At the top end of pro sports, you can divide the competitors into two types – winners and overachievers.
The former is sports' greatest compliment, the latter its most back-handed.
Connor McDavid is the best hockey player in the world right now. Some people might still stump for Sidney Crosby, but only to make the discussion interesting. McDavid is subjectively better than Crosby.
But one is a winner, while the other is still just an overachiever. That is beyond dispute.
If by the end of his career, McDavid still hasn’t won anything that matters, no one will consider him a winner. Doesn’t matter how many goals he scores and how many people he goes through to score them. It won’t matter how poorly Edmonton (or his next team) managed the roster around him. Because winners win. That’s what defines them.
Players know this in their bones. That the only way to ensure a legacy that lasts beyond a generation or two is to win. Otherwise, you’re Marcel Dionne. An overachieving player someone’s father loved, and one that man’s grandson has never heard of.
Most guys are happy enough to last a few years and make a decent living. But stars want more. Part of what makes someone exceptional is their appetite – for money, the ball, attention, punishment.
Only a few overachievers get pushed up in a given decade. They are the golfer most likely to break through, the tennis pro who can’t get over that one opponent, the basketball savant buried inside a dysfunctional franchise.
It’s possible to bear that pressure at the beginning of a career. Some seem to enjoy it. They’ve gotten this far. So what is this unusual feeling of failure but another problem to solve? They’ve solved every one before.
After they’ve been around a few years, the overachiever is much less fun to be around. All business and no play. They’ve gotten so tight out there you hear them vibrating.
By late-career, the desperation is coming off the overachiever like a smell. You can tell that they can tell that you can tell it’s going to end badly. Once that gets into a player’s head, it is the ruination of them.
Until Sunday, you’d have said that Clayton Kershaw was one of those guys.
Kershaw came out of the gate a freakish talent. He threw hard, for strikes, and he could fool you. He was also durable, steady and left-handed. You put those six factors into a baseball adding machine and the answer it pumps out is “Hall of Fame.”
He won his first Cy Young Award at 23. He’s been a National League MVP. He earns more than Ford Motors.
A couple of years ago, another former Dodgers ace, Orel Hershiser, called Kershaw “the best pitcher that ever lived.”
“Some people will say, ‘Okay, he hasn’t won a world championship,’” Hershiser continued, fatally undermining his own argument. “Well, I don’t believe that.”
Both of these guys played for the same team that once featured Sandy Koufax. So I’m not sure it’s a question of “believing.”
Regardless, you’d have said from the vantage point of the weekend that Kershaw’s career was adding up to a mitigated disappointment.
He’d played his entire career for a preposterously well-funded and well-run franchise. He had the good fortune of playing in the 2000s, as baseball’s playoffs were expanding. He’d had nine tries at the postseason. And he had pooched every one.
As soon as you handed Kershaw the ball in October, his fastball became a beachball. As far as rising to occasions, Kershaw was the sort of guy who showed up to a funeral in a T-shirt.
The nadir came in 2018. Kershaw pitched twice against Boston in the World Series. He had his clock cleaned in each outing. On the one hand, the Red Sox won a title. On the other, Kershaw lost it.
Kershaw is also the sort of pitcher who feels like he’s been fading from his very best for a long time (mainly because his best represented some of the finest pitching ever performed). His fastball diminished, forcing him into an overreliance on his slider, and then his curve. It’s harder to fool people when you can’t also put one in their ear.
The fastball is back this year, and so Kershaw is as well.
He was magnificent in the wild-card series (0.00 earned-run average), good enough in the division series (4.50 ERA), but was trending downward in the championship series (7.20 ERA). He was scratched hours before a start against Atlanta with back spasms. You could see the car crash coming.
But Kershaw is not as vital to the Dodgers as he once was. They won that series against Atlanta despite his absence. The result being that Kershaw came into this World Series well rested and, perhaps for the first time, not feeling like it was all on him.
He was excellent in Game 1, and the Dodgers won. Historically, Kershaw’s real problem in a postseason series has been the second start.
On Sunday, he was dependable against the Tampa Bay Rays. He didn’t overpower anyone. He didn’t demoralize the Rays. He was just good enough.
But after the way the Dodgers had lost Game 4 – two farcical errors on one play that blew a one-run lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth – “dependable” was a Herculean feat. The Dodgers won again and are now one win from a title.
For the first time in his career, Kershaw – 13-season pro, eight-time time all-star, best of his generation – had delivered when it really counted.
That isn’t the end of it. In order for Kershaw to make the leap from overachiever to winner, the Dodgers have to finish off the Rays on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Kershaw appears to understand that. As well as being one of the best, he is also one of the least quotable great athletes ever. He didn’t break that streak after Game 5.
Maybe he’ll say something interesting in a couple of days, when he can for the first time be assured that it will be remembered and repeated long after he’s gone.