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ROIT -- Last year, Clayton Kershaw became the youngest National League Cy Young Award winner in more than a quarter-century.
Everyone expected that one. No one, not even Kershaw or his wife, Ellen, expected this one.
Only 24, the Dodgers left-hander on Sunday became easily the youngest player to win the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award presented by Chevrolet. Major League Baseball presented him the trophy at a news conference before Game 4 of the World Series at Comerica Park, recognizing the player who best represents the game through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement.
The average age is 35 for past recipients, dating all the way back to Willie Mays receiving the first one in 1971 when it was called the "Commissioner's Award." The only previous recipients in their 20s were Albert Pujols (2010) and Greg Luzinski (1978) at the age of 27, and Barry Larkin (1993) and Sammy Sosa (1998) at the age of 29.
"The reaction was a little bit stunned, speechless. I didn't think I was going to win, so I wasn't really expecting it," said Kershaw, who tried to choke back tears when he thanked Ellen as she sat in the first VIP row, beaming with pride over an award that truly belongs to both. "Then just to hear what it encompasses with the Roberto Clemente Award, it's pretty cool.
"It means a lot. You know, I've been fortunate to get to start playing baseball professionally at the big league level at an early age, and I'm so thankful for that. With that comes a great platform to do stuff off the field. I was just fortunate that I got a great start in L.A., and could start doing staff off the field almost immediately. It's blossomed into what Ellen and I have started now, Kershaw's Challenge, and it's just truly a testament to everybody involved -- the Dodgers for letting me get up there that fast, and for people letting me create a platform off the field, which is just really special."
The award pays tribute to Clemente's achievements and character by recognizing current players who understand the value of helping others. It is named for the Pirates Hall of Famer and 15-time All-Star from Puerto Rico who died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve 1972 while attempting to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
"Major League Baseball is proud to present our most prestigious off-field honor, the Roberto Clemente Award, to Clayton Kershaw," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "His accomplishments on the mound at such a young age are well known to baseball fans, but I am delighted that our game can shine a light on Clayton's extraordinary efforts with his wife, Ellen, to make a difference in the lives of children in Zambia. Clayton Kershaw is a leader through his inspiring example, and he is a wonderful representation of the enduring, philanthropic spirit of Roberto Clemente."
Kershaw was selected from a list of 30 club nominees by a panel of dignitaries that included Selig; MLB goodwill ambassador Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow; FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver; Hall of Famer and TBS analyst Dennis Eckersley; former Clemente Award winners and baseball analysts Larkin, Al Leiter, Harold Reynolds and John Smoltz; ESPN analyst and former All-Star Nomar Garciaparra; and MLB.com senior correspondent Hal Bodley.
Additionally, fans were able to cast a vote for the award exclusively on MLB.com, and the winner of the fan vote was tallied as one vote among those cast by the selection panel.
Kershaw and his wife founded Kershaw's Challenge, a charitable organization that encourages people to make a difference by giving back to at-risk children and communities in need. The charity has provided assistance to a variety of organizations, including to its cornerstone charity, "Arise Africa," which is helping the Kershaws build and sustain an orphanage for children called "Hope's Home" in Lusaka, Zambia.
Kershaw said the facility will open soon as they await final government clearance there, and that it probably would start with 10 youths and house up to 20.
In addition to providing a safe haven for orphans, Kershaw's Challenge also seeks to create an emergency fund for the children, many of whom suffer from diseases and infections related to HIV and AIDS. Each year, Kershaw and his wife travel to the orphanage to visit with the children and bring awareness to this issue.
Clayton also has co-written a book with Ellen, released last January, entitled, "Arise: Live Out Your Faith and Dreams on Whatever Field You Find Yourself." It is about their life together and trips to Africa, and funds raised from the book's proceeds go directly to Kershaw's Challenge for Hope's Home.
"It's incredible to both of us," Ellen said. "It's the most important award he could ever get, because it speaks about his character and his passion and his heart. And what we've kind of gotten to create together, which is combining our two passions, and using this platform for good. It's amazing. It's such an honor. I don't know if anything can top this."
In addition to Hope's Home, Kershaw's Challenge has supported the Peacock Foundation in Los Angeles, providing animal-assisted interventions and activities for at-risk youth by partnering with mental health practitioners, public service agencies and community organizations.
Kershaw's Challenge is also involved with Mercy Street in his hometown of Dallas. It provides mentoring, sports and recreation and vocational and educational opportunities to young people in at-risk communities.
Kershaw has participated in numerous Dodgers community initiatives such as the offseason Community Caravan, a Habitat for Humanity Build, the distribution of backpacks and school supplies to 1,000 underserved children and the annual Dodgers Dream Foundation Youth Baseball Camp.
"I am happy to congratulate Clayton Kershaw on being named the recipient of this year's Roberto Clemente Award," said Vera Clemente, citing the significance of this 40th anniversary of her husband's passing. "The work that this young man has accomplished to help youth around the world is wonderful, and we are proud to welcome him among the many players who have carried on Roberto's legacy."
On the field, Kershaw has established himself as one of the game's best pitchers, earning the 2011 NL Cy Young, two All-Star selections (2011-12) and a Rawlings Gold Glove Award (2011). Kershaw led the Majors in ERA in each of the last two seasons, becoming the first pitcher to do so since Pedro Martinez in 2002-03, and won the NL's pitching Triple Crown in 2011, when in addition to the ERA title, he tied for the league lead with 21 wins and led the NL with 248 strikeouts.
Since making his debut on May 25, 2008, Kershaw has posted a 61-37 record and leads the Majors with both a 2.79 ERA and .215 opponents' batting average in 151 games (149 starts) in that span. He was selected by the Dodgers in the first round (seventh overall pick) of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft out of Highland Park High School in Dallas.
Mays won the first of these awards in 1971, when it was created to recognize community service around the game. The award was then dedicated to Clemente after 1972, and Al Kaline, beloved in Detroit now as "Mr. Tiger," won the first so-called "Roberto Clemente Award" in 1973. He sat in the front row as Kershaw accepted the latest honor.
"Kershaw is a great representative of this award, and to be able to do it at a young age gives him a great platform, because for many, many more years, the Roberto Clemente Award will help them do the charity work they have," Kaline said. "Anytime you get mentioned for anything about the Roberto Clemente Award is a tremendous honor, and certainly after they renamed it and I was the first recipient, I was thrilled and honored. I'm sure Clayton was feeling the same way."