How the Dodgers landed Clayton Kershaw — the first time: Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from “The Last Of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw and the Burden of Greatness.” Copyright @2024 by Andy McCullough and reprinted with permission from Hachette Books/Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved. Available on May 7. 

On June 5, 2006, two days after Logan White Jr.’s eighth birthday and one day before the Major League Baseball Rule 4 draft, Dodgers scouting director Logan White told his son his plan. Scouts like White organized their professional lives around the draft. All those hours projecting the future, all those miles in rental cars, all those nights in discounted Marriotts — they all pointed toward this moment. White illustrated the landscape for his boy. He wanted Clayton Kershaw.

White had been enthralled with Kershaw since the start of Kershaw’s senior season at Highland Park High School in Dallas. After watching Kershaw for the first time, White wondered if he had seen the future of his franchise. His scouting department spent the intervening months determining if Kershaw was worth selecting with the No. 7 pick in the upcoming draft. Calvin Jones, the area scout in Dallas, filed glowing reports all season. Tim Hallgren, one of White’s national cross-checkers, had been smitten since a preseason scrimmage. Gary Nickels, the Midwest coordinator, raved about Kershaw’s competitiveness. The young lefty reminded Nickels of another southpaw, Steve Carlton, who winnowed his focus into a tunnel, so that “the only thing he cared about was from his eyes to home plate, as wide as the strike zone,” Nickels recalled.

The results were hard to ignore. Kershaw struck out more than two batters per inning that season. He pitched a perfect game in which he punched out every hitter. He made a steady ascent up the prospect ladder. At the start of the season, he was an intriguing arm who had been the No. 3 starter on his travel-ball team. By June, he was considered by Baseball America to be the best high school prospect in the country.

The Dodgers had closely charted Kershaw’s ascent. But so had the teams choosing before them. As the draft loomed, White heard the Detroit Tigers, picking one slot ahead of the Dodgers, were torn between Kershaw and University of North Carolina left-hander Andrew Miller. But Kansas City might use the No. 1 overall pick on Miller. So White asked his son for a favor: “When you go to bed tonight and say your prayers, say a prayer that Clayton can get to us.”

The next morning, friends crowded into Kershaw’s home. As they waited for the draft to begin, Dodgers officials assembled in a Dodger Stadium conference room. Kershaw was No. 1 on the department’s board. The only other player White considered was Long Beach State third baseman Evan Longoria. But White did not expect Longoria to escape the top five.

A couple of days before the draft, White invited another pitcher to Dodger Stadium. Bryan Morris, a right-hander from Tennessee, had spent the season at a local junior college. “You’re not supposed to have pre-draft deals,” White recalled. “But if you word it in a certain way, it’s fine.” Through some artful linguistics, White hammered out a backup plan. White could spend $2.3 million on the No. 7 pick. Morris was willing to sign for $1.8 million. If someone chose Kershaw in the top six, White decided, the Dodgers would take Morris and redistribute the money elsewhere.

White conveyed the potential $500,000 discount to general manager Ned Colletti. There was a discussion about the merits of saving the money. White stumped for choosing Kershaw. (Colletti said he did not recall a debate.) They came to an agreement. If Kershaw was there, he would be a Dodger.

But would he be there?

When it came to Kershaw, the reward was obvious. But so was the risk.

The Major League Baseball draft is far more volatile than its football and basketball counterparts. In those sports, if a top pick flames out, the offending franchise absorbs a lifetime of ridicule. Ryan Leaf and Darko Miličić became household names. You heard far less about Jeff Austin (MLB’s No. 4 overall pick in 1998, the year Leaf signed with San Diego) or Kyle Sleeth (the No. 3 pick in 2003, the year the Detroit Pistons chose Miličić over Carmelo Anthony). The developmental path of amateur baseball players was less linear than in other sports: injuries were common, the professional schedule was more rigorous, and young players needed to learn to adapt from failure. The process was hard to predict.

And there was no athlete more volatile than a pitcher coming out of high school.

From 1996 to 2000, twelve high school pitchers were taken in the top 10. Nine never reached the majors. Josh Beckett — the No. 2 overall pick in 1999 who led the Florida Marlins to the World Series in 2003 — was the exception. The rule applied to flameouts like Geoff Goetz and Josh Girdley and Bobby Bradley. The first round of the 2002 draft featured four prep pitchers who became All-Stars. But as scouts filed reports for the 2006 draft, the progress of the three pitchers selected ahead of that quartet loomed as a warning. Cincinnati had taken California righty Chris Gruler at No. 3. Baltimore chose Canadian righty Adam Loewen next. Montreal picked Texan Clint Everts at No. 5. To select a high school pitcher that early in the draft, many evaluators believed, felt like packing millions of your team’s budget into a barrel and dropping a match.

The 2006 draft class of college pitching looked like one of the best in recent memory. Miller, an imposing lefty, won the Roger Clemens Award, college baseball’s equivalent of the Cy Young. The other finalists included University of Houston lefty Brad Lincoln, who won the Dick Howser Award as the collegiate player of the year. The Golden Spikes Award went to a slender dynamo from the University of Washington named Tim Lincecum. Even the players without hardware were impressive. Stanford righty Greg Reynolds intrigued evaluators with his six-foot-seven frame. The University of Missouri featured a combative right-hander named Max Scherzer. Brandon Morrow, a right-hander from the University of California at Berkeley, “had one of the best true arms I’ve ever seen on a kid,” Mariners scouting director Bob Fontaine Jr. recalled.

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Luke Hochevar struggled through the early part of his nine-year big league career but eventually became a valuable reliever for Kansas City. (Leon Halip / Getty Images)

And then there was Luke Hochevar, who was pitching for an independent team in Fort Worth. A year earlier, White drafted him with the No. 40 pick. But negotiations between the two sides combusted, which led to Hochevar re-entering the draft in 2006 — where his potential impressed several teams picking ahead of the Dodgers at No. 7. It was the sort of sequence that fortifies a man’s belief in the divine. “To me,” White recalled, “it was all part of God’s plan, for him to be there.”

In 2006, there was another difference between MLB’s draft and its equivalents in the NFL and NBA. It was not televised. Executives followed a rudimentary internet broadcast. They worked the phones, calling agents, calling players, calling colleagues. Hallgren, the Dodgers scout, was connected with other clubs. His canvassing produced hope. It came from an unlikely source: Hochevar, the Dodger who never was. The Royals had ruled out Kershaw earlier in the spring, unsure if he would throw enough strikes to thrive in the majors.

“As much as I don’t like to admit this, Clayton would not have been a factor for us, picking No. 1 in the country,” scouting director Deric Ladnier recalled. They deliberated between Hochevar and Miller. When the Royals chose Hochevar, a door opened for the Dodgers: The Tigers would have to decide between Miller and Kershaw. And the better bet, the executives knew, was almost always on the college arm.

The next few picks went White’s way. Colorado opted for Reynolds, the towering Stanford pitcher whose career would be marred by shoulder injuries. R. J. Harrison chose third for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Harrison had scouted Kershaw twice. He saw the same things Ladnier saw, the allure and the inconsistency. He picked Longoria, who won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2008 as the club evolved into a low-budget marvel. “There are some times you wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, wondering why you did something that didn’t work out well,” Harrison recalled. “In this case, I don’t lose that much sleep. Because we picked a guy who ended up being the face of our franchise for 10 years. As a scouting director, I probably never made a better pick.”

Picking fourth, the Pirates could not say the same. Earlier in the season, Kershaw thought Pittsburgh might choose him. The team had emailed him a battery of questions, a common practice at the time. His eyes glazed during the questionnaire. “Probably toward the end of them, I was just, like, click, click, click,” he recalled. During a pre-draft meeting, Pirates officials told him he had flunked the exam. “They said I had conflicting answers,” Kershaw recalled. “Sorry. What do you want me to do? I’m not going to retake it.” (The Dodgers took a different approach with their visit. White never came to Kershaw’s house. Calvin Jones made a brief pitch. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked if Kershaw would sign if the Dodgers chose him in the first round. Kershaw said he would. Jones thanked the family for their time and left. The meeting lasted five minutes, Kershaw estimated. “I was like, ‘Wow, you guys get it,’” he recalled.)

His answers to Pittsburgh’s questions may not have mattered. Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy preferred college players to high schoolers, which handcuffed general manager Dave Littlefield. “Dave wasn’t going to be able to take a high school pitcher,” recalled one person familiar with the situation. Pittsburgh selected Lincoln, the University of Houston pitcher. Later in his life, Kershaw pondered his good fortune in avoiding Pittsburgh. “I remember pitching one game and my curveball wasn’t good, so that was, like, the final straw from them,” he recalled. “So, great. I’m glad I’m not there.”

Up next were the Mariners. Seattle scout Mark Lummus had gotten an early look at Kershaw during an offseason workout with local pitching guru Skip Johnson. Johnson had tweaked Kershaw’s delivery, which improved his fastball velocity and heightened the break of his curveball. “I honestly think,” Lummus told Mariners officials later that year, “that this guy has a chance to be as good as, if not the best, pitcher that’s ever come out of the state.” The early insight did not outweigh the mandates from ownership. Fontaine, the scouting director, opted for Morrow, the pitcher from Cal. The choice agonized Lummus. But he understood. “He did the right thing,” Lummus recalled.

The dominos had toppled exactly as White desired. Only Detroit stood between Kershaw and the Dodgers. “If Andrew Miller wouldn’t have been there, Clayton Kershaw wouldn’t have been a Dodger,” former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski recalled. But Miller was there, in part because Hochevar had not signed the year before.

Six teams had the chance to take Kershaw. All six passed. The seventh would not.

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Kershaw would go on to greatness with the Dodgers, including winning the 2020 World Series. (Tim Heitman / USA Today)

A small bit of drama remained. White took a timeout, an option back in those days, to pause the clock for five minutes so he could haggle with Kershaw’s representatives from Hendricks Sports Management about a bit of contractual arcana that Dodgers owner Frank McCourt required and agents detested — a clause requiring a player to return his bonus if he quit the sport. Nickels stayed on the phone with a Dodgers staffer posted by the fax machine. Once the paperwork came through, Nickels signaled to White. They were good to go. With the seventh pick in the 2006 draft, the Dodgers selected Clayton Kershaw, a left-handed pitcher from Highland Park High School in Dallas.

Moments later, the landline at Marianne Kershaw’s house rang.

(Top photo of Kershaw during his 2008 rookie season: Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty Images)

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