Kenley Jansen was not looking for a change. He had achieved something almost impossible in modern sports – stability – and was grateful to have kept it for as long as he did. For 17 years, half of his life, he was part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Twelve of those years had been in the majors. He had become the franchise’s all-time save leader. He had a beautiful home near the Pacific Ocean, where he lived with his beautiful wife, as well as their four children. He had a regular seat next to Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss whenever he fancied an NBA game. Even the three-story playhouse he built in his backyard was idyllic.
“When you ask about the Dodgers, that was my family,” Jansen said. “That’s all I knew. That’s all I’ve known in 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 kid became a man. A man, a husband and father of four children.”
This offseason, his plan was to re-sign with the Dodgers as soon as the lockout ended.
“It was option A,” Jansen said.
That was the Dodgers’ plan, too.
“We have tremendous respect for Kenley the person, Kenley the competitor, and that was an off-season priority for us,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “It was a priority for us heading into the offseason to retain him.”
By all accounts, the Dodgers really tried to hold him back, 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 parties continued to talk, but the math got more complicated after the Dodgers signed Freddie Freeman – sitting so close to the luxury tax they would have to lose their wages 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 defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves, the team he grew up on as a kid in Curacao, with a rich one-year offer of $16 million that needed a quick response.
The pressure set in – and Jansen began to consider Option B for the first time. He took a breath, as he has done thousands of times on the mound, consulted his wife, Gianni, and made the choice to move forward and hopefully move on.
“It was a very emotional start,” Jansen said. “Very moving. But sometimes when opportunities arise 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 he was leaving. He cried while talking to Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw. And he’s pretty sure he’ll be emotional when he returns to Dodger Stadium on Monday, with the Braves in town for a three-game series in Los Angeles starting Monday.
But if there was one team he could feel good about leaving the Dodgers for, it was the Braves.
“I remember growing up in Curacao, as a five-year-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 that for granted. Every day that I wear this uniform, I’m going to enjoy it, and when the times return, I hope we win a championship here again this year.”
Jansen also felt a sense of excitement – for the first time in nearly two decades he had a new challenge in a new place.
“It’s like going back to where you started when you hit the big leagues,” he said.
It’s at this point in history that it’s worth stepping back and remembering what Jansen’s early days in the big leagues were like. It was in 2010 and he was 21 years old. Less than a year earlier, he had walked into Charlie Hough’s Class A bullpen in San Bernardino, Calif., to see if there was enough talent in his right arm for league coaches Dodgers minors could put in the work of teaching him how to pitch. After five seasons in the minors, most evaluators had concluded that he would never be more than a lightweight catcher. But there was something about the way he threw the ball to second base when someone tried to steal it.
“He would drop to his left knee and throw it second-harder than our pitcher,” Hough said in 2010.
The original plan didn’t work. But the Dodgers presented an alternative: learn to pitch and stick around. If he was open to change, the Dodgers were willing to give him a chance.
“It was difficult for me too,” Jansen said. “I didn’t want to be a pitcher. I was a catcher. But then, hey, a great opportunity comes up, you have to take it.”
With more than 350 saves, two Trevor Hoffman Awards as baseball’s top reliever, three All Star appearances and a World Series title later, this 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 off the lights, we can go home. Take your cleats off, everybody lower their glove, you don’t ‘need to do anything.'”
But a series of heart problems, combined with a decade of closing big league games, took their toll. Jansen had started his career as a pitcher, blessed with an effortless delivery and a right arm that consistently hit 98 miles per hour. For a time, his cut fastball was one of the majors’ most devastating throws.
In 2018 he was still a closer elite, but he had to work harder to get out. He couldn’t just blast batters anymore. He had to configure them with an assortment of slots instead of relying on the cutter.
“His growth as a pitcher was truly impressive to watch first hand,” Friedman said. “He was so dominant after he converted to pitcher and then as he got older he had to really force himself to keep developing different pitches and becoming more of a pitcher. It was really fun to watch that evolution and it says a lot about who he is, as a person and a competitor.”
Around the same time, Jansen experienced an irregular heartbeat during a four-game series at Colorado. He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 2011 and underwent surgery in October 2012, which largely appeared to resolve the problem. But after his reappearance in 2018, he underwent nearly six-hour surgery during the offseason. The recovery was intense. For months, Jansen couldn’t lift weights or train like he normally does. He also had to drastically change his diet – a change that was good for his overall health, but set 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. “That bothered me.”
He knew he would regain his speed and strength when he could spend off-season training like he normally did, but he also knew he needed to evolve his approach to throwing – both on and off the mound. . He began working with a sports psychologist to help him deal with everything he had experienced the previous season: the boos from the home crowds at Dodger Stadium. The loss of invincibility he had felt with the decrease in his speed and strength. He had never had a problem with the pressure to close big games, but he had never had to close without his best before.
His wife suggested he learn a new skill to take his mind off baseball once in a while. So he decided to try piano lessons at the Torrance Arts Academy.
At first it was for fun and getting away from it all. But soon it became much more.
“It helped me tremendously,” Jansen said. “It helped me think more clearly, because when you’re dealing with music, you can’t be distracted.”
He bought a Steinway and started training at home, even recording his sessions to review later, just like he does as a pitcher. The following year, stuck at home during the pandemic, he decided to learn bass guitar and became equally obsessed.
“It helps me a lot mentally, to concentrate better,” he said. “Thoughts can be very tricky. You have to learn how to beat them. When I play music, you fight them – you don’t think about them, because you’re so focused on what you’re doing, ‘Here, right now.’ And that keeps me in this moment of, ‘Here right now.’
“So when I go running outside, I’m going to be, ‘Here, right now.’ How can I run better How can I push myself better When it comes to the ninth inning or the inning you want me to throw, it’s gonna be, “Here, now.” who counts.”
He’s been repeating that mantra to himself a lot over the past few days. After a rocky start in Atlanta — Jansen allowed three runs in the ninth, though the Braves still won 7-6 — Jansen has since thrown three scoreless innings, including two saves against the Padres. He repeats it even more this week, knowing that his return to Dodger Stadium is approaching.
The emotion will come, and he will let it be.
If the Braves have a lead in the bottom of the ninth, he’ll come out of the visiting bullpen and onto the mound. In a way, it’s going to feel the same. In others, it will be completely foreign. No song will be played as he runs 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 times like these is to stay there as presently and openly as possible. Not to sit in what could or should have been – instead live with what has happened, embrace the new and see where that path will take you. Maybe this change was meant to be too.
“Let’s see what it does,” he said. “I’m just going to try to focus on being, ‘Here, Right Now.'”