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Creative Control

A FAMILIAR ANXIETY will eat at Clayton Kershaw five hours before his first scheduled start this season. He will pull on a Dodgers cap and the glove he's used for all of his previous outings, grab a baseball and slip outside the door of the unfamiliar clubhouse, alone.

He will pick out a wall. Any will do. Particulars won't matter as the Dodgers prepare to face the Diamondbacks on March 22 at the retrofitted Sydney Cricket Ground, MLB's first foray into Australia in 100 years. Using a Kershaw-lite version of his mechanics — the mid-delivery pause that deceives hitters, the downward angle, a quick low step toward his target — he will softly short-hop the ball against the base of the wall, catching the ricochet, over and over, the best way he has found to cope with his nervous energy and the impossible standards he sets. Without looking, he'll furl the fingers of his left hand against the seams of the baseball, a different grip for each of the pitches he throws. He will want, in those moments, not only to feel the ball and repeat his delivery but to seek out something that is both ephemeral and central to his being: control.


NO MATTER WHERE he is on earth, Kershaw seems to reflexively stalk control — of his curveball, the strike zone, an inning, a game, the days between starts, his words, his actions, his life. Control allows him to avoid regret. It allows him to build the things important to him.

At 26, he is already deep into a Hall of Fame career. Opponents' OPS against his fastball last season was .596, the second lowest in the majors. When he threw his curve, hitters had an OPS of .192, easily the worst mark against any pitcher who threw at least 400 such pitches. So it's no surprise that Kershaw has led the National League in ERA for three straight seasons. The last two pitchers to do so in their respective leagues? Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens.

Even when he signed a seven-year, $215 million contract two months ago, making him the richest pitcher in the game — ensuring a permanence of wealth and celebrity — he remained in control, refusing to dwell on the subject. His mom, Marianne Kershaw, says she learned the details of the deal from the Internet. When she asked him about it on the phone, he said "Thanks, Mom" and changed the subject. When his mother and wife suggested they celebrate, Kershaw blanched. "I don't know if money is something to really celebrate," he said.

He is a human metronome, adhering to a process that provides him, on the mound, moments of deep satisfaction for which no form of currency could be exchanged. During the season, his life operates on five-day cycles, and he has established hard mental lines on what must get done each day. Altering the system is not welcome. This is why he drives the same 2007 Tahoe he bought in the minors. It's why he won't give up his ages-old glove; it's been restrung repeatedly, and Kershaw now tells catcher A.J. Ellis to ease up on the hard return throws. It's why he wears the same old T-shirt and Dodgers shorts around the clubhouse. It's why he warms up between innings the same way.

Except he does, only no one notices. The strange thing about the control Kershaw exerts over his life is that it gives him the license, with every pitch he throws, to compete against the guy standing 60 feet, 6 inches away. His sense of control allows him, at the center of all attention, to be free.His routine is so predictable, it's as if he's onstage, performing the same role again and again. "He's an amazing character actor," says Ellis. "He flips on the character, and he does not break."

"Baseball is so hard as it is," he says. "For me, if you simplify it, it takes a little bit of the weight off, rather than trying to figure out all these other things. It's just peace of mind."

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