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Complacency never an option for determined Kershaw

Dodgers' ace believes new contract will not change demeanor on the mound

SYDNEY -- Clayton Kershaw can win multiple Cy Young Awards like Sandy Koufax. He can win three consecutive ERA titles like Greg Maddux, post sub-2.00 ERAs like Pedro Martinez and Dwight Gooden.

Comparisons to past greats, though, don't impress Kershaw. And he has something that can't be compared to any pitcher -- a new $215 million contract.

Whatever you do, don't compare Kershaw to any player that fell prey to the temptations of sudden wealth and suddenly weren't the same player anymore.

"The biggest insult to me is if somebody says, 'You've changed,'" said Kershaw, who takes the ball at the fabled Sydney Cricket Ground Saturday night for the Opening Series against Arizona.

"People say it half-joking, but if anybody said it about me for real it would be the biggest insult of all."

Kershaw becomes the first Dodger since Ramon Martinez to pitch four consecutive season openers. He will try to restore order after a Spring Training that had its traditional timing disrupted by this ambitious international foray.

As with everything else in his life, Kershaw walks the walk. He didn't show up at Spring Training overweight or in a chartered 787. He drives the same car, and it's not a Rolls or Bentley. He doesn't even blow off the media. He leaves the clubhouse diva role to others.

He's the face of the franchise and a clubhouse leader, rare for a starting pitcher. He hasn't had the best of Spring Trainings (9.20 ERA). He's reacted to each outing with the same frustration he did last year, when he also didn't have the best Spring Training and then went on to win his second Cy Young Award. If you're looking for complacency, look elsewhere.

"It's not even a thought, really," he said. "I realize baseball is a gift. So, if all I'm doing is playing to make the most money possible, I could see it leading to complacency. That's not why I play. I don't take the contract for granted. But it's not why I play the game. I play to win and you can't be complacent and win."

Rick Honeycutt has been the Dodgers' pitching coach for nine years, long enough to remember seeing Kershaw's first bullpen session with the Major League team at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. Honeycutt doesn't see any change for the worse in the lefty, only the desire and work ethic to continually improve.

"He's taken his game to a different level," said Honeycutt. "He keeps getting better in a lot of aspects. The person inside wants to keep getting better. The work ethic, the mental approach, day in and day out. He's a very rare person, on and off the field. He has his priorities in order. He wants to be the best he can be and help the team. He's a very special man."

When Kershaw received his Cy Young Award over the winter in New York, he invited Honeycutt to join him. Another guest of honor at the dinner was retiring Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

"You get out what you put in. Clayton's all in," said Honeycutt. "At the banquet, Mariano said a lot of Yankees fans want him to come out of retirement, but he said he left everything he had on the field and he's done. Clayton is that kind of guy. Very few really back it up. It's human nature to be satisfied when you get to a point. What separates the great ones is they're never satisfied. It's what Sandy had, that inner fire. They'll never be defeated by a lack of preparation or lack of work."

Conversation's of Kershaw's ceiling inevitably return to that other special lefty. Joe Torre drew the comparison to Koufax after Kershaw's first Spring Training game and Kershaw has only validated it with each succeeding season.

Kershaw won't be throwing 27 complete games a year like Koufax did in each of his final two seasons, but Honeycutt isn't convinced he's seen the best of Kershaw, who turned 26 on Wednesday and celebrated by taking his wife to the zoo.

"I just see him continue to make adjustments in the game," he said. "For me, that's the other part, to see him making adjustments, which is what we're seeing now. Plenty of times you hear him say he didn't have his fastball and you look and he's gone seven innings and given up one run on four hits. His strength of mind is a separator. It's not just straight power. It's the use of the slider, other off-speed pitches, using both sides of the plate."

Honeycutt said Kershaw won't "change" because of "his perception on life, his willingness to help others and his desire to win. The talk of an extension didn't affect him last year. He keeps everything simple."

Catcher A.J. Ellis, perhaps Kershaw's closest teammate, is one observer with a slightly different take, referring to the Zambian orphanage that Clayton and Ellen Kershaw built as the real benefactor of the contract.

"It will absolutely change him," said Ellis. "It will change in the amount of people Clayton and his wife can impact and affect with the charitable personality he has."

Ellis takes it further, offering proof that Kershaw isn't playing for the money.

"He genuinely strives for perfection," Ellis said. "Clayton's said that until the Dodgers win every start he makes and he hoists a World Series trophy, it's not a perfect season. Obviously, those goals are extremely hard to obtain, but he'll keep pursuing that."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for

Los Angeles Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw