LOS ANGELES — Kenley Jansen’s introduction to the Major League scene came during the multiple childhood trips he made to the United States to watch the Braves and fellow Curacao native Andruw Jones. His professional career began a few years later, when the Dodgers signed him and soon after asked him to begin serving as 18-year-old Clayton Kershaw’s catcher.
Jansen’s baseball worlds intersected on Monday night, when he and his new Braves teammates began a three-game series at Dodger Stadium. This marks the first time the three-time All-Star closer will be at the iconic ballpark as a visiting player. He debuted for Los Angeles in 2010 and remained a part of the organization before signing with the Braves last month.
“When you’ve grown up in baseball playing for one team, it’s like you’re leaving your parents to go to college,” Jansen said. “Whatever you want to call it. It was an exciting moment for me to see what the future was, being in a new uniform, playing for a new team. But it was also emotional.”
Jansen experienced a thrill before Monday’s game when the Dodgers presented him with a plaque commemorating his first career save, which was recorded against the Mets on July 25, 2010. Kershaw threw eight innings that day and his former Minor League catcher tossed a scoreless ninth.
As Jansen accepted the plaque from Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and third baseman Justin Turner, he was serenaded by his famous entrance song, California Love.
Jansen isn’t expecting to hear this song if he gets a save opportunity during this three-game set against his former team.
“I’m not expecting that,” Jansen said. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s great for my former teammates. It’s still their home. I’m the visiting guy now. We’re on different teams. So I hope they don’t if I get the chance to pitch.”
This will be an emotional week for both Jansen and Freddie Freeman, who certainly felt odd seeing his former Braves teammates come to his new home on Monday. Freeman made it clear for years that his only desire was to stay in Atlanta. But once communication with his agent broke down last month, the Braves moved on and Freeman had to end up settling with the Dodgers.
Freeman’s tenure with the Braves dated back to when he was selected in the second round of the 2007 MLB Draft. Jansen signed his first professional contract in Nov. 2004, before Freeman had even started his sophomore season at El Modena High School, which is about 40 miles south of Dodger Stadium.
Though Jansen spent his first few Minor League seasons as a catcher, he transitioned to a pitching role in 2009 and became a fixture within Los Angeles’ bullpen midway through the 2010 season. The 350 saves he tallied for the Dodgers is nearly 200 more than any other closer in franchise history.
“I think at times with anyone, especially as a closer, there’s going to be times where yeah, the closer, you don’t have a good night and the team loses a baseball game,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That happens. But I think that when you’re mired with a player and seen every outing, the ups and downs, I think — at times were they too hard on him? Absolutely. But I think overall, our fans, our fan base certainly appreciates him.”
When the Braves didn’t sign Freeman, they spent the next few days using some gained financial flexibility to sign Eddie Rosario, Collin McHugh, and Jansen, whose desire to stay with the Dodgers wasn’t great enough to pass on Atlanta’s one-year, $16 million offer.
“It was a great opportunity, but you don’t know what to expect,” Jansen said. “The only thing I knew was being a Dodger. I gotta give a lot of credit to my teammates with the Braves. They opened to me with a warm welcome. It’s been fun. It’s a great group of guys. Like I said, when we come to the ballpark, trying to win ballgames, play hard everyday but also enjoying it. I enjoy it in the clubhouse, on and off the field. It’s a special group. Being a part of that, we’re just trying to do something special.”
The Braves were Jansen’s favorite team before they signed his brother Ardley Jansen, an outfielder who only briefly rose above the High-A level during seven seasons (2000-06) in Atlanta’s system.
Giovani Viceisza, the scout who signed Jones out of Curacao, regularly brought a young Kenley to Braves Spring Training. The two would also make trips to Turner Field, where Kenley experienced the thrill of waiting outside the clubhouse to talk to Jones and his other favorite Braves.
Viceisza died suddenly just before watching his beloved Braves play Game 5 of last year’s World Series. Earlier that week, he had told Jansen he hoped he ended up signing with the Braves.
“Right now, it’s all about appreciating where I’m at and enjoying where I’m at,” Jansen said. “I’m grateful to be in a Braves uniform.”