- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Being Matt Kemp used to be a lot easier than it is now. But it wasn't nearly as much fun.
The Dodgers center fielder, paparazzi target, soon-to-be GQ model and budding superstar gave his first interview of spring training on Wednesday. Reporters questioned him about his Gold Glove, his highly visible relationship with singer Rihanna and a couple of past legal skirmishes that came to light as a result of that relationship.
The guy who used to look like a deer in the headlights whenever reporters approached, who used to get defensive whenever he was asked about anything remotely negative, suddenly conducted himself like a savvy veteran who had been through it a million times and figures to go through it a million more.
"I have come a long ways,'' Kemp said. "I'm still learning, but I am definitely growing and getting the hang of it. I still have a lot more work to do, but I'm getting there.''
They used to talk about Kemp in terms of his potential, how he was brimming with raw talent that had yet to be tapped, mostly because he hadn't discovered baseball until he was already a high-school basketball standout. They now talk about him as one of the league's most dangerous hitters, a guy who batted .297 last season and shattered his previous career highs by slamming 26 homers and driving in 101 runs.
That metamorphosis has taken place almost entirely within the last year.
"Matt Kemp in that time has probably come farther than anybody,'' Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "One thing about him, and you saw it last year, is that he isn't afraid to get embarrassed [at the plate], which is a plus because he is out there doing what he thinks he should be doing and he is making adjustments. He is a very aggressive young man.
"He was enormously improved last year, and knowing his personality, I don't think he will be satisfied with that.''
While Kemp's primary challenge is to continue improving as a hitter, his new friendship with Rihanna -- "friendship" is what duo is calling it -- will present challenges of its own. It's an issue club officials are quietly monitoring, even if they won't publicly acknowledge being concerned about it.
Torre gained plenty of experience dealing with this sort of thing while managing the New York Yankees.
"When you get more famous, you get more attention,'' Torre said. "With the fact [Kemp] is dating someone famous, that sort of doubles or maybe even quadruples that attention. He is going to have to answer a lot of questions about things that aren't baseball related. ... I called Derek Jeter in one year. He was a single guy living in New York, and I talked to him about it. He assured me that his priorities were in order, and they were."
Torre said he has discussed the issue with Kemp, although less formally than he did with Jeter. Kemp basically made the same promise to Torre that Jeter did, just as he made it to the media throng that wasted no time broaching the subject.
"A lot of people out there get hounded about things that are going on in their lives,'' he said. "You just find ways to handle it and go on about your business. It's not affecting my work. I plan on [this season] being the same, or even better than last year.''
So far, the worst side effect of Kemp's relationship with Rihanna has been his past being laid bare as the result of digging by certain media outlets.
Kemp says a restraining order taken out against him by a previous girlfriend was based on false pretenses. The order was rescinded. In 2002 police in Columbus, Ohio, investigated forced sexual conduct claims against him and two roommates in town for a high school basketball tournament. No arrests were made, nor were there charges filed in the case.
"As you can see with the restraining order, it was dropped,'' Kemp said. "It was a false thing, it wasn't true, and it got dropped. I have never tried to harm anybody in my life, especially a woman. For things like that to happen, it hurts my feelings, but it is what it is. With the incident that happened in high school, it was just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was just an accusation, and it got dropped.
"We were young, man,  years old, having fun and playing basketball. All kinds of things go on when you're [that age], but me and my friends never did anything like that. We are all better people for what did happen and what didn't happen.''
Kemp has lived a lifetime since then, and he seemingly has lived another since last spring training. To those who have followed him since his early days in the organization, from the moment he was drafted in the sixth round in 2003 until now, it is clear he has reached a newfound level of maturity on and off the field.
Rihanna aside, Kemp has achieved a certain level of celebrity in his own right. He is scheduled to do a magazine spread for GQ on March 2. He will host his second fundraiser for autism research on March 6, an event that proved hugely successful last year. He also is looking into buying a new home in the Dallas area, partly because of its close proximity to his hometown of Midwest City, Okla., and partly to be close to another of his new celebrity friends, fellow Gold Glove center fielder Torii Hunter of the Angels.
"Torii is a great guy,'' Kemp said. "He invited me out to Dallas to work out with him, and I had a lot of fun. He plays the game right. He plays hard, and he's a superstar.''
Now, as he enters his fifth season in the majors, Kemp finally seems as deserving of those descriptions as Hunter does.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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