‘That’s all I knew’: Kenley Jansen reflects on returning to Los Angeles

kenley jansen I wasn’t looking for a change. He had achieved a near-impossible situation in modern sports, stability, and he was thankful that he had kept it this long. For 17 years, half of his life, he was in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Twelve of those years had been in the majors. He had become the franchise’s all-time saves leader. He had a beautiful house near the Pacific Ocean, where he lived with his beautiful wife, along with his four children. He had a regular seat next to Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss whenever he felt like watching an NBA game. Even the three-story playhouse he built in his backyard was idyllic.

“When you ask about the Dodgers, that’s familiar to me,” Jansen said. “That’s all I knew. That’s all I’ve known my entire life in baseball. I’m so grateful to them for everything they’ve done in my life. They signed this kid and this man who became a husband and father of four children.

This offseason, his plan was to re-sign with the Dodgers as soon as the lockout ended.

“That was Option A,” Jansen said.

That was also the Dodgers’ plan.

“We have tremendous respect for Kenley as a person, for Kenley as a competitor, and he was an off-season priority for us,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “It was a priority for us going into the offseason to retain him.”

By all accounts, the Dodgers really tried to keep him and he really tried to come back.

It just didn’t happen. He wanted a three-year contract; the Dodgers preferred one or two. The sides kept talking, but the math got more complicated after the Dodgers signed Freddie Freeman: They were so close to the luxury tax that they would have to take a pay cut through a trade before they could offer Jansen the kind of deal he was looking for. There was already a time crunch due to condensed free agency after the lockout, and Jansen began to worry about losing offers he had from other teams while he waited for the Dodgers.

Then came the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves, the team he had grown up rooting for as a kid in Curacao, with a rich $16 million, one-year offer that needed a quick response.

The pressure mounted, and Jansen began to consider Option B for the first time. He took a deep breath, as he has a thousand times on the mound, consulted with his wife, Gianni, and made the decision to go ahead and hopefully continue. go ahead.

“It was very emotional to leave,” Jansen said. “Very emotional. But sometimes when opportunities come up in your life, you have to take them or you’ll always wonder what would have happened. Because those opportunities don’t always come back.”

There was sadness everywhere when he told his teammates and coaches that he was leaving. He cried talking to justin turner Y Clayton Kershaw. And he’s pretty sure he’ll be excited when he returns to Dodger Stadium on Monday, with the Braves in town for a three-game series in Los Angeles beginning Monday.

But if there was one team he could feel good about leaving the Dodgers, it was the Braves.

“I remember growing up in Curacao, five years old, watching the Twins and the Braves in the 1992 World Series,” Jansen said. “He was a huge fan of Fred McGriff, Andruw Jones, David Justice, Sid Bream, I can go on naming guys. We had TBS Superstation!

“So I don’t want to take this for granted. Every day that I’m here wearing this uniform, I’m going to enjoy it, and when the time comes, I hope we win a championship here again this year.”

Jansen also felt a sense of excitement: For the first time in almost two decades, he had a new challenge in a new place.

“It’s like going back to your early days when you first hit the big leagues,” he said.

It’s at this point in history that it’s worth going back and reminiscing about Jansen’s early days in the big leagues. It was the year 2010 and he was 21 years old. Less than a year earlier he had entered the bullpen at charlie hough in Class A San Bernardino, Calif., to see if he had enough talent in his right arm for the Dodgers’ minor league coaches to spend time on the job of teaching him how to pitch. After five seasons in the minors, most evaluators had concluded that he would never be more than a catcher with light connections. But there was something about the way he would throw the ball to second base when someone tried to steal.

“He would drop to his left knee and throw to second harder than our pitcher,” Hough said in 2010.

The original plan didn’t work. But the Dodgers were presenting an alternative: learn to pitch and stick around. If he was open to change, the Dodgers were willing to give him a chance to evolve.

“That was hard for me too,” Jansen said. “He didn’t want to be a pitcher. He was a catcher. But then, hey, a great opportunity comes along, you have to take it.”

Over 350 saves, two Trevor Hoffman awards as the best reliever in baseball, three All-Star appearances and a World Series title later, that trade seems to have worked out well for everyone.

“For so long,” Jansen said, “it was like, when I’m in the game, that’s basically it. ‘Turn off the lights, we can go home. Take your shoes off, everybody put the glove down, no you don’t have to do anything.’ “.

But a series of heart problems, combined with a decade of closing games in the Major Leagues, took their toll. Jansen had started his career more as a pitcher, blessed with an effortless pitch and a right arm that regularly hit 98 miles per hour. For a while, his slicer was one of the most devastating pitches in the majors.

By 2018, he was still an elite closer, but he had to work harder to get outs. He couldn’t pass hitters anymore. He had to set them up with a variety of pitches instead of relying on the cutter.

“His growth as a pitcher was really impressive to see firsthand,” Friedman said. “He was so dominant after his conversion to pitching, and then as he got older, he had to work really hard to continue to develop different pitches and become more of a pitcher. It was really fun to see that evolution and it says a lot about who he is, how person and as a competitor.

Around the same time, Jansen experienced an irregular heartbeat during a four-game series at Colorado. He had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 2011 and had surgery in October 2012, which seemed to largely fix the problem. But after she resurfaced in 2018, she underwent a nearly six-hour surgical procedure in the offseason. The recovery was intense. For months, Jansen was unable to lift weights or train like he normally does. He also had to drastically change her diet, a change that has been good for her overall health, but set the stage for a negative year in 2019.

Jansen still saved 33 games that year, but his ERA was a career-high 3.71.

“I left [en los entrenamientos de primavera] shooting 88-89,” he said. “It got into my mind.”

He knew he would get his speed and strength back when he could get through an offseason training like he normally did, but he also knew he had to evolve his approach to pitching, both on the mound and off it. He began working with a sports psychologist to help him process everything that had happened the previous season: the boos from the home crowd at Dodger Stadium. The loss of invincibility he had felt with his diminished speed and strength. He’d never had a problem with the pressure of closing big games, but he’d never had to close without his best weapons before.

His wife suggested that he learn a new skill to take his mind off baseball from time to time. So he decided to try piano lessons at the Torrance Arts Academy.

At first it was for fun and escape. But soon it became so much more.

“It has helped me tremendously,” Jansen said. “It helped me think more clearly, because when you’re dealing with music, you can’t get distracted.”

He bought a Steinway and began practicing at home, even recording his sessions to study later, just as he does as a pitcher. The following year, stuck at home during the pandemic, he decided to learn the bass and became similarly obsessed.

“It helps me a lot mentally, to concentrate better,” he said. “Thoughts can be very tricky. You have to learn to beat them. When I play music, you fight them, you don’t think about it, because you’re so focused on what you’re doing, ‘Right here, right now.’ And that keeps me in that ‘right here now’ moment.

“So when I run outside, I’m going to say, ‘Right here, right now.’ How can I run better? How can I push myself better? When it comes to the ninth inning or whatever inning you want me to pitch, it’s going to be, ‘Right here, right now.’ That’s all that matters.”

That mantra has been repeated a lot in recent days. After a rocky debut in Atlanta (Jansen allowed three runs in the ninth, though the Braves still won 7-6), Jansen has thrown three shutout innings since then, including two saves against the Padres. He’s repeating it even more this week, knowing his return to Dodger Stadium is drawing near.

The emotion is going to come, and he will let it flow.

If the Braves have a lead before the bottom of the ninth inning, he’ll run out of the visiting bullpen and onto the mound. Somehow, it will feel the same. In others, it will be completely strange. There will be no song playing as he jogs to the mound after 12 years of listening to “California Love.”

But Jansen has embraced enough changes in his career to understand that the best thing to do in those moments is to stay in them as openly and presently as possible. Don’t sit on what could or should have been; instead, live with what happened, embrace the new, and see where that path will take you. Perhaps this change was also meant to be.

“Let’s see how you feel,” he said. “I’m just going to try to focus on being, ‘right here, right now.'”

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‘That’s all I knew’: Kenley Jansen reflects on returning to Los Angeles