Matt Kemp ready to turn the page
Can the L.A. outfielder get past poor year that had some believing he'd gone Hollywood?
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, with a basketball pedigree and a locker full of tools, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp has heard his share of "the next Dave Winfield" comparisons. Time will tell whether Kemp can maximize his skills and summon the Winny within, but the current version has a lot of people wondering. At age 26, Kemp is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a .760 OPS.
If you think it's exasperating to manage him or watch him from the box seats, try pinning him down for an interview.
The common refrain out of Dodgers camp is that Kemp is anxious to "turn the page" on a 2010 season that was, by all accounts, an ordeal. Kemp hit 28 homers and was one of only two major leaguers (along with Ichiro Suzuki) to appear in all 162 games. But his defense regressed, his batting average and on-base percentage plummeted and he succeeded on only 19 of 34 stolen-base attempts. When TMZ and other celebrity outlets weren't providing breathless updates of Kemp's relationship with the recording star Rihanna, general manager Ned Colletti and two Dodgers coaches were calling him out for questionable effort on the field. With each new flare-up, Kemp's reputation within the game took another hit.
So it's time for some positive outreach in the name of changing perceptions. Or is it?
On the day that position players are scheduled to report to Dodgers camp, Kemp consents to an interview the next morning. He is friendly and engaging and appears receptive to the request.
Then the designated time arrives the next day, and Kemp begs off because he needs to do some early hitting. He says he will be available when his session in the cage is complete. But he doesn't return to the clubhouse until 8:55 a.m., just moments before the doors will close for a team meeting.
Another attempt is made when the clubhouse reopens, and the mood quickly turns contentious. Kemp, in the process of grabbing his bats and heading onto the field, makes it clear he is disturbed by the intrusion and delivers a lecture on the importance of giving him the proper space.
"When I'm at my locker and I have a free moment, I'll give you some time," he says, his voice rising in agitation. "You're going to write what you want, anyway."
Run-ins like this are inevitable when reporters seek snippets of time from players who don't necessarily view media relations as a priority, and they provide only a surface glimpse of an athlete's character. But the stakes are higher for Kemp than his peers. When you're coming off a down year, when the baseball world thinks you've "gone Hollywood" and when one scout says it was "sickening" to watch your performance last season, this isn't the best way to send a message that a new, more user-friendly Matt Kemp is in the house.
The Dodgers are in page-turning mode, too, in the midst of the McCourt divorce proceedings and the transition from Joe Torre to new manager Don Mattingly, and they need Kemp to be fully invested if they plan to rebound from a fourth-place finish and contend in the National League West. It's a bit troubling, two days into full-squad workouts, for Kemp to show up in do-not-disturb mode and project an air of hostility.
Down deep, Kemp appears to understand this, too. Several hours after the blowup, with prodding from the media relations department, he returns to his locker and does the interview. He is humble and composed and goes to great lengths to be accountable.
"I can't make excuses for any mistakes that I've made," Kemp says. "I'm 26 years old. I've been up here for five years. It's time to cut out all those stupid little mistakes that I've made, whether it's baserunning or whatever. I have to be more consistent and play my game the way I know how.
"People make mistakes. Of course, I'm not going to be perfect. But I want to try to be as perfect as I can be."
A season to forget
The Dodgers weren't expecting perfection when they signed Kemp to a two-year, $10.95 million contract extension in January 2010. But they were hoping he could build on his breakthrough performance in 2009, when he won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and led major league center fielders with an .842 OPS.
According to club officials, the early signs were positive. But as time passed, Kemp began to display a worrisome air of detachment. He had issues with punctuality. He got to fewer balls in center field, and his throws were loopy and inaccurate. And his numerous adventures on the basepaths included getting thrown out on a steal while standing up.
Fireworks began to fly when Colletti questioned Kemp's effort in a radio interview in late April. The disconnect eventually spilled into the dugout, with bench coach Bob Schaefer scolding Kemp privately over a lapse of concentration and third-base coach Larry Bowa taking his concerns public. Torre briefly benched Kemp in late June, and agent Dave Stewart torched the team in defense of his client in August.
When a team can generate this much drama with no Ozzie Guillen or Bobby Jenks on the premises, it's an impressive feat.
Torre, now MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, said Schaefer and Bowa were both focused on trying to help Kemp. But as the season progressed, the divide between the team's old-school faction and new-school star grew more pronounced.
"They're lifers," Torre said of Bowa and Schaefer. "These people are baseball people. When Larry Bowa came to the Yankees, he irritated people until they understood he was just trying to help them. But we had some more experienced guys on that club, and they could giggle at it instead of getting angry."
Some young players are more receptive to criticism than others. Torre loves to tell a story from New York in 1996, when a young Derek Jeter violated a cardinal baseball rule and ended an inning with a failed steal of third base. Torre determined that he was going to wait until the next day to discuss the faux pas with Jeter. But a half-inning later, Jeter entered the dugout and grabbed a seat between Torre and Don Zimmer so that they could admonish him on the spot. Torre could only smile, good-naturedly tap Jeter on the back of the head and tell him, "Go get 'em."
Matt Kemp, obviously, is not Derek Jeter. Even the people who are in Kemp's corner say he's inclined to withdraw or throw up roadblocks if he thinks someone is harping on a mistake. No one can say for sure whether Kemp was pouting, lacking in focus, affected by his newfound celebrity or just another ballplayer in a funk in 2010. But all the encouragement and/or butt-kicking in the world couldn't prevent him from hitting .249 with a .310 OBP.
It's time to cut out all those stupid little mistakes that I've made, whether it's baserunning or whatever. I have to be more consistent and play my game the way I know how." -- Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp
"I think deep down in, Matt is a good young man," Torre said. "But he's also a very intense young man. He's wound pretty tight. You have people telling him a lot of different things that he gets annoyed by. It's not a matter of him being disrespectful. But if he does something wrong and you try to tell him, he might just [wave you off and say], 'I know.'"
Perhaps no one in the Dodgers organization knows Kemp better than Logan White, the team's assistant general manager for scouting. As a high schooler in Oklahoma City, Kemp was a talented, physical basketball guard with enough skill to generate interest from Oral Roberts and Wichita State. But the Dodgers signed him as a sixth-round pick, and Kemp made it to L.A. after barely 300 minor league games. White was there from the start, working Kemp out in the cage, getting to know the family and telling people that Kemp had superstar potential once he gained the requisite experience.
White, fiercely loyal to his draft picks, acknowledges Kemp's personality quirks. But he believes that the public perception glosses over Kemp's positive attributes. Last year, when White's son's Little League held a charity event, Kemp and several other Dodgers showed up and helped raise $6,000. Kemp signed autographs, mingled with the kids and dug into his own pocket to make sure he raised more money than any other player.
"When Matty gets uncomfortable around people, he can be brash and loud," White said. "But to me, he's lovable Matt. My family loves him. I know he's big and strong and he can look tough and unapproachable sometimes. But he has a heart of gold. He really and truly does."
Oklahoma Matt was a little hard to find last year amid those gossip-sheet sightings of Kemp and Rihanna at Clippers games and vacationing at a "posh Mexican hideaway." The L.A. lifestyle, naturally, presents challenges, opportunities and temptations that Kemp never would have encountered in Baltimore, Pittsburgh or Kansas City.
"There have been what I consider misinterpretations of him, and some of it is probably Matt's fault," White said. "But you're talking about a Midwestern kid who comes to the bright lights and is in the big leagues at 21. You're going to get caught up in that a little bit. It's human nature. A lot of people get caught up in the Hollywood fever. I don't think it's out of the realm to expect it to happen to a young kid from Oklahoma City."
So what's next?
Torre, Bowa and Schaefer are gone, and now it's Mattingly's show in L.A. For those who wonder whether Mattingly will employ tough love or be forced to coddle Kemp to get the most out of him, the answer is neither. Mattingly will rely on candor and heartland earnestness, and hope that Kemp's competitiveness and professional pride prompt him to be more focused in 2011.
"You look at a guy who's 6-foot-4. He can run and he throws good, and he has power and he's hit for average," Mattingly said. "And he steals bags, too. You see all these pieces. But that 'potential' word is dangerous, because with guys like this, people will say whatever they do isn't good enough. I saw it with [Darryl Strawberry] in New York. It's tough for guys coming in with these kinds of labels."
The Dodgers hired Davey Lopes, a close friend of Dave Stewart, to coach first base and help improve the team's baserunning. Early in spring training, Lopes was on the back fields helping Kemp work through some mechanical flaws that put a crimp in his game in 2010. Kemp stole 35 and 34 bases the previous two seasons, and the Dodgers are convinced that he can be a 30-30 man this season.
The mood is largely upbeat in Glendale. Colletti and Kemp cleared the air in a lengthy discussion this past summer and were texting buddies during the offseason. They claim to be united in a desire to bring a winner back to Chavez Ravine.
"We both care," Colletti said. "And when you care, you get passionate about things. Sometimes you hold it in, and sometimes you voice it. We've been fine. I sense that his understanding of everything is clearer and keener than it was [before]."
Kemp, on his bad days, can be a prisoner of his own body language. His seeming indifference over strikeouts riles the scouts, but he makes no apologies and has no plans to change to suit somebody else's idea of what a competitor should act like on the field.
"I've pretty much grown up to hide my emotions for the most part," Kemp said. "When I do something good, you're gonna see I'm happy. But when something is going wrong, I'm not going to get crazy and slam my helmet or whatever it is that some people do. I've never really been like that. Your opponent wants to see you frustrated. And I don't want them to think I'm frustrated when I'm not."
There are cultural, generational and, yes, racial elements at play that make for a complicated tableau. Kemp's role models come from the NBA, where showmanship is more readily accepted than in baseball. It's telling that when Kemp is asked about the challenge of handling criticism, he makes no mention of Alex Rodriguez, Jeter or anybody else in spikes.
"Everybody gets criticized," Kemp said. "Kobe gets criticized. LeBron gets criticized. The best players in the game get criticized. It's part of being a professional athlete. It's part of being a human being, basically.
"Of course, you kind of care what people think. But at the end of the day, it's the people closest to you that matter most. It's what they think about you."
The people in Dodgers camp watched Kemp emerge as a star in 2009 and take a step backward last season. Now, for all the cautious optimism in spring training, he's considered a work in progress. The Dodgers aren't asking him to be perfect -- just the best Matt Kemp he can be.