Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Fans attending the Arizona Diamondbacks-Los Angeles Dodgers game last June 11 expected to see baseball but got boxing and wrestling as well.
Fans attending “Tales From the Dugout” on Wednesday night at Grand Canyon University Arena expected to hear tales about baseball and lessons in faith but got a confession as well.
On a night filled with strong messages of giving control to God and being bold in your faith, former Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy openly shared his deeply personal feelings about his role in the nastiest brawl of the 2013 Major League Baseball season. Kennedy, who was traded to San Diego last July, was one of the guest speakers at the men’s outreach ministry event along with two Dodgers stars, pitcher Clayton Kershaw and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
The two former major leaguers moderating the discussion, GCU alumnus Tim Salmon and ESPN analyst Aaron Boone, didn’t shy from acknowledging the curious sight of three players from that incident sitting together before a crowd of 2,000 to talk about Christianity -- and Kennedy was eager to bare his soul.
“I really want to talk about that. Are we going to talk about that tonight?” he said early in the proceedings.
The trouble on that June night began when Kennedy hit Dodgers star Yasiel Puig on the nose with a pitch in the bottom of the sixth inning. Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke then plunked the first hitter in the top of the seventh, D-backs catcher Miguel Montero, in the back, and both teams came out on the field to confront each other, although no punches were thrown.
One of the oldest and most controversial traditions of baseball is, “If you hit one of our guys, we’re going to hit one of yours.” Afterward, the pitchers involved almost always deny that it was intentional (“It just got away from me” is a common explanation), even if it clearly was. But there’s another aspect to baseball’s unwritten rules: If you’re going to hit someone, you hit them in the back. The Dodgers were incensed because of where Puig was hit, so they retaliated.
Now it was the bottom of the seventh inning, and Greinke was due to bat even though he had thrown 98 pitches and the game was tied 2-2. Kennedy said Wednesday he thought for sure the Dodgers would use a pinch hitter and was stunned to see Greinke in the on-deck circle. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Kennedy recalled. “I was mad at (Dodgers Manager) Don Mattingly for having him hit.”
Kennedy faced an excruciating dilemma: His teammates expected him to hit Greinke. He felt he had no choice. So he threw at Greinke, and it would have hit Greinke in the face if he hadn’t managed to raise his shoulder slightly. Thus began a brawl that was among the longest and most violent in recent years. Kennedy received a 10-game suspension, the longest given to a pitcher since 2005, for his actions, and seven other participants, including coaches and both managers, also were suspended. Kershaw and Gonzalez were involved in the scrum but were not penalized.
On Wednesday, Kennedy still seemed conflicted about his subpar 2013 season and his role in the brawl. He said he might have had “too much pride” during the season and promised he will never be suspended again. But he went much deeper than that.
“I feel like it’s part of my testimony (tonight),” he said. “Having that on me, it was tough because I knew guys in the other dugout. … I had people just tearing me apart in the media, and I didn’t know how to handle it. It kind of wore on me for the 10 days I was suspended, but it wore on me after that.
“I wanted to grab onto baseball as one of my things that I wanted to hold onto, and I had to let go of that. I felt free again. I think it’s great that God constantly wants to get to know us more. He wants to be with us all the time. He doesn’t want to share us with baseball. He doesn’t want to share us with our families. He wants us. So I thought that was really cool to see that happen in my life.”
That drew applause from the crowd, one of the many times during the evening when the participants shared deeply personal experiences. Kershaw, well known for his calm demeanor on the mound, talked of his teenage anxiety after his parents divorced.
“I was worried when my mom wouldn’t pick me up on time. I was worried that I would be late to practice,” he said. “So when I was 16 and started driving, I got there an hour and a half early. I was too stressed out.”
That changed when he started dating Ellen, who would become his wife three years ago.
“I saw Ellen and her family and the peace they had, and I started questioning my own faith,” he said. “Then I got drafted (by the Dodgers in 2006), and I saw God had wanted control of my life long before.”
Looking back on it now, Kershaw said, “That’s my one wish: that I had been a little more bold in my faith. In high school, I didn’t want to teeter to one side. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Now I want to talk about God boldly and praise His name.”
In 2012, Kershaw was named the recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who best represents the game on and off the field. He and Ellen founded “Kershaw’s Challenge,” which encourages giving to people and communities in need. Its most important charity is “Arise Africa,” which helped him and Ellen build an orphanage in Africa called “Hope’s Home.” They also are building classrooms there.
Gonzalez also spoke of the tension he felt earlier in his life, noting that he used to break bats in the tunnel behind the dugout after a frustrating at-bat until he finally realized, “What am I doing?” He gave his life to God in 2003, the same year he got married, and has a simple philosophy about baseball: “If you have a great game, praise Jesus. If you have a bad game, praise Jesus. Really, that’s what it’s about. You’re just lucky to be out there.”
Gonzalez also talked of the joy he gets from listening to conversations about God among his teammates, joking that it’s why God gave him big ears. “It’s all about fellowship,” he said.
Contact Rick Vacek at 639.8203 or [email protected].