ARLINGTON, Texas -- Clayton Kershaw was the last one to reach the infield. After the final out was recorded, and the Los Angeles Dodgers had finally secured the World Series championship, Kershaw lifted both arms in the air while a swarm of teammates sprinted past him. He emerged from the right-center-field bullpen, lagged behind, tilted his head to the sky and smiled in a way he never had publicly.
"I was trying to take it all in as best I could," Kershaw said. "You never really script what you're gonna do or how you're gonna feel, but it was a content feeling. Just like a: 'Job is done. We won. We did it. We won our race, and it's over. We completed our mission.' Just a feeling of contentment. Joy."
As the celebration ensued, and the hugs multiplied, Kershaw kept repeating the same phrase to himself -- "World Series champ, World Series champ, World Series champ" -- in hopes that it would sink in. By the time he addressed the media at around midnight local time, it still hadn't. But the reality was inescapable. The greatest pitcher of his era had finally attained the ultimate prize. A man relentlessly ridiculed for falling below otherworldly expectations in the postseason finally had his vindication.
"You wanna talk about a narrative? How about being a champion?" Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said on the stage after a 3-1, World Series-clinching victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 on Tuesday night. "He's a champion forever."
Minutes later, with only a few fans remaining at Globe Life Field, Kershaw's wife, Ellen, pointed to Section 225 on the first-base side. Kershaw remains close with nine friends who grew up with him in Highland Park, which is about 20 miles away from where he was finally crowned a champion. Seven of them live in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, another lives a five-hour drive away. They spend their winters congregating in Kershaw's sprawling Dallas home, a chunk of their summers following him around the country and most of their Octobers hanging on every single one of his pitches.
The name of their group chat: "Best Friends."
The coronavirus pandemic created a need for the first neutral-site World Series, which just so happened to reside near Kershaw's hometown, which allowed as many as seven of those friends to watch Kershaw pitch in three postseason rounds. Kershaw often tries to find them and wave, the only connection possible in a bubble environment. On this night, the joy reached a fever pitch.
"All I want is for him to win a World Series," one of the members of the group, Will Skelton, said a couple of days before it finally happened. "Sports don't promise justice. Sports can be very cruel. There's nobody -- in my opinion, in any sport -- that deserves it more. And that's rooted in his work ethic, the way he treats people, his desire to deliver for the Dodgers organization, this city. As much as anybody can, he deserves it."
YOU MIGHT RECALL some of these guys. When Kershaw won his second National League Cy Young Award in 2013, six of them drove straight to his house from work, stood around him in sweaters and khakis and looked as if they were posing for Banana Republic. The internet torched them. Barstool Sports deemed them the "Mean Street Posse." And the next year, when Kershaw added an MVP to his Cy Young, they added a seventh member and leaned into the joke.
The entire crew consists of Skelton, who works at Goldman Sachs and had his second child Tuesday night, the same night Kershaw won his first World Series; Robert Shannon, a CPA who lives in Midland, Texas; Charley Dickenson, who works in private equity real estate; John Dickenson, Charley's identical twin brother, who handles commercial real estate; Wade Prospere, the vice president of Havas, a New York-based creative agency; Josh Meredith, a commercial real estate developer; Carter English, an employee benefits broker; and Ben Kardell and Patrick Halpin, both of whom work in energy.
The Highland Park school system funnels four elementary schools into one middle school and high school. They all met that way, through sports, several of them as far back as first grade.
"I think we all share in the excitement and the disappointment. We all feel like we're on the mound with him and we're experiencing all the emotions he is but from three levels up in the stadium." John Dickenson, Clayton Kershaw's childhood friend
Kershaw, many said, is "the glue."
"Even though we're all the same age, I think all of us just sort of look up to Clayton," Prospere -- 32, just like Kershaw -- said. "Not for what he's accomplished, but for how he's accomplished it."
Some of them joined Kershaw every summer watching Texas Rangers games along the third-base line at Globe Life Park, which still sits adjacent to the new place. Others were on his high school baseball team when Kershaw was wearing No. 22 in honor of Will Clark. Six weeks ago, when Major League Baseball announced a quasi-postseason bubble that consisted of a World Series in Arlington, Texas, they all thought about what it would be like to see their buddy finally win it all where he grew up.
"I think all of us feel like it's fate," said John Dickenson, who went on to play lacrosse at the University of Denver alongside his brother.
Halpin was a corner infielder and a pitcher at Highland Park High School 14 years ago. When Kershaw started, he was a crafty lefty who threw in the upper 80s and was beginning to get letters from major college programs. But Halpin's expectations changed for Kershaw the first time he played catch with him at the beginning of his senior year. The fastball was suddenly nearing the mid-90s, major league scouts were filling the stands, and Kershaw's draft stock soared high enough for the Dodgers to draft him seventh overall in 2006.
The nine of them navigated through college while Kershaw matriculated through the minor leagues and established himself in the majors. They watched him when he seemed superhuman and they watched him when back issues derailed him. Over the past two years, they watched him work tirelessly to get back some of the velocity he displayed as a high school senior. And this year, while posting a 2.16 ERA and throwing 92 mph in a shortened season, they watched him tap back into stuff that seemed to be lost forever.
"To be honest, I really believed that it was coming," Meredith, the best man at Kershaw's wedding, said. "Just knowing how hard Clayton works, has always worked and continues to work throughout his career, and him making the commitment to take a few days away from the family and go see the Driveline guys and all that -- it doesn't shock me at all."
KARDELL LOOKED UP at the giant right-field scoreboard at Globe Life Field when Kershaw fired the first pitch of Game 5 on Sunday night and didn't like what he saw. He typed a message in the group text.
That 91 mph fastball is making me nervous.
A second group chat manifests itself every postseason, with Ellen subbing in for Clayton (this one doesn't have a name). Kershaw's friends spent most of Game 4 thinking they'd watch him pitch with a chance to win it all the following night -- then came the bottom of the ninth, a bobble by Chris Taylor, a stumble by Randy Arozarena, a muff by Will Smith, and the most improbable walk-off imaginable. Kershaw's friends began venting their frustration in the group chat before quickly realizing they were doing so in the one Kershaw was in. They quickly switched.
Under normal circumstances, the group usually takes yearly trips to watch Kershaw pitch in two regular-season series -- one in L.A. and another in a road park -- and every postseason series. Most of them have been there for practically every one of Kershaw's 30 postseason starts over these past dozen years, living and dying with each pitch.
"I don't think I've had a good night of sleep in October in like 10 years," Halpin said.
"I think we all share in the excitement and the disappointment," John Dickenson said. "We all feel like we're on the mound with him and we're experiencing all the emotions he is but from three levels up in the stadium."
English said he spent his entire Sunday sick to his stomach knowing the stakes that awaited Kershaw in Game 5, with the Series suddenly tied at 2 and momentum seemingly on the other side. Prospere is very superstitious when Kershaw pitches. Sometimes he'll stop getting up from his couch if it previously resulted in a hit. When the Rays put two on with none out in Sunday's fourth inning, it was close to 10 p.m. on the East Coast. Prospere watched from the living room of his walk-up in the West Village.
"I'm on the edge of my seat," Prospere said. "It's like watching a real-time thriller movie."
When Manuel Margot stole second base and took third on an errant throw, Halpin's first thought was: "Not again." Then Kershaw induced a popup, recorded a strikeout, and Margot broke for home. Seven of Kershaw's closest friends -- Meredith, Kardell, Halpin, Shannon, English and the Dickenson twins -- sat in nosebleed seats on the first-base side that Ellen was able to reserve at the last minute. They saw the play developing before Kershaw did.
"For him to have the wherewithal to step off the rubber and then throw it, just instinctually, that quick -- all of us were going nuts," English said. "And we're all spread out from each other, so we're all just kind of looking at each other and freaking out. It was the whole swing of emotions, bro."
Kershaw went on to retire the next five batters. Roberts walked out of the dugout to take the baseball away from him with two outs in the sixth inning. Kershaw's friends were upset. Some of them thought he might make it through the seventh. Halpin slammed his cap to the ground while a stadium with 11,437 fans booed. When the emotions subsided, Kardell thought back to all those times when Kershaw was left in the game a little too long.
"We've seen the alternate scenario," Kardell said, "and this was way better."
After it was over, and the Dodgers had captured a 4-2 victory that put them one win away from a championship, and Kershaw had won two games in the same postseason series for the first time in his career, congratulatory messages began to fill the "Best Friends" chat. His friends keep them short because they know Kershaw gets inundated in those moments. Somebody later also sent a link to the news conference that Kershaw's two oldest, Cali and Charley, took over.
English noticed something about Kershaw then.
"It was just cool to see how relieved he seemed," English said. "It looked like a weight off his shoulders."
CLAYTON KERSHAW ATE nine tacos at his 9th birthday party because he was close to reaching 100 pounds and he wanted to be the first among his group of friends -- alongside current Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford -- to reach the benchmark. For some, it stands among the earliest signs of a relentless, sometimes irrational level of competitiveness.
"I don't think the world has seen a bigger competitor than Clayton," John Dickenson said. "He will do whatever it takes to win."
English still remembers how violently Kershaw slammed his own head against a mechanical gate while chasing a loose ball playing one-on-one basketball. Charley Dickenson recalled a time when Kershaw attempted to perform the best flip off a trampoline and landed so hard on his knees that it was feared he had broken both kneecaps. John Dickenson likes to mention a fight that broke out when Kershaw was Stafford's center on the football team as a high school freshman. A dogpile formed after a standard handoff against one of Highland Park's rival schools and increasingly grew more intense.
"All of a sudden you see Clayton from out of nowhere run and jump on top of the pile and just start throwing haymakers," John Dickenson said. "We'd never seen him throw a punch before. We always knew he was super competitive, but in a respectable kind of way. To see him come out of his element and act immaturely and just start throwing punches was something we'd never seen before. We loved it."
"Frogger," the classic arcade game that involved directing frogs through a litany of hazards, launched a new version for Apple's iPhone in 2011. It quickly evolved into a huge competition among the friends group. For about a week that offseason, Kershaw became obsessed with the game. He looked up the record, beat it, and for a brief moment in time, his friends say, Kershaw held the world's highest score.
Something similar occurred on a smaller scale two offseasons ago, when Ellen gifted Kershaw a Pop-A-Shot hoop for his home gymnasium. Another friend got really good and set the highest score. The middle of February was approaching. Soon, the Dodgers would begin spring training and Kershaw would have to leave.
"I know that he spent every minute that he wasn't taking care of the kids or sleeping playing Pop-A-Shot," Meredith said, "and he finally reclaimed his high score and immediately took a picture of it and sent it out to the group to let everybody know that he'd retaken the throne. And then he left for spring training and we couldn't play for a year."
This offseason was unlike any other. The coronavirus pandemic forced sports to shut down for more than three months, and Kershaw found himself with downtime he never had. He tried golf for the first time because that's what his friends did. Kershaw quickly became better than all of them except maybe the Dickenson twins, who understand their time at the top will be short-lived.
"I'm just waiting for the day that he retires and starts playing golf on a regular basis," Charley Dickenson said. "It'll probably take him one month to be better than us. And then once we don't have golf, he'll essentially be better than me -- really, all of us -- at anything that you can compete at."
KERSHAW LOOKS EXHAUSTED every time his friends see him for the first time in the offseason. The reason is obvious. Over each of the past seven years, a successful Dodgers regular season has been followed by bitter disappointment in October. And often, Kershaw has been the one shouldering blame. His postseason ERA -- 4.43 when this year began -- has been dangled as a reason to call one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history a "choker." It's a narrow-minded thought that ignores all those times when Kershaw has been either extended too long or used on short rest. But it endures nonetheless.
"He handles it, like most everything he does, way better than I would," Skelton said.
"I've honestly been just torn apart about it," Halpin said. "It's just one of those things that, as a sports fan, you can see how these labels get applied, and it's so hard to get them off, and I really felt like he has put in the time, the effort, the humility to deserve having success in the postseason."
The offseasons usually begin with awkward tiptoeing around the subject of baseball. They'll wait for Kershaw to bring it up and pick their spots thereafter. They'll try to tease him about some of it -- "We always want him to know that if he deserves to get s--- for something, he's gonna get it from us," Charley Dickenson said -- but only when the timing is right. For the most part, baseball hardly comes up in conversation. Over the years, his friends have noted that Kershaw seems less bothered by the postseason narrative and more bothered by how it takes away from the accomplishments of teammates.
"It's just an ego shot," Kardell said. "I mean, he's the most competitive person we all know. Obviously that's what's driven him to get to the level he's at, just with hard work. That's the final thing he wants -- he wants a ring. He could pitch terribly in the World Series, and if they won he'd still be happy. But that's kind of the final bridge he's trying to cross."
This month was in many ways a coronation for Kershaw. He won four of his five starts, gave up 10 runs and struck out 37 batters in 30⅔ innings, and he might have been the World Series MVP if Corey Seager had made a few more outs.
Before Tuesday night, Kershaw was ...
• One of 10 pitchers to win three-plus Cy Young Awards and the only one among them who hadn't won a title.
• One of 10 pitchers to lead the majors in ERA at least four times and the only one among them who hadn't won a title.
• One of 10 pitchers in the expansion era to win an MVP and the only one among them who hadn't won a title.
When he finally won, Kershaw was asked what he had proved to those who criticized him and what it all meant for his complicated legacy.
He dismissed it.
"Those are all bad questions, man -- I don't care about any of that," Kershaw said. "We won the World Series. I don't care about legacy. I don't care about what happened last year. I don't care what people think. I don't care at all, man. We won the World Series. The 2020 Dodgers won the World Series. Like, who cares about all that other stuff? To be a part of that team -- all that other stuff is just pointless. It doesn't matter. We won. It's great."