Plaschke: If Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers split, would that really be so awful?

Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw pitches against the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 23, 2023, at Dodger Stadium.
Clayton Kershaw, pitching against the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 23, had his left shoulder operated on last month. It was the first surgery of his career. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Former Dodger Clayton Kershaw

The four words are startling. Their meaning is unsettling. Their implication is unnerving.

But is their reality really so awful?

Would it be so terrible for both Kershaw and the Dodgers if they have played their last game together?

That is a question worth asking as both parties embark on what could be a winter of uncomfortable but possibly inevitable transition.

Fact: There is at least a 50-50 chance that future Hall of Famer Kershaw could choose to never pitch again for the Dodgers.

Read more: Hernández: Dodgers need to offer Clayton Kershaw a multiyear deal or they risk losing him

He is a free agent. He is facing a months-long recovery from recent shoulder surgery. He lives right down the street from a World Series champion Texas Rangers team run by his buddy, Chris Young. He has long professed a desire to finish his career at home with his wife, Ellen, and their four children, and joining the Rangers would afford him the perfect opportunity.

This could all lead to him to unimaginably leave the only major league home he’s ever known, but who could blame him?

Fact: There is also at least a 50-50 chance that the Dodgers would be understanding if he didn’t come back.

He will be 36 when the season starts. He might not be able to regularly pitch until the season ends. For much of the summer his presence here would be mostly symbolic, and that’s not how anyone in the organization wants to remember their forever warrior.

Kershaw has given the franchise one of the greatest 16-year careers in baseball history, he has given them a World Series title, he has given them nearly 3,000 innings, he has given them his family life, he has given them his shoulder, he has given them everything.

This could all lead the Dodgers to unimaginably rationalize that it’s finally time for a split, but who could blame them?

Kershaw owes the Dodgers nothing. The Dodgers owe him nothing. He might be ready for a change. The Dodgers might be ready for the same change. It would be a clean break filled with mutual respect and the promise that one day he’ll return for the retirement of his number and the unveiling of his statue.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw reacts to being pulled in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Oct. 7, 2023.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw reacts after being removed in the first inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

What’s so terrible about that?

Some believe that the Dodgers must do everything within their power to keep Kershaw. Others believe that Kershaw should go out of his way to remain a Dodger for life.

Neither statement is true. Neither statement is fair. If they’re ready to amicably separate, let them amicably separate, they don’t deserve any of the public sniping that might come with the separation.

Nothing has been decided. When asked about it, the Dodgers are saying they want him back, while Kershaw is saying he’s not sure. There’s no tea leaves. There’s no timetable. This could still go either way.

Read more: Shaikin: Deep in the heart of Texas? Clayton Kershaw has big call to make

When asked this week about Kershaw, Dodgers baseball boss Andrew Friedman repeated an earlier unqualified statement of full support. He says they want to re-sign him, period.

“We are very respectful of Clayton and Ellen’s decision and are giving them the time and space to make the best decision for their family,” said Friedman. “But selfishly, we hope it’s for him to continue and finish his career in Dodger blue.”

As for Kershaw, well, he's not so certain. When asked about his future after the Dodgers were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Arizona Diamondbacks, he wouldn’t answer. He acknowledged his priorities have changed from past contract negotiations, but he wouldn’t say how.

“I’m not going to get into it,” he told reporters. “We’ll see. I’m not sure. I don’t know how to answer that right now.”

If Kershaw does leave, despite another messy October ending, he will exit triumphantly. He gave this team 210 wins, a franchise-record 2,944 strikeouts, three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, one of the most dominating no-hitters ever, and an enduring model of professionalism and class.

Certainly, he will be criticized for the poorest postseason record of any pitcher with at least 100 postseason innings — he is 13-13 with a 4.49 ERA, and Dodgers fans can recite every shelling.

But he should also be celebrated for rising to the unique occasion in the abbreviated-season World Series of 2020, winning both of his starts against the Tampa Bay Rays with a 2.31 ERA.

Yes, you can choose to remember him for what might be his final appearance in a Dodgers uniform, a nightmarish playoff loss to the Diamondbacks in which, it turns out, he was pitching with a completely collapsed shoulder that was so shredded, it later required the first surgery of his career. Pitching with only a shadow of a left arm, he gave up hits to the first five batters and retired just one of eight Diamondbacks before trudging off the mound with a series ERA of 162.00.

If you choose to remember that dark ending, though, you should also remember the glorious last stand that led up to that moment, as Kershaw came off the injured list in August and coaxed his torn shoulder into a 3-1 record with a 2.23 ERA down the stretch.

Those final two months of the regular season were classic Kershaw. It was determination beyond question, toughness beyond measure, and he should not be judged by one last lousy October inning with a broken wing.

Kershaw would leave here as a hero, even if he winds up working elsewhere, no matter how silly it might look. Remember, the lifelong wearing of a Dodgers jersey is not one of the requirements for the retirement of that jersey.

Read more: Dodgers signal urgency for pitching at GM meetings, hope for Clayton Kershaw's return

Did you know that Fernando Valenzuela pitched for five other teams besides the Dodgers? Did you know that both Duke Snider and Gil Hodges ended their careers elsewhere?

No matter what Clayton Kershaw eventually decides, he and the Dodgers have both earned the right to conduct the monumental move with grace and dignity.

No apologies. No regrets. A helluva ride.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.