LOS ANGELES -- The Clayton Kershaw who is so in command on a Major League mound wasn't so sure of himself approaching his first pilgrimage to Zambia four winters ago. But Ellen Kershaw knows the Kershaw the rest of us don't get to see.
"Clayton has a such a big heart, and I knew once he got there for the first time and held an orphan in his arms and looked into their eyes, his life would be changed the way mine was," Ellen said Thursday as final preparations were being made for the second annual "Ping Pong 4 Purpose," a fundraiser for Kershaw's charitable foundation, Kershaw's Challenge, held Thursday night at Dodger Stadium.
Nonetheless, Ellen said Clayton was skeptical that he would connect with the kids the way she has ever since, as an 8-year-old, she saw an Oprah show documenting the plight of at-risk children in the East African nation of Zambia and decided that would be her calling. The Dallas-area high school sweethearts married after the 2010 season.
"He had a ton of questions about the whole place," she said. "But one of my favorite moments came because Clayton is so disciplined, that on his first trip there, he still wanted to throw. So he's in the middle of Zambia on a dirt road with a guy on the trip who played in high school, and as they're playing catch, you see these bobbing heads coming from across a field. And in 10 minutes, there are kids on both sides of the road who have never seen anything like this, not to mention this tall white guy.
"And soon Clayton is teaching these kids how to throw and catch a ball, without communicating with words. And that was the moment he realized that God gave him the ability to throw a baseball and it can make a difference to a kid in Africa. And he realized he could do this, even if it was my calling and not his. It was an amazing moment."
Kershaw received the Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship and community involvement in 2012, in large part for his commitment to build and sustain an orphanage in Lusaka, Zambia. Proceeds from Thursday night's event will help build a second orphanage and pay for 100 orphans to have needed surgical procedures. In addition, Kershaw's Challenge partners with the Dream Center in Los Angeles to provide housing and other support for 20 Southland homeless families.
Thursday's pingpong event, held on the Dodger Stadium infield, was attended by most of the Dodgers' players, manager Don Mattingly and his coaching staff, as well as celebrities including Jimmy Kimmel, Chris Paul of the Clippers, Jake Johnson, George Lopez, Chris Harrison and Josh Henderson.
Through Clayton's fame and Ellen's passion, the Southern California sports and Hollywood communities came together for a night of fun that will make a better life for unfortunate children half a world away.
"Before we got married, we talked a lot about how our two passions would collide," said Ellen. "I've supported Clayton in his dream of baseball. He's supporting me in my calling in life. I put my heart into it, and I am who I am."
Ellen said she never doubted that her husband, whose game face on the field almost defies emotion, would be moved by the kids of Zambia.
"Hug one of those kids and just try not to look in their eyes," she said. "He just needed an icebreaker the first time he was there, and it was baseball. Now when we get there, he's like a jungle gym. They climb all over him. He picks them up and tries to speak with them in broken English with a Nyanja accent. It's hysterical."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.