It was only June, and already the Dodgers couldn't stop themselves from waxing metaphorical about Matt Kemp's 2011 season.
"Guys like Matt, they're like jewels," said the club's first base coach, Davey Lopes. "They're like you go down in the cave, you come up with that big diamond, that beautiful diamond, that clear diamond, the clarity's unbelievable. That's what a guy like Matt Kemp is."
In 2010, he was cubic zirconia. He had the look -- 6-foot-4, strong and fast -- but not the substance. He hit 28 home runs, the most of his three full seasons, but his average plummeted from .297 to .249, his strikeouts skyrocketed -- to 170 -- and catchers gunned him down on 15 of his 34 stolen-base attempts, the lowest success rate for any player with at least 15 steals since 2003. Worse was that he seemed sullen, like he didn't care, and that got him benched by manager Joe Torre for three games in August.
"It was not fun -- at all," Kemp said of 2010.
Kemp arrived for spring training intending to change that, and he quickly did, even as the Dodgers' season -- due to the club's ownership troubles, its poor play and the plummeting attendances those factors produced -- began to disintegrate. By June 28, when I traveled to Minnesota to write
"They'll notice us when we make the playoffs this year, shock the world," he told me in a dark Minneapolis steakhouse.
They did not, but they came closer than anyone could have expected, due largely to the force of Kemp's will -- and that of ace Clayton Kershaw, who ought to be named the National League's Cy Young Award winner, just as Kemp ought to be named its MVP. The Dodgers went 46-35 the rest of the way, and, shockingly, finished above .500 at 82-79. Kemp, at 26, proved that his hot start was far more than just that, as he led the league in home runs and RBIs and came 13 points in batting average from winning a Triple Crown. In fact, the list of players who have ever had seasons in which they exceeded each of Kemp's final 2011 totals in average (.324), home runs (39), RBIs (126) and stolen bases (40) is not just short but nonexistent. No one has ever done it.
According to Baseball Reference's Wins Above Replacement metric, Kemp completed the best season for any player, of any ilk, since Barry Bonds in 2004. His statistics alone should make him a strong contender to be named SI's Sportsman of the Year. But the circumstances in which Kemp produced his historic season -- the unrelenting way in which he brought pride to a legendary franchise that had been all but strip-mined of the stuff -- should make him the award winner.