32nd career game in that cap this spring, but another cap finally will replace his old reliable one soon enough–one from either Texas A&M or a major league club. It’s a switch Kershaw–not to mention his mother–await eagerly.

“We’ll be thrilled to break in a new one,” she says. “Whatever the next step is.”