Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw says he's honored that Manager Don… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
At a time when the owner is short on cash and the team appears to be without some key components, the rookie manager reminded everyone that the Dodgers still have something special.
They have Clayton Kershaw.
The recently married 22-year-old left-hander was selected the Dodgers' opening-day starter by Manager Don Mattingly on Wednesday, when pitchers and catchers first reported to the team's spring-training complex.
"I'll hook him up with anybody," Mattingly said.
On March 31, that anybody probably will be two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum — the Dodgers start the season against the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium.
Last season, then-manager Joe Torre handed the opening-day assignment to journeyman Vicente Padilla, explaining at the time, "We just had to pick somebody."
The Dodgers had to just pick somebody because they didn't have an ace.
Mattingly didn't bestow that title on Kershaw, but that decision seemed rooted in diplomacy. The manager said he didn't want to single out anyone, then added that he liked all of his starting pitchers, naming them one by one.
Kershaw downplayed the significance of pitching on the first day but understood the symbolism.
"I don't take that lightly," Kershaw said. "It's something that is a sign of recognition, it's a sign of acknowledgement from your manager. It's not something I necessarily worked toward, but it's something you're honored to get."
Kershaw pitched better last season than his 13-10 record indicated. He had a 2.91 earned-run average and struck out 212 batters in a career-high 2041/3 innings.
"Based on what he did last year, I think he's the obvious choice," said Hiroki Kuroda, who drew the opening-day assignment in 2009. "It's not just his skill. In every facet — physical, mental — he's far above average. You don't get the sense that he's as young as he is."
Mattingly said the idea of making Kershaw the opening-day starter came to him soon after the Dodgers held a news conference in September to announce he would replace Torre as manager.
"I think he has the opportunity and the work ethic and the ability to be special," Mattingly said.
Mattingly pointed out that Kershaw went against Colorado Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez twice — and that the Dodgers won both of those games.
"This kid," Mattingly said, "he loves the challenge."
Kershaw's maturation has extended beyond the baseball field.
He married his longtime girlfriend, Ellen, in December. (Mattingly's son, former Dodgers prospect Preston, was an usher at the wedding.) They have a home in Dallas.
"Any time you start living with somebody and you go through the first stages of marriage, there are some trials, but for the most part it's awesome," Kershaw said.
Kershaw accompanied his wife to Zambia on a church-sponsored mission last month. The trip was Kershaw's first, his wife's fifth.
Kershaw said their group built schools and played with the children.
"It's an eye-opening experience," Kershaw said. "It makes you realize how much you have here and how much other people don't have. One thing that's pretty cool is that since they don't have some of the stuff we have, they're happy as long as their basic needs are met. Everybody here is trying to strive for more and more and more. The more money you have, the more possessions you have, the happier you'll be — that's not necessarily the case. These people can kind of bring that to the forefront."
Kershaw has also taken the responsibility of being the Dodgers' representative in the players' union.
Although he didn't know it at the time, Kershaw took part in discussions over the winter that would affect his first start of the season.
ESPN and the league wanted the Dodgers and Giants to move their opening-day game from April 1 to March 31 — and from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
The Dodgers agreed to the change in date so they could be part of ESPN's opening-day triple-header, but refused to switch venues. Had the Dodgers allowed for their opening-day game to be moved to San Francisco, they would have had to return to the Los Angeles the next day for the start of a four-game home series against the Giants.
"I tried to get some veteran position players' perspectives on it," Kershaw said. "For starters, it doesn't mean a whole lot, we get three or four days' rest. For position players, that travel is pretty brutal."
Kershaw said he's glad the Dodgers resisted the change.
"To be at Dodger Stadium, to have your home fans, having opening day, having the excitement of opening day, it will be a fun event, it will be cool," he said. "I'm glad it's not in San Francisco."