The Man in the Ravine: On Andy McCullough’s “The Last of His Kind”

T. M. Brown reviews Andy McCullough’s “The Last of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw and the Burden of Greatness.”

The Man in the Ravine: On Andy McCullough’s “The Last of His Kind”

The Last of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw and the Burden of Greatness by Andy McCullough. Hachette. 400 pages.

OF ALL THE MAJOR American sports, baseball has the highest potential to drive its players insane with frustration. “Not failing” seems to be the highest pursuit, with staccato successes a nice fringe benefit. Hitters are considered wildly successful if they manage to produce a base hit three out of every 10 chances. Pitchers will always give up runs and hits; their ability to stem the bleeding is where they make their money. Even the sport’s demographics are daunting in their probabilities: only 10 percent of players in the minor leagues will ever do so much as get a cup of coffee in the majors.


It would seem a similarly futile exercise to find a single player that unifies those two divergent ends of the sports, bending their endpoints together like a horseshoe. Andy McCullough seems to have found that man-as-metaphor in one Clayton Edward Kershaw, the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who is widely considered one of the best pitchers of all time as well as one of the most disappointing.


“Baseball revolves around failure,” McCullough writes in his new book, The Last of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw and the Burden of Greatness. “It is designed to break the heart of the fan, but it breaks the will of its participants first. Failure touches every player.” It’s a meditation on futility that gives readers a glimpse of the pain and frustration they’re about to absorb through inky osmosis. McCullough goes on to say that players fail for all sorts of reasons: skill, temperament, their bodies breaking down. The fortunate ones, like Kershaw, are still touched by catastrophe: “For those, the cruelty of the game is often not that they failed. It is that there were so many days when failure seemed so unlikely.”


McCullough, a former Dodgers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, spends the better part of 400 pages chronicling his subject’s life with the thrumming pace and tension of a good detective novel. Many sports biographies end up a chronological retelling of a career, like a Bayeux Tapestry woven by a PR flak. But McCullough conspicuously avoids that trap, choosing instead to bounce between scenes and timelines, which gives the book some unexpected verve.


For the last 16 years, Kershaw has been synonymous with the Dodgers. He has won every award the sport gives out and, for a five-year span in the 2010s, was perhaps the best player on the planet. He also seems to be perpetually ill-fated. His failures in big moments have been fodder for drive-time DJs and sports journalists for years, as has his growing list of injuries. It’s that tension that makes him such a unique and perfect metaphor for McCullough’s meditation on failure and baseball. Kershaw is consistently approaching the shores of redemption before he runs aground. It can be heartbreaking to read, and readers will spend much of the time asking themselves when this poor pitcher will ever catch a break.


The book is full of tension and cliff-hangers, and all that suspense makes for a welcome foil to McCullough’s subject. For all his dominance, volatility, and idiosyncrasies on the mound, Kershaw off of it is as boring as a church picnic. He’s happily married to his high school sweetheart, Ellen, who we’re told is resolutely supportive of her husband throughout his ups and downs. The couple have four children who Kershaw gushes about without provocation. The family does missionary work in Zambia, building wells and spreading the Good Word. He quotes his favorite Bible verses. He doesn’t drink to excess. He curses rarely, even in frustration. (“Fuck” comes out of Kershaw’s mouth once in the book, its daytime TV equivalent “frick” twice.) If there are any rougher edges to Kershaw’s domestic life, McCullough doesn’t include them. But you also get the sense that this is as full a portrait of the pitcher as one can ever get. He loves baseball, his family, and God. There isn’t room for much else.


McCullough positions Kershaw’s pursuit of saintliness in tandem with his burning desire for perfection. To stray from the path was to put his career at risk, so swear jars and Bible study groups it was.


Kershaw grew up a pudgy kid in Highland Park, a lily-white enclave carved out of Dallas’s belly. The town fought viciously against annexation by the metropolis that eventually grew to surround it; it remained a tony suburb-within-a-city and at one point advertised itself as “a refuge from an increasingly diverse” Dallas. Kershaw’s mother Marianne was a graphic designer and his father Chris was a commercial musician, writing and producing jingles. When he was 12, Kershaw’s parents divorced, and his father slowly faded from his life. Chris struggled with substance abuse issues before passing away in 2013.


The divorce cleaved Kershaw’s life. He saw his mother struggle financially; she borrowed money from friends to pay rent in order to keep her son in Highland Park’s vaunted independent school system. Kershaw had always been athletic, but now he felt duty bound to fulfill his potential in order to make himself less of a financial burden and eventually take care of his mother. “He had loved baseball since boyhood. In his adolescence, he realized he could no longer treat it like a game,” writes McCullough. (Marianne died in 2023.)


Highland Park’s privileged insularity let Kershaw focus his ambitions to a single point. He became a dominant pitcher on both his high school team and a local travel team and, after a fateful training session with a pitching coach named Arthur Ray Johnson led to improved mechanics, a highly sought-after prospect with a fast track to the major leagues—and financial stability. Kershaw, we’re reminded during several scenes throughout the book, still lives in Highland Park with his family in the offseason and uses the high school practice facilities to stay sharp, even recruiting local kids to play catch with him. It’s where he would convalesce from surgeries and injuries, where he felt the most comfortable as he was becoming one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.


The village can also be an occluding shape for him, like a cataract formed by faux-manses and HOA-approved lawns. Highland Park is synonymous with wealth and white folks in Texas. The heirs to several oil fortunes live there, as do influential GOP donors like Harlan Crow and Robert Rowling. The first Black student attended Highland Park High School in 1974; the first Black family to own a home in the village purchased it in 2003. The last census found that 89 percent of the village’s population was white, almost double the proportion of the city that surrounds it. Kershaw’s family chewed at the edges of that immense privilege, but McCullough describes how the town’s insulation factors into his subject’s worldview:


He lived within a cocoon of whiteness in Highland Park. He did not recall learning in school about Juneteenth or the Tulsa race massacre. He knew little about redlining. When Colin Kaepernick protested police brutality in 2016, Kershaw did not understand why. He said nothing when backup catcher Bruce Maxwell did the same in 2017 and was subsequently shunned by baseball.


(To his credit, Kershaw became one of the most vocal supporters of his Black teammates in 2020, a development that came as a surprise to other Texas ballplayers who knew he was going against the Highland Park grain.)


The unfortunate billions who lived outside of Highland Park’s gates seemed mostly a distraction from Kershaw’s purpose. He became devotedly orthopraxic in his athletic habits. We learn about monkish routine between starts, and how deviations from those habits have led to disaster on the mound. His workouts are standardized, his recovery sessions in the same neat order. Weight lifting, running, a 34-pitch practice session that follows a specific format every single time. These sorts of regimens are common to most pitchers and, indeed, most athletes. But Kershaw appears to treat his schedule like it’s the foundation in his hierarchy of needs. He stuck to his pattern when he flew home for his father’s funeral, finding a Highland Park High School kid to catch a bullpen session for him before he caught a flight to San Francisco to rejoin his team.


¤


Like most sports biographies, The Last of His Kind trends toward the hagiographical. McCullough seems to know that, though, and he cleverly uses that critical cliché to his advantage by fusing his telling of the hero’s journey with Kershaw’s adopted faith. (Ellen’s family are devoted Presbyterians and are credited with shaping the pitcher’s relationship with Christianity.) The book functions almost as a fable as Kershaw toggles between triumphs (Cy Youngs, an MVP, a World Series ring) and failures (injuries, playoff implosions, more playoff implosions). Redemption—both spiritual and athletic—sits at the core of the book, though Kershaw’s faith seems less fire-and-brimstone than old-school Protestant work ethic. His favorite verse from Colossians 3:23 is downright stoic: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”


But after God comes baseball, and McCullough does an admirable job of bringing box scores and biographical ephemera to life. There are moments that drag, like when he reels off the pitch sequence of a single at-bat or attempts to make the tedious horse trading of the MLB draft sound exciting. In other places, though, he injects a welcome tension, such as a particularly tough playoff matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals. You can feel the scene smash cutting like McCullough is writing shots for a Steven Soderbergh movie:


His approach did not change. Heaters, sliders, inner half. The next batter, Jhonny Peralta, smacked a fastball into center. Yadier Molina lined a first-pitch slider up the middle. All of a sudden, the bases were loaded and the tying run was at the plate. “Every hit they got was just singles right up the middle,” [Dodgers pitching coach Rick] Honeycutt recalled. “You just go, ‘What the heck’s going on here?’” Honeycutt rang the bullpen. But he stayed inside the dugout. In his suite above the diamond, [Dodgers’ general manager] Ned Colletti felt helpless: “I remember standing up there going, ‘Please, somebody stop the game.’”


For some, there will be a fluent predictability in all this pressure, like the familiar back-and-forth of a Law & Order episode. Even Kershaw’s tidal oscillations between success and failure can start to lose their magnitude; there are only so many times you can bounce back and forth between a huge win and a devastating injury without undergoing some fatigue of your own. Still, for the concentric circles of baseball fans and Dodger diehards who will make up the majority of McCullough’s readers, annotated play-by-plays like this are catnip.


¤


Now is where I tell you that Clayton Kershaw is my favorite baseball player on my favorite team, the guy whose starts I would circle on my calendar as a twentysomething. My attachments to the team and to the pitcher were born out of a peripatetic childhood that pushed me to create anchors of memory. Baseball, with its near-perpetual three-season playing schedule, was well suited to that need, and Dodger Stadium served as the sport’s embodiment rendered in steel and halogen spotlights. I can still trawl up the feeling of my brothers and I driving down Sunset Boulevard, turning left just before it curls into Downtown and heading up the hill to the stadium, the gap-toothed smile of toll booths waiting for us to trade $20 for a parking spot. The cold, thin aluminum of the outfield bleachers where we’d always sit, their peeling painted seat numbers more a suggestion than an assignment.


The Last of His Kind serves as a sort of auxiliary memory for me. I knew Kershaw’s struggles—his injuries, his declining velocity, his failure when it mattered most—already, but McCullough gives them scale and tension. Also clear is Kershaw’s pursuit of spiritual and sporting absolution. Those twin desires often end up dovetailing into portraits of failure, even if they weren’t of Kershaw’s own making, like in the famously tainted 2017 World Series, where the Houston Astros were relaying Kershaw’s pitches to their hitters through a pretty ingenious system involving cameras and trash cans. His summits even come with blemishes: Kershaw’s lone World Series ring came from a pandemic-shortened season that seemed only to invite more criticism.


So how, then, are we supposed to judge Kershaw? As a snakebitten great marked by bad luck or as a mortal who buckled under pressure? To his credit, McCullough lets his subject answer that prompt himself and set the terms of his own judgment:


Kershaw often reflected on Theodore Roosevelt’s monologue about “The Man in the Arena.” The first part of the speech—“It is not the critic who counts …”—was usually wielded by cantankerous athletes tired of the prying eyes of the press. But Kershaw cared more about the next sentence, in which Roosevelt praised the man “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,” and who “if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”


It’s not the most nuanced study of a competitive existence, but I found it almost gentle. Failure seems to have forced Kershaw to reconsider his relationship to perfection, something that was vital to his existence for many years. The echoes of bats he didn’t miss and the lingering pain in his shoulder and back from years of contorting his body were only marks of his earthliness, and in that mortality is comfort.


Kershaw’s love of Roosevelt’s gladiatorial speech, oddly, made me think of Kierkegaard, whose stark vision of Christianity hinged on surrender. “Thus is the fight carried on. Whether he who is engaged in this fight will be defeated, depends solely and alone upon whether he has the will to procure for himself possibility, that is to say, whether he will believe,” he wrote in The Sickness unto Death (1849). “And yet he understands that humanly speaking his destruction is the most certain thing of all. This is the dialectical character of faith.” Failure is guaranteed. Whether you let it drive you crazy is another matter.

LARB Contributor

T. M. Brown is a writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork, among other places.  

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