How Prep Phenom Clayton Kershaw Became an L.A. Dodger 10 Years Ago

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJune 9, 2016

ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 7: Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers throws against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium August 7, 2008 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Dodgers beat the Cardinals 4-1.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The kid was something special, all right. But the story of how Clayton Kershaw, a skinny stick-figured high schooler, landed with the Los Angeles Dodgers 10 years ago as the seventh overall pick in the draft?

The astounding true fact that five pitchers—count 'em—were drafted ahead of him?

Oh, that story is every bit as dramatic as Kershaw's current, majestic strikeout-to-walk ratio of 109:6.

That story involves (deep breath) Luke Hochevar, the Las Vegas school system, Jordan Walden, Kershaw's mediocre performance in a state playoff game, subterfuge, Tommy Lasorda, a grand slam in the Seattle Mariners farm system years before and, even, a likely case of racial profiling. (Exhale.)

"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Logan White, then the Dodgers' scouting director, now the San Diego Padres' director of player personnel.

"I remember in the draft room that day, there being some uneasiness in not knowing who was going to be picked ahead of you," says Ned Colletti, then the Dodgers' general manager, now a senior adviser to that club's president and CEO.

"I just tried to throw as hard as I could and let them see it," says Kershaw of the days leading up to the 2006 draft.

Calvin Jones was Los Angeles-born and, at the professional level, Seattle-bred. The Seattle Mariners had made Jones the first overall pick in the January phase of the amateur draft in 1984, back when the major leagues conducted two drafts a year, in January and June.

Jones played at Double-A Vermont with Ken Griffey Jr. in 1988 and then rejoined him in Seattle in 1991 and 1992. Jones' major league career was brief: After 65 games with the Mariners over those two seasons, he bounced around the minors for the next four summers and then wound up pitching in Mexico and the independent Atlantic League before his playing days finished in 2002, at 38.

Clayton Kershaw with Calvin Jones.
Clayton Kershaw with Calvin Jones.Photo courtesy of Calvin Jones

But the reason he was in position to become Los Angeles' first man in on Kershaw went back more than a decade earlier.

"I was a closer, and he was a starter in the Mariners' organization," White says. "I came in in relief one night for him with the bases loaded, and I gave up a grand slam. Three of the earned runs went to him.

"I kid him to this day: The only good thing about that outing is that I hired you."

The Dodgers hired Jones in 2003 to scout both professionals and amateurs. He was living in Las Vegas at the time.

"Logan asked me, would I be willing to move to Texas?" Jones says. "At the time, I didn't like the Las Vegas schools. I did some research and got back to him and said, 'Oh, I'll take Texas.' It was the best thing for me. Today, my daughter runs track at [the University of] Oklahoma. I have a son at the University of Arkansas…"

When Jones moved to Dallas, Kershaw's hometown, the young pitcher wasn't exactly a household name. Not yet.

"The funny thing was, going into that year, the guy in that area who was the most hyped-up guy was Jordan Walden," White says of the longtime reliever now on the disabled list in St. Louis. "Nowadays, you have blogs and the internet [so word about others spreads quickly]. But at the time, Walden was the guy.

"Kershaw came out throwing well that spring. I saw him early with Calvin. Tim Hallgren (then the Dodgers' national crosschecker—the point man responsible for comparing and contrasting reports from the organization's area scouts) saw him. We were going in to see Walden, and of course Clayton was in the mix, so we go in and then you think the lefty is pretty special."

Special enough that the Dodgers identified him early as a premium player. White made sure his team had someone there scouting every one of Kershaw's outings that spring. The lefty was coming on strong. Texas A&M offered a full scholarship but, as the Dodgers got to know Kershaw, their read was he was solely focused on pro ball.

Especially as he lit up both radar guns and opposing lineups.

"Funny thing going into [his senior] year, I think Clayton would tell you he probably wasn't expecting to go in the first round," White says.

Says Kershaw: "I don't remember what I was thinking in the fall. But if you had told me I'd have been drafted in the first round, I'd probably have been a little surprised, for sure."

Part of it was that Kershaw didn't become dominant until his senior season of high school, as both his fastball and curveball developed at warp-speed rates. When the season started, Baseball America ranked him as only the 34th high school player in the nation.

Part of it was that, come draft time, major league clubs generally favor college pitchers over high school pitchers because the college kids are viewed as being closer to major league ready.

That is largely why the five pitchers taken before Kershaw in the '06 draft were all college-aged: Hochevar (No. 1 overall by Kansas City, from the University of Tennessee), Greg Reynolds (No. 2, Colorado, from Stanford), Brad Lincoln (No. 4, Pittsburgh, from University of Houston), Brandon Morrow (No. 5, Seattle, from Cal) and Andrew Miller (No. 6, Detroit, University of North Carolina).

At the time, the Dodgers still owned the rights to Hochevar. They had drafted him in the supplemental round of the 2005 draft, No. 40 overall, but could not agree to terms. Unsigned, the Dodgers would lose their rights to Hochevar with the '06 draft, which, at one time, was viewed as a Los Angeles fumble.

Not today.

"Hochevar re-entering the draft turned out to be a blessing for us because it increased the number of high-quality arms that might have been drafted ahead of Clayton," Colletti says.

Privately that spring, the Dodgers were becoming more excited each time they watched him pitch.

Kershaw's skills in high school enthralled the Dodgers, who were reticent to publicly show their enthusiasm about him.
Kershaw's skills in high school enthralled the Dodgers, who were reticent to publicly show their enthusiasm about him.Photo courtesy of Highland Park High School

Publicly, they kept a low profile and a poker face.

"I can honestly tell you there was never a thought process in which he wasn't our guy, since early in the spring," White says. "The first time I saw him, that's the guy. He honestly was the best guy I saw all spring. We liked other guys—Lincoln, those guys, too. But our main focus that whole year was on Kershaw.

"And I knew, having done this for a while, that high school pitchers fall in the draft. The sentiment is that everybody likes a high school pitcher during the spring, but when they get into the room with the GM and everyone, the thinking starts going that the high school pitcher might not make it or that he might be too far away.

"The reality is that a high school pitcher can look great, but not go one or two or three. He might fall. That's what happened with Clayton."

The Dodgers' strategy was to stay quiet and lurk in the shadows.

"Some guys contacted him early and stayed on him," Jones says. "I didn't contact him until closer to the draft. I didn't call him and stay on him because I didn't want to alert other teams that we were on him high."

That is why, in the final days and hours leading up to the draft, the Dodgers' interest took Kershaw by surprise.

"Wow, I didn't talk to you much," Kershaw told Jones. "I hadn't heard from you guys."

"Yeah," Jones told him. "I didn't want to alert the other teams I was high on you."

Kershaw appreciated the less aggressive approach.

"He came to our house and talked to my mom and I and just said, 'We're interested,'" Kershaw tells Bleacher Report. "It was kind of the least formal of all the teams we talked to, which I thought was great.

"All the other teams have all their tests and all their stuff, which I think is pretty stupid. He just got to know us and hang out. Trying to get to know you as a person instead of trying to figure it all out on a piece of paper."

Jones won over Kershaw and his mother, Marianne, by trying to get to know them minus the tests other teams brought.
Jones won over Kershaw and his mother, Marianne, by trying to get to know them minus the tests other teams brought.Photo courtesy of Calvin Jones

The day Jones visited, Kershaw's mother told him she had something she thought he would get a kick out of. She disappeared into another room and returned with a large photo of Kershaw playing youth baseball for a team called, yes, the Dodgers, in full uniform.

Already smitten, Jones swooned even more. This is meant to be, he thought.

Because of the pointedly subtle strategy, the Dodgers had to find other ways to get to know Kershaw. That wasn't easy for Jones, being that he had just moved to the area and was living in an extended-stay hotel with his wife, three kids and dog at the time while waiting for construction to finish on his house.

A one-car family then, just getting his kids to and from school while bird-dogging Kershaw alone probably would make for a riveting HBO series.

"I said, 'I've got to know something about this kid,'" Jones says. "So one night about 5 or 6, twilight, I started walking through his neighborhood in Highland Park.

"I ended up talking with one of his neighbors up the street."

"Oh, yeah, the kid who plays baseball?" the neighbor told Jones. "Great kid. His mom is a really good person. He's a 'Yes sir,' 'No sir' type of guy. He was a Cub Scout. Really good kid. I've never heard anything bad about him."

Another guy was standing with the neighbor, and after they chatted, Jones continued his walk in the neighborhood…until a police car pulled up, asked for his identification and wanted to know what he was doing.

"I called my buddy later that night, another black guy, and asked him about it," Jones says, now chuckling at the memory. "He said, 'Really? You went walking through Highland Park? Where President George W. Bush lives? Really?' I didn't know that. He goes, 'Yeah, Bush lives there.' It was crazy. It was funny at the time.

"A black guy walking through the neighborhood with a Dodgers hat on? I didn't know nothing about Highland Park. I just figured it was [Kershaw's] neighborhood."

Jones explained to the policeman that he was a Dodgers scout, produced a California ID (at least it matched his cap) and went on his way.

Luke Hochevar, drafted No. 1 overall by the Royals, was among the six players taken before Kershaw in 2006.
Luke Hochevar, drafted No. 1 overall by the Royals, was among the six players taken before Kershaw in 2006.Dick Whipple/Associated Press

Meanwhile, some of the clubs picking ahead of the Dodgers were doing less outside legwork and spending more time in Kershaw's home.

Not that Clayton and his mother were impressed.

"I remember the Pirates and even the Rangers [who picked 12th overall], they had a bunch of tests I had to take that I think I even failed at times," Kershaw says. "It was like personality. It was a bunch of tests that, honestly, were pretty stupid.

"I don't know. They were trying to figure it out, but the best way to do it is just to talk to you. The Dodgers did well; they just tried to figure it out. Which I thought was great."

Says Jones: "You gotta know the human side of him rather than what a piece of paper could tell you about."

With the draft now looming and Kershaw's curveball crackling, every one of his Highland Park High School starts was a big draw. Jones estimates there were at least 25 major league scouts and executives at each one.

"They were like, 'Man, this is the best high school arm we've ever seen,'" Jones says. "We were all in agreement."

From the mound, as he stared in to each hitter, the 18-year-old kid clearly could see the cluster of men behind the screen who would decide his future.

"I don't know if you really think about all that," Kershaw says today. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to pitch well. I obviously wanted to get drafted, so I just tried to pitch well for the guys who showed up."

One day, Highland Park mercy-ruled an opponent, and Kershaw struck out every single hitter in the five-inning game.

"He had pulled an oblique muscle before the playoffs," Jones says. "I was like, 'Oh man, he's not going to be able to snap off curveballs.' So he struck out every batter throwing all fastballs.

Despite his often dominant performances, Kershaw concerned some front offices that were predisposed to not trust high school players.
Despite his often dominant performances, Kershaw concerned some front offices that were predisposed to not trust high school players.Photo courtesy of Highland Park High School

"Logan turned to me and said, 'C.J., you ever done that?' 'No, never. I've never seen it.' Then the next at-bat he hits a home run. And I'm saying, 'Aw man, I'm not going to get him now!'"

But Kershaw was not invincible. In what the Dodgers thought was a pivotal moment for them that spring, Kershaw served up a first-inning home run in a state playoff game in Frisco, Texas, and, for one day, as his rivals chanted "overrated!" from their dugout, he looked mortal.

"Myself and Travis McCourt, Frank's son, went in to see him," White says of the Dodgers' owner's son at the time. "Travis wasn't evaluating, but Frank wanted him to learn the business. Everything that everyone does.

"So we go in and the first kid of the game actually hit a home run off of Clayton, and he was just a little wild that day. He was scattered with his command. His breaking ball was just OK. But he battled, ended up winning 8-2 or 8-3, and I was probably one of the happiest guys in the ballpark that Clayton struggled.

"Because at the time I was thinking we might not get a chance to get the guy. But with him having an outing that was good, but subpar for him, I think it helped seal some of the teams' decisions in front of us."

Jones recalls being dejected that day, if fleetingly.

"Logan said, 'You can't be worried about yourself, Calvin! Don't be mad. This might knock some people off of him," Jones says. "I laughed and told him, 'I'm not worried about myself.'"

Kershaw? Competitive as he is, even today he looks back on that game and will not admit being off.

"I didn't think I pitched that bad," he says. "We won and got to go on."

As decision day approached, the Dodgers had a few other thoughts, even if none of them were as serious as Kershaw.

They liked pitcher Bryan Morris but ascertained he probably would still be around for their 26th pick in the first round (he was, and he is still pitching today for the Miami Marlins, though he's currently on the disabled list with a sore back).

They liked Clemson University outfielder Tyler Colvin, who eventually fell to the Cubs, who picked 13th.

"Tim Lincecum was a thought," says White of the University of Washington right-hander whom San Francisco picked three slots after Kershaw (and right before Arizona selected right-hander Max Scherzer with the 11th pick in a draft memorable for aces). "I don't know if that was a reality.

"I'd love to tell you if we didn't take Kershaw we would have taken Lincecum. I would love to tell you that. But it was more Kershaw, Morris, Colvin."

Tim Lincecum, drafted by the Giants at No. 10 overall, was a consideration for the Dodgers in the 2006 draft.
Tim Lincecum, drafted by the Giants at No. 10 overall, was a consideration for the Dodgers in the 2006 draft.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

More and more as draft day approached, with that seventh overall pick, it was Kershaw, Kershaw, Kershaw.

"I put a lot of value in conversations," says Colletti, who had been named Dodgers GM less than a year earlier, on Nov. 16, 2005. "And [in] my conversations with Logan and Calvin, they were so strong on him. Especially Calvin.

"I didn't know Calvin as well as I would know him in later years—or Logan for that matter—but I could tell the conviction they had for Clayton Kershaw was about as strong as I'd heard on anybody. That helped push me to think that this certainly was the right player for us to pick."

Colletti saw Kershaw two or three times in person that spring as well and emerged thinking the young lefty would not be a long-term minor league project.

"Best player on the field," Colletti says. "Same delivery really. There were different parts to the delivery, and I was curious about that—how that would play long term. But he was as dominating then as he is now."

In Los Angeles for meetings the week of the draft, Jones made his pitch to all who would listen, including a certain Dodgers Hall of Famer.

"What makes you think we should take your guy over the others?" Tommy Lasorda (then a special adviser with the team) demanded. "This is one of the highest draft picks the Dodgers have ever had."

"Well, Tommy," Jones said. "I've played with and seen the best. I played with Randy Johnson. I've seen Nolan Ryan. I've seen Roger Clemens. I've seen Greg Maddux. I've played with or against all of these guys. And Tommy, this is the best arm I've ever seen.'"

"You really think so?"

"Yeah. He has a major league curveball right now."

On draft day, the Dodgers knew the Detroit Tigers, picking immediately before them, were a threat to take Kershaw. But once the Royals picked Hochevar No. 1 overall, that caused Andrew Miller to tumble down a bit. The Tigers took him at No. 6.

"Logan called right before the draft started," says Kershaw, who watched on his computer that day (the draft was not yet on television). "He said, 'If you're around at the seventh pick, we're going to take you. It's not a sure thing, but we think we're going to take you.'

2006 MLB Amateur Draft
PickPlayerTeamSchoolCareer Stats
1Luke Hochevar (P)RoyalsTennessee45-62, 4.98 ERA, 6.8 K/9
2Greg Reynolds (P)RockiesStanford6-11, 7.01 ERA, 3.9 K/9
3Evan Longoria (3B)Devil RaysLong Beach State.271 AVG, .835 OPS, 219 HR, 742 RBI
4Brad Lincoln (P)PiratesHouston9-11, 4.74 ERA, 6.8 K/9
5Brandon Morrow (P)MarinersCalifornia, Berkeley44-43, 4.22 ERA, 9.2 K/9
6Andrew Miller (P)TigersNorth Carolina36-40, 43 SV, 4.45 ERA, 9.9 K/9
7Clayton Kershaw (P)DodgersHighland Park HS (Texas)122-57, 2.38 ERA, 9.8 K/9
Baseball-Reference.com

"It was a cool feeling."

Says Jones: "I just kept thinking about that picture of him as a boy in a Dodgers uniform. It was giant-sized. I left the house that day and said this sounds like a storybook ending. No way this is going to happen.

"I stuck with him—went to see his last game. He played first base that day, and they lost. I'm watching him walk back toward the bus with his head down; he was by himself. I said, 'You know what, this is probably the last chance I'll ever get to talk with him.'

"So I ran up and said, 'Clayton, I've seen a lot of guys play, I've scouted a lot of guys, but you're the best I've ever seen. The best stuff I've ever seen.' He said, 'You think so, Mr. Jones?' I said, 'Oh yeah, you're the best I've ever seen. The draft is Tuesday. I probably won't get you, but if I do, it'll be the best thing I ever get out of scouting.' He said, 'You think so? I read up on the Dodgers, and it seems like you have a really good organization.'"

All that was left was the sweating. The first five picks went down. Then came Detroit, in the midst of a surprising '06 season that would end with the Tigers storming all the way to the World Series.

"It's getting close, and I'm going, 'C'mon, Detroit, draft Andrew Miller! I will root for you in the playoffs!'" Jones says.

The Tigers picked Miller.

That night, his first official night as a Dodger, Kershaw celebrated.

"We went over to my girlfriend's house—my wife now," he says of Ellen. "We had a lot of people over there and hung out. Had a party."

Kershaw with his then-high school girlfriend, and now wife, Ellen.
Kershaw with his then-high school girlfriend, and now wife, Ellen.Photo courtesy of Highland Park high School

Within a week, Jones was flying to Los Angeles with Kershaw and his mother, Marianne, so Clayton could sign his first major league contract: A $2.3 million signing bonus.

"We get to stadium, and they had life-size pictures of Orel Hershiser and others," Jones says. "And Clayton says, 'Wow! Look at that!'

"I go, 'What are you marveling at? Your picture is going to be up there one day.' 'You think so? I hope so, this is great.'

"I said, 'Get used to L.A., because you're going to be here for a while.' I was so happy. His mom is such a great lady, and he was such a great kid.

"It couldn't happen to better people."

Colletti vividly remembers meeting Kershaw and his mother in a suite on the first base side of Dodger Stadium that day.

"He was like a young colt," Colletti says. "We were thrilled to have him. He was quiet, observant, and he had this young colt look to him that he was gonna be a thoroughbred at some point in time."

A decade later, a thoroughbred for the ages has emerged. Kershaw has won three Cy Young Awards, been to five All-Star Games and is on track to do both again this summer. He remains the Dodgers' best hope to win their first World Series since 1988 as he's regularly compared with Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. The two have become good friends.

Jones left scouting for a construction venture a couple of years ago—a career that is more family-friendly and financially puts him in better position to pay for his kids' college tuition. But he misses the baseball life and figures he will return to scouting one day soon. Memories of the spring of 2006 only whet his appetite.

"That was one of my best years in scouting," he says. "You know how you have a Christmas list as a kid and you want a Big Wheel, Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, an electric football set? My thing back then was I wanted the Big Wheel, and I wanted it bad.

"Clayton was my Big Wheel. I didn't care about any Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots."

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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