On return to Dodger Stadium, new Atlanta Brave Kenley Jansen reflects

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Monday, April 18, 2022

Kenley Jansen wasn't looking for a change. He had achieved a nearly impossible situation in modern sports -- stability -- and was grateful to have held on to it as long as he did. For 17 years, half his life, he'd been in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Twelve of those years had been in the majors. He'd 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 their four children. He had a regular seat next to Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss whenever he felt like taking in an NBA game. Even the three-story playhouse he built in his backyard was idyllic.

"When you ask about the Dodgers, that was family to me,"Jansen said. "That's all I knew. That's all I've known my whole life in baseball. I'm so thankful to them for everything they did in my life. They signed this kid, and this kid became a man. A man, a husband and a father of four kids."

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 the Dodgers' plan, too.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for Kenley the person, Kenley the competitor, and it was an off-season priority for us, coming in," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "It was a priority for us coming into the off-season to retain him."

By all accounts, the Dodgers really did try to retain him, and he really did try to return.

It just didn't happen. He wanted a three-year deal; the Dodgers preferred one or two. The sides kept talking, but the math became more complicated after the Dodgers signed Freddie Freeman -- sitting so close to the luxury tax, they'd need to shed salary through a trade before they could offer Jansen the kind of deal he was looking for. There was already a time crunch because of the condensed free agency following the lockout, and Jansen started to worry he'd lose offers he had from other teams while he waited on the Dodgers.

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

The pressure built -- and Jansen started for the first time to consider Option B. He took a breath, like he's done thousands of times on the mound, consulted with his wife, Gianni, and made the choice to move on and hopefully forward.

"It was very emotional leaving," Jansen said. "Very emotional. But sometimes when opportunities pop up in your life, you have to take them or you'll always wonder what would've happened. Because those opportunities don't always come back."

There was sadness all around when he told his teammates and coaches he was leaving. He cried talking to Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw. And he's pretty sure he'll be emotional upon his return to Dodger Stadium on Monday, with the Braves in town for a three-game series in LA beginning Monday.

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

"I remember growing up in Curacao, five years old, watching the Twins and the Braves in the World Series in 1992," Jansen said. "I was a big fan of Fred McGriff, Andruw Jones, David Justice, Sid Bream, I can keep naming guys. We had the 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 times comes again, hopefully 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 got to the big leagues," he said.

It's at this point in the story that it's worth going back and remembering what Jansen's early days in the big leagues were like. The year was 2010, and he was 21. Less than a year earlier he'd stepped into Charlie Hough's bullpen in Class A San Bernardino, California, to see if there was enough talent in his right arm for the Dodgers' minor league coaches to put in the work of teaching him how to pitch. After five seasons in the minors, most evaluators had concluded he would never be more than a light-hitting catcher. But there was something about the way he threw the ball to second base when someone tried to steal.

"He'd drop to his left knee and throw it to second harder than our pitcher," Hough said in 2010.

The original plan didn't work out. 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 tough for me, too," Jansen said. "I didn't want to be a pitcher. I was a catcher. But then, hey, a great opportunity shows up, you gotta embrace it."

More than 350 saves, two Trevor Hoffman Awards as the top reliever in baseball, three All Star appearances and one World Series title later, that change 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 the lights off; we can go home. Take your cleats off, everybody put their glove down, you don't have to do anything.'"

But a series of heart issues, combined with a decade of closing games in the big leagues, took their toll. Jansen had started his career as more of a thrower, blessed with an effortless delivery and a right arm that regularly touched 98 miles an hour. For a time, his cut fastball 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 just blow hitters away anymore. He had to set them up with an assortment of pitches instead of relying on the cutter.

"His growth as a pitcher was really impressive to watch first hand," Friedman said. "He was so dominant after his conversion to pitching, and then as he got older, he had to really pull himself into continuing to develop different pitches and becoming more of a pitcher. It was really fun to watch that evolution and it speaks volumes about who he is, as a person and a competitor."

At about the same time, Jansen experienced an irregular heartbeat during a four-game series in Colorado. He'd been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 2011 and had undergone surgery in October 2012, which had largely seemed to fix the issue. But after it reappeared in 2018, he underwent a nearly six hour surgical procedure that offseason. The recovery was intense. For months, Jansen couldn't lift weights or train the way he normally does. He also had to drastically change his diet -- a change that has been good for his overall health, but created the conditions for a down year in 2019.

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

"I came out [in spring training] throwing 88-89," he said. "It messed with my mind."

He knew he'd get his velocity and strength back when he could spend an off-season training as he normally did, but he also knew he had to evolve his approach to pitching -- both on the mound and off it. He started working with a sports psychologist to help process everything he'd been through in the previous season: The boos from the home crowds at Dodger Stadium. The loss of invincibility he'd felt with the diminishment of his velocity and strength. He'd never had a problem with the pressure of closing out big games, but he'd also never had to close without his best stuff before.

His wife suggested he pick up 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 a lot more.

"It's helped me tremendously," Jansen said. "It helped me think more clearly, because when you deal with music, you can't be distracted."

He bought a Steinway and started practicing at home, even taping his sessions to study them later -- just like he does as a pitcher. The next year, stuck at home during the pandemic, he decided to learn bass guitar and has become similarly obsessed.

"It helps me a lot mentally, to focus better," he said. "Thoughts can be very tricky. You've got to learn to defeat them. When I'm playing music, you're fighting them -- you're not thinking about it, because you're so focused on what you're doing, 'Right here, right now.' And that keeps me in that moment of, 'Right here right now.'

"So when I'm going for a run outside, I'm going to be, '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 it matters."

He's been repeating that mantra to himself a lot the past few days. After a rocky debut in Atlanta -- Jansen gave up three runs in the ninth, though the Braves still won 7-6 -- Jansen has pitched three scoreless innings since, including two saves against the Padres. He's repeating it even more this week, knowing his return to Dodger Stadium is coming up.

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

If the Braves have a lead going into the bottom of the ninth, he'll run out of the visiting bullpen and onto the mound. In some ways, it'll feel the same. In others, it will be completely foreign. No song will play as he jogs to the mound after 12 years of hearing "California Love."

But Jansen has embraced enough change in his career to understand that the best thing to do in those moments is stay in them as presently and openly as possible. Not to sit in what could've or should've been -- instead, to live with what did, to embrace the new and see where that path will take him. Maybe this change was meant to be, too.

"Let's see how it feels," he said. "I'm just going to try to focus on being, 'Right here, Right now.'"