The secret to Cy success for the Dodgers’ Kershaw: His wife, Ellen, and their challenging missions to Zambia

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Photo from Ellen Kershaw/Regal Books
Ellen (center) and Clayton Kershaw pose with Hope, the orphan they met in Zambia that became the inspiration for the Kershaw Challenge last season.

Ellen Kershaw has no doubt that her husband Clayton’s 2011 Cy Young Award-winning season was the result of a purpose-driven fastball.

It started just a few weeks after they were married in December, 2010. Ellen convinced Clayton to come with here on a return trip to the village of Lusaka, about a 10-hour plane flight from Los Angeles through London, serving as the capital of Zambia in southern Africa.

Or, about as far away as possible from the comfort zone known as the mound at Dodger Stadium.

There, on a different mound of dirt, the 6-foot-3 Dallas native can attract so many of the local orphans that, according to Ellen, he’s “like a human jungle gym – he’s got five kids on him at all times.”

Inspired to do more, and as a result of the creation last season of the “Kershaw’s Challenge – Strikeout to Serve,” Kershaw committed $100 for every one of his league-best 248 strikeouts last season.

A coincidence that his number of Ks went so high?

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Those who went online and added to the effort pushed the total past $110,000.

“I think having that motivation and having a greater perspective all season, I honestly think the Lord blessed him richly through the whole process,” Ellen said Tuesday morning, standing next to Clayton at a Dodger Stadium gathering to discuss the release of their new book, “Arise: Live Out Your Faith and Dreams on Whatever Field You Find Yourself” (Regal Books, 220 pages).

The couple returned less than a week ago from another mission to Zambia, a 13-day journey to further plans of building and furnishing an orphanage that they’ve called “Hope’s House.”

Hope was a 9-year-old orphan whom Ellen met during her second visit to Africa three years ago. She was HIV positive, malnourished, unable to move around well on a defective leg. And very, very shy.

“She was on the streets; both parents had left her, and she was trying to get by living with a sister and some cousins; I was just drawn to her,” Ellen explained. “I left that summer knowing Clayton and I were going to try to do something to change her life. She was the inspiration for the ‘Kershaw Challenge.’”

Most of the time, Ellen and Hope exchange letters or talk to each other on Skype. Last week, when Clayton and Ellen saw Hope, who is now 12, she was speaking fluent English, reading and writing, going to a clinic twice a week for her leg and medications.

“She’s become a huge leader and I think the sky’s the limit for her now,” said Ellen. “It’s amazing how far she’s come.”

Same for Clayton, she admits.

“We’ve been together nine years (since they were both 14) and how I’ve seen him grow in the past year is more than I’ve ever witnessed. Last year, he was hesitant. You don’t know what to expect and you can’t prepare yourself for the brokenness you see there.

“And this was a huge time for player to get prepared for the next season. But he found his niche and played baseball with the kids. That was his personal way of showing that he cared about them.

“Going back this year, he was much more comfortable. It came naturally for him.”

If Dodger fans feel blessed to have the 23-year-old Kershaw on their team, he and Ellen feel even more blessed to have been able to spend time in the impoverished country, trying to use their influence to make things a little better for the local orphans.

Of the 12 million living in Zambia, half are under the age of 16, and a million of that population are without families.

The funds raised by the Kershaw Challenge last year went toward buying land for the “Hope’s Home” orphanage. Funds raised in 2012 will go toward making it sustainable with more beds, furniture and medical supplies.

For Kershaw, who made a mere $500,000 last year and recently filed for arbirtation seeking a raise to $10 million, it’s worth risking the reaction he could have from having a series of shots that fight off yellow fever, malaria and hepatitis.

It’s also worth tailoring his offseason workout regime so that he can get his work in despite risking setbacks in the higher elevations of Zambia.

Kershaw says that trying to teach the local kids baseball is funny unto itself.

“Anytime they see a ball they want to play, but they’d rather kick it than throw it,” he said. “I’m getting better at soccer.”

Kershaw, nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award last season for his African work, also realizes that, like Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, putting yourself out there as a Christian athlete trying to make a difference in the world can have some backlash.

“I have a lot of respect for (Tebow),” said Kershaw, raised as a Methodist and married to Ellen in a Presbyterian church. “It should be recognized what he’s trying to do. He’s playing football, but there’s more to it than that. He gets a lot of publicity for it, good and bad, and that’s just because people have opinions about it because it’s not seen all that much.

“I think it helps to have others in the athletic world doing that and trying to follow their lead.”

Kershaw also admitted that while Tebow has football as his platform to share his faith, there’s a means to an end with baseball as well for him.

“Yeah, look at where we are now, at Dodger Stadium talking about this book — there’s something to be said for that,” said Kershaw.

“Everyone has a different approach. For me, everything I do has a purpose beyond this lifetime. On the field, we have a job and that’s what we focus on. I guess you could say I’m a little more understated than Tim. Not to say either way is wrong, that’s just my personality.”

Kershaw said that without his wife, he may never have had the nerve to travel to Africa on this kind of mission. But he’s grateful that he has.

“Ellen asked me what I wanted my legacy to be when I was done playing baseball,” he said. “That’s the whole purpose of what we’re trying to figure out. We know we’re just 23 and there’s some live experiences we don’t have, but we still think we can make a difference.”

== More on the Kershaw Challenge: kershawchallenge.com
== More on the Dallas-based Arise Africa: www.ariseafrica.org
== More on the book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and Powells.com

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