The Los Angeles Dodgers are on a historic run. Although their 10-game winning streak came to an end on Sunday, they joined the 1941 New York Yankees and the 1942 St. Louis Cardinals for the best 50-game stretch in major league baseball history: 42 wins and eight losses.
Clayton Kershaw—an ace among aces on the Dodgers pitching staff—hurled eight shutout innings in Saturday’s 5-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies to pick up his 12th win of the season and lower his major league-best ERA to 1.80.
“Kersh is kind of what we’re all about,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told reporters after the game. “He doesn’t take a hitter off. Every pitch has a purpose.”
Indeed it does—in more ways than one.
This season, Kershaw, an outspoken Christian, has launched the #Pitching4Purpose campaign to raise funds for Kershaw’s Challenge, a charity he started with his wife, Ellen, in 2011. Kershaw’s Challenge has formed partnerships with charities in Los Angeles and Dallas, but the bulk of its work is in Africa: Last December it celebrated the opening of an orphanage in Zambia, which provides 10 children with the basic necessities and the gospel.
Kershaw’s Challenge has raised more than $96,000 this season after pulling in more than $220,000 in 2012. Kershaw donates $500 for every batter he strikes out—and he currently ranks second in the National League with 182 strikeouts.
Kershaw told me that inspiring others to get involved is more important than the money he gives to the cause.
“It’s just cool to have giving with a purpose,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing, it’s for the greater good. That’s … the whole point.”
Last fall, Kershaw received the Roberto Clemente Award, major league baseball’s top humanitarian award. He was only 24 years old at the time—by far the youngest recipient ever. Kershaw called the award a “huge honor” that also helped recognize the work of his wife, who is involved with Kershaw’s Challenge full time.
“Ellen and I don’t do this stuff to get recognized for it, but I think it [was] a huge opportunity for K.C. to get that national recognition and to reach more people,” said Kershaw, who along with his wife wrote a book in 2011. “I was so thrilled that Ellen got that, because she works so hard at it.”
Kershaw grew up in a Christian home but said he didn’t know what it meant to follow Jesus until he reached high school. In 2008, two years out of high school, Kershaw arrived on the big league stage, where he says living out one’s faith often takes on a different look than for the average person.
“It’s hard because we’re here at the field every day for 10 hours every day,” he said. “You’re not going to have a whole lot of personal interactions with the 40,000 people in the stands, but your character [on the field] can show what you believe in.”
Kershaw said he wants to be known as a Christian who happens to play baseball, not as a baseball player who happens to be a Christian. Judging by his on-field accomplishments, he has his work cut out for him: He’s a three-time All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and in 2011 was the fourth pitcher in the last 40 years to win the National League’s pitching triple crown: leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and earned run average. That year, at age 23, he became the youngest player since 1985 to win the Cy Young Award—given to the league’s best pitcher.
In 2013, Kershaw leads the majors in innings pitched (190 1/3) and opponents’ batting average (.182), while lowering his career ERA to the best mark (2.63) of any starting pitcher in baseball history with at least 1,000 innings pitched—topping names like Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Sandy Koufax.
Kershaw said it’s important to keep accomplishments in perspective: “People forget about what you do on the baseball field. As soon as baseball’s over, give it four or five years and people forget about you. There’s a lot more important things off the field. You can make a lasting impact in a lot of people’s lives.”
Followers of Kershaw’s Twitter account won’t find anything about the Dodgers or baseball—only a reference to Colossians 3:23: Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. Kershaw, known for his exceptional work ethic, said he knows when he steps on the field his sole job is to give “absolutely everything.”
Kershaw said talking to the press and making public appearances is hard for him, but it’s a chance to grow as he seizes opportunities to talk about his faith: “I was given this platform for one reason, and it’s not to play or be talented, but to help spread the gospel.”