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For ex-Dodgers star Matt Kemp, Padres offer chance at fresh start

Current Padres star and former Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp opens up on the end of his time in Los Angeles, the injuries that have stymied his career, and his new digs in San Diego.

Few will ever feel sorry for someone who plays sports for a living, especially when he will earn more than $21 million a year through 2019, as Matt Kemp will. Kemp doesn’t want any sympathy, and he doesn’t expect any. Even so, during a recent hour-long lunch at a San Diego restaurant in the shadows of Petco Park, Kemp provided perspective on the unexpected, and often painful, journey he has taken over the past few years. It wasn’t long ago that Kemp, who is only 30, was a singular force of nature, an outright superstar who seemed assured of being the Dodgers’ centerpiece for the rest of his baseball life. It didn’t turn out that way.

For a year and a month, Kemp was the best player on the planet. In 2011, when he was 26, he batted .324, with 39 home runs, 126 RBIs and 40 steals, a combination of numbers that had never before been matched and hasn’t been since. He was virtually unstoppable in every way, and that continued the following April, during which he hit .417 with 12 homers, 25 RBIs and two steals. Then, all of a sudden, he was stopped. The first injury seemed unremarkable—a strained hamstring in early May. Even as it lingered, though, the injuries kept coming: a torn labrum in his shoulder from running into a wall, another strained hamstring, a terribly sprained ankle sustained during an awkward slide.

Though his mind commanded his 6’4”, 210-pound body to do the same wondrous things it did during those magical 13 months, it just couldn’t. In 242 games from May 1, 2012 until last season’s All-Star break, Kemp batted .271 with fewer homers (25), RBIs (112) and steals (21) than he had produced in 2011 alone. The two-time Gold Glove winner’s defense in centerfield, meanwhile, had by every advanced metric turned into an outright liability.

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A second half of 2014 in which he finally seemed to return to his old form, at least in some measure—in 64 games, he batted .309 with 19 homers and 54 RBIs, though with just three steals and the same poor fielding—only served to re-establish his value enough for the Dodgers’ new president, Andrew Friedman, and new general manager, Farhan Zaidi, to trade him. By December, he was a Padre, for the price of a catcher (Yasmani Grandal) with 24 career home runs on his resume and two pitching prospects, and only after Los Angeles agreed to throw $32 million into the deal. In the span of three years, Kemp had gone from a player who was baseball’s best and would be a Dodger forever to one whose club was paying eight figures to an intra-state, intra-divisional rival to take him off its hands.

Those are the broad strokes of the end of the first chapter of Kemp’s professional baseball life. Over lunch, he filled in the details, if reluctantly. “I don’t want people to think I’m using any excuses,” he says. “I don’t make excuses if I play bad. I just try to find a way to deal with it. I learned that from my family, to deal with your problems and still be good at what you do. That’s just never been me—‘Oh, this is hurt, that’s why I’m playing like this.’ That's just not the type of person I am.”

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Kemp understands why he became a popular scapegoat for the Dodgers’ ultimate failures of the past several years, as he was repeatedly unable to approach the standard he established in 2011. “You have to do that every single year. You've got to be the exact same, or even better. Fans, they want to see results. I’ve been a fan before. I get it. But I see the bigger picture, too. I would never say an athlete sucks after they’ve been good, because you don’t know what they’re going through. They might be going through something that they can’t shake.”

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The most difficult part of Kemp’s final three years in L.A. came not because of what anyone said about him, but because of what he was experiencing in private, both physically and psychically. In October of 2013, as the Dodgers were making their first postseason appearance in four years, their erstwhile superstar couldn’t even walk as a result of a pair of long overdue procedures, one to clean up the left shoulder he’d damaged when he ran into that wall two years before and then a significantly more serious microfracture surgery on his left ankle. “I think my worst time was having shoulder surgery one week, then the next having ankle surgery,” he said. “That’s when I was like, dang, this is crazy. I was in a boot, but I couldn’t use crutches because I had a sling on. So I was watching the playoff games from a scooter. It was bad.”

When he returned to the field last April, he was a shell of himself. “I don’t think people understand what microfracture surgery is,” he says. “It’s pretty serious. A lot of basketball players get it in their knees, and if they do bounce back, it takes a while. I was trying to deal with that, and trying to figure out how to be myself with not a bum ankle, but one that was not as explosive. They started talking about my defense. I just couldn’t run the way I wanted to run. It’s not because I became a terrible defensive player. I just couldn’t do some of the things I’m used to doing.”

After he finally rebounded during the waning months of last season, Kemp knew that his Dodgers future might be brief. “In previous years before that, there had been talk that I might be traded, but it was pretty hard to trade me because I was coming off surgery and all that. But I had a really, really good second half, and this past off-season, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I kept hearing my name. When I used to hear my name in previous years, I’d get phone calls telling me, that’s not going to happen. But not the last two years. So I knew something might happen.”

When it did, last Dec. 11, Kemp found out when a family member called him early in the morning and said he’d read the news on Twitter. Later that day, Kemp received a call from Friedman. It was the first time he’d ever spoken to his team’s new president. “It was a weird conversation,” says Kemp. “He was like, ‘This is weird meeting you like this. But we traded you.’ But I already knew, and knew it was the Padres.”

Just like that, Kemp’s days with the Dodgers were over. “Why did the Dodgers trade me?” he asks, rhetorically. “Maybe they wanted to get younger. They have a younger outfield now. [Yasiel] Puig and Joc [Pederson]. There’s a lot of outfielders over there. But I think they just had different plans, and I wasn’t in those plans.”

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Kemp says reports that he had become a surly clubhouse presence—and, in particular, that he had clashed with Puig, the young Cuban who replaced him as the resident phenom in the Dodgers' lineup—as largely unfounded. “How’d I get along with him? We had our good times and our bad times. He’s young. He’s a great player. I have nothing bad to say about him. He’s not the first person I’ve gotten into an argument with, a teammate. You’re with your teammates so much, you become like family, so you’re going to argue and have differences of opinion. I have nothing bad to say about him. He’s young, he’s talented, he’s in L.A., so best of luck to him.

“There were no major issues," Kemp adds. "You’ll never go in a clubhouse where everybody gets along, everybody sees eye to eye. The main goal is to support your team, back your team up. I’m not saying I was best friends with everybody in the clubhouse. But I had good relations with pretty much everybody in that clubhouse.”

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Kemp admits that he is different now than he was at his Dodgers peak. “I can still run, but I can’t run like I used to run,” he says. “I got to do a lot more maintenance, making sure my body is right. When I was younger, I could just get out of bed, go play a game and be good. I've got to warm up, get those muscles loose to get ready for a game. It’s a process now.

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“It can be tough on you mentally,” he says. “You go from stealing this many bases, feeling like this, but you've got to figure out a way to do what you do, but not with the same speed. Just be smarter. You’re already a student of the game, but you've got to study more to know certain situations, and things like that. I have my good days and my bad days. For the most part, I feel good. I can run again. Not as explosive, due to my ankle. But as I continue to get range of motion in it, it’ll get better and better. It just takes some time. I feel like maybe the second half of this year, or the beginning of next year, it’ll be where it needs to be.”

Kemp’s tenure in San Diego has so far been mixed. In the clubhouse he has, by all accounts, been precisely the leader the Padres thought they were acquiring when they made him the centerpiece of their unprecedented winter overhaul. He arrived at 5:45 a.m. each morning during spring training and shows up by 1 p.m. for every regular-season game day, and mentors the other—and almost exclusively younger—members of a lineup that has produced the third-most runs in the National League. His own numbers, though, have been ordinary: a .265 batting average, one home run, 21 RBIs and five steals.

Still, Kemp is certain his production will improve, in part because he has found happiness and simplicity in his new hometown, away from the cameras and temptations of Los Angeles. “I’m 30 now, I’m getting old,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, Hollywood is fun. There’s a lot to do out there. You can meet a lot of people, see a lot of things. But I like it here. It’s chill. Laid back. Look outside, it’s peaceful. Everybody’s just riding their bike and chilling.”

His personal life has also not turned out the way he once anticipated. “I’m just single, man,” he says. “I’m just chilling, waiting for the right one. I thought I’d have kids by now, be married, but that’s not the case. It ain’t easy as everybody thinks it is. Very hard to meet the right people.” Has he tried Tinder? “No, I don’t do none of that, man. It’s just something that will happen. It’s not something you go looking for.”

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That idea neatly summarizes the central lesson that the last few years have taught him, which is that it is foolish to peer deep into the future. Even someone who has everything going for him can be brought down, and all that he can control is his own day-to-day effort to maximize the abilities that he possesses at that moment, and the interactions he has with the people who surround him.

One recent afternoon in San Diego, those people were a half-dozen children whose bald scalps were covered by knitted hats and who sat on the field as Kemp’s guests. “Hey, y’all have to eat a whole lot of junk food all night,” he said, as he spent time with each of them during batting practice.

“Kids are cool,” he said at the restaurant. “Kids always keep it real, no matter what. Kids don’t lie. They’re funny. A lot of those kids are sick, either have cancer or heart problems or have had surgery. It’s just always good to see them come out and enjoy themselves and not worry about their problems at that moment. It’s good for them to get their minds off of whatever is wrong with them physically.”

Kemp’s own physical problems paled in comparison, but he has emerged from them both a changed player and a changed man. He will likely never again be the transcendent superstar he was for those 13 months between 2011 and '12; he knows it, and the Padres know it, and many will always view his career as a disappointment because of it. But he is a star still, and one whose second chapter in baseball has only just begun.