Kershaw and the burden of greatness

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As a young Red Sox fan, Pedro Martinez’s departure after winning Boston a ring in 2004 was a tragedy. The uber-talented and goofy pitcher was my second-favorite player on the team, after David Ortiz. The only saving grace in seeing him join the Mets was knowing that he was coming to the National League, meaning he would be playing my hometown Dodgers. And as luck would have it, his first start in Los Angeles was on my birthday. The stars had lined up too perfectly for me to ignore, so my mother packed a van of raucous third graders for a birthday party in Chavez Ravine.

Martinez peaked before my time as a baseball fan, but he still had enough of the old magic to put on a show. He let up two runs on only two hits and one walk, letting up a fluky home run to a young Jayson Werth. Even as an 8-year-old kid, I knew I was watching something truly special. There’s something different about an all-time great pitcher: The crowd, even on the road, is hanging on every pitch. The pitches leave the hand differently and hit the glove with a different sound. It feels like a seperate game.

And for the longest time I never saw it again. I saw Randy Johnson pitch in person. I saw Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, John Smoltz, Zack Greinke and Curt Schilling. All terrific. None of them in the same way that Martinez was.

I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t about Martinez being an all-time great. Maybe it was just something special about Martinez, and it was unfair of me to expect it from anyone else.

Then I saw Clayton Kershaw.

By the time I saw him in person, he was already one of the league’s best pitchers. But I watched him open his campaign to become one of the all-time greats on Opening Day 2013. The day started with Sandy Koufax, the legend Kershaw is always compared with, throwing out the first pitch after being given the ball by Magic Johnson — giving the entire crowd a serious case of goosebumps. All Kershaw did after that was shut out the World Series defending Giants with seven strikeouts and no walks, also hitting the first homerun of his career to break a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the eighth.

And for the first time, I saw what I saw with Martinez again. The magic that lingered in the ballpark with every pitch and the frustrated looks of every struck-out batter was unmistakeable, the same exact thing I felt eight years earlier.

It’s now undeniable — Kershaw isn’t competing with Jake Arrieta or Chris Sale to be the best pitcher in the world. He’s competing with Martinez and Koufax to be one of the greatest of all time: He transcends the specific game he plays in at the moment, and every night becomes part of baseball history.

Right now, the two starting pitchers with the highest career ERA+ — how much better your ERA was compared to your peers at the time — are Kershaw and Martinez. Dodgers fans already know Kershaw has had the early-career peak to be one of the best of all time, but what we’re watching for now is to make sure he doesn’t fall off.

When Kershaw fails in the playoffs, the pain I feel isn’t about wanting to win, it’s about knowing that the greatest pitcher of our generation is putting an irrevocable black mark on his own legacy. It can feel like a burden when things go wrong, but it’s a blessing that every time Kershaw takes the mound, he has the weight of history on his shoulders. Dodgers fans should feel lucky when they see him take the mound: chasing ghosts is a burden saved for only history’s best.

Contact Andrew Wild at [email protected].