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MATT KEMP IS JUST KILLING IT

Aug. 08, 2011
Aug. 08, 2011

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Aug. 8, 2011

LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
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MATT KEMP IS JUST KILLING IT

The bubble has burst on baseball's onetime model franchise. But then there is its centerfielder, who is putting on a five-tool show that makes you Say Hey!

This is an article from the Aug. 8, 2011 issue

It was 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and that meant that the lunchtime rush at Murray's was just beginning. Two ladies sat in the dark lobby of the 65-year-old Minneapolis steak house beneath a sign that advertised its Silver Butter Knife Steak, 28 ounces of sirloin reputed to be so tender that one could cut it with the utensil after which it is named. The ladies appeared to be about the same age as the restaurant and wore loafers and embroidered T-shirts. As people in business formal streamed past, the ladies paid no attention to them, chatting easily about the topics that concerned them, such as the roadwork going on outside.

"Of course, they'll just dig holes anywhere."

"Construction?"

"More like de-struction!"

Then a young man entered the lobby. He pushed his aviator sunglasses up to his forehead, where they would remain for the next hour and a half. He was tall, 6'3", and strong, with muscular arms, the left one covered with a sleeve tattoo, extending out of his gray, fashionably gauzy V-neck T-shirt. With each stride his suede shoes revealed lacquered red soles, the trademark of the French designer Christian Louboutin. Both his teeth and a diamond in his left ear gleamed.

The ladies in the Murray's lobby clearly did not know the young man's identity. What they knew was that this was somebody who was somebody. "Oh," one of the ladies whispered. Their conversation stopped abruptly—cue the needle screeching on the record—so that they could devote their attention to watching him.

The man was Matt Kemp, the 26-year-old Dodgers centerfielder who has this year emerged as baseball's best all-around player, and a shining light amid an unprecedentedly gloomy year for L.A. The Dodgers' season has included not only losses (they were 48--59 through Sunday) but also plunging attendance, the brutal beating of a fan in their parking lot and a protracted battle between the club's owner, Frank McCourt, and Major League Baseball, as McCourt holds on to his tendril-thin control of his bankrupt team.

Kemp, though, ranks near the top of the National League in each of the Triple Crown categories—first in RBIs (82) through Sunday, second in home runs (26) and fifth in batting average (.317)—and he is also third in stolen bases, with 28. No one has won a Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and the last player to do so while also stealing as many bags as Kemp has this season was Ty Cobb in 1909. It is a season that is shaping up to be on a par with Willie Mays's very best.

Kemp's gifts are of the type that is both a blessing and a curse, in that they are so immediately obvious, to strangers in a restaurant and baseball fans alike. He is extraordinarily athletic. He can not only dunk a basketball but also leap, pass the ball between his legs and then slam it, a move that most baseball players couldn't execute in a video game. That is a gift that made the chunky boy from Midwest City, Okla., who was obsessed with Air Jordans ("You can imagine what that can do to a brother's pocket," says his father, Carl), a big leaguer for good by age 22. There he has made enough money to comfortably afford nearly 200 pairs of shoes, including one that has spikes. ("Spikes!" says his mother, Judy Henderson, for whom Matt has purchased a house and a Mercedes. "They look like they could be a weapon.")

Kemp's athleticism inspires his teammates and coaches to wax both superlative and poetic. "There are only two guys I would put in the same category as Matt Kemp as far as athletic ability," says Brad Ausmus, who last fall retired as a Dodger after 18 years as a major league catcher. "One would be Bo Jackson, and two would be Carlos Beltran. The one thing that they can do that most ballplayers can't is this: They can do everything."

Kemp's gifts also include his looks and his charisma, which helps explain how he spent the majority of 2010 as the boyfriend of Rihanna, the 23-year-old Barbadian pop superstar. That Kemp wooed one of the world's most desired chanteuses also suggests a downside to his gifts: His star quality engenders especially elevated expectations.

"I've talked with him about it," says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who as the former captain of the Yankees knows something about expectations. "Everyone can see that you're capable of doing everything, so no matter what you're doing, people always want a little more. You hit for power, they want more power. You hit for more power, they want average. They want you to get on base, they want you to steal bases. They want you to play great defense and throw people out."

Baseball fans, and the men who run the game, love stars, but they might love even more another type of player, the one whose talents are limited but who, it seems, extracts everything out of them. They love, in other words, David Eckstein, the 5'6" infielder who retired last season but whose name still comes up in conversations with scouts perhaps more than any other. And they love Jamey Carroll, the 5'9", 37-year-old Dodgers infielder whom Mattingly calls "our Eckstein," and who has hit 12 home runs in his 10 seasons. Says Carroll of Kemp, "I'd like to have, just for one round of seven pitches in BP, his strength and his pop, just to know what it'd be like."

Kemp's only limitation seems to be his own effort. And while Eckstein fit perfectly into baseball's beloved "dirtbag" archetype—he was unassuming and would rarely have turned heads in a restaurant far from home—Kemp, who dreamed of making the NBA as a high school shooting guard, is an outlier in a sport that remains conservative.

Baseball is conformist in its expectations for the miens of its stars—always wary, unlike, say, the NBA, of fully embracing anyone other than the safest of icons, such as Derek Jeter and, in his way, Eckstein. Matt Kemp is a preeminent talent who plays a valued position for a storied franchise, and yet there is the sense that he will be deemed not worthy if he fails to run out a few grounders or has momentary fits of temper. Then there is Kemp's personal style. Baseball yearns for more African-American players and fans, and Kemp—rakish, a squire of starlets, inspired by hip-hop in a game that still loves John Fogerty and Terry Cashman—would seem to be the perfect inspiration for kids such as he was. But he knows that is not the popular view of him. "You don't see a lot of African-Americans playing the game," Kemp says. "If people got to know me, they'd think I'm a good guy." (This is confirmed by his teammates.) "They probably think, Oh, my God, he's got tattoos, he's a thug!"

This season, no one has any reason to think poorly of Matt Kemp, based upon his effort, his bearing and his production. Last season, it was a different story.

You from out of town?" a bespectacled Murray's waiter asks Kemp.

"Yeah, yeah. I live in L.A."

"L.A.? Yeah?" The waiter leans in, conspiratorially. "You whupped our asses yesterday."

Standout performances were few for Kemp in 2010. In his third full season he hit 28 home runs, but it was still considered, by Kemp and everyone else, an annus horribilis. "It was not fun—at all," Kemp says. "I tried everything. You always thought stuff was going to turn around, and then something happened."

Among those things: In April, Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti suggested in a radio interview that Kemp's newly signed two-year, $10.95 million contract had sapped him of his effort. In June then manager Joe Torre benched Kemp for three games after Kemp got into an argument with bench coach Bob Schaefer about whether the centerfielder had properly backed up second base. Kemp's batting average dropped from .297 in 2009 to .249, while his strikeouts jumped from 139 to 170. He was also thrown out on 15 of his 34 stolen base attempts, the lowest success rate (55.9%) for any player with at least 15 steals since '03. The Dodgers' leader in homers and RBIs was booed, lustily, in his home ballpark. Late in the season Kemp publicly apologized for his performance.

The source of Kemp's decline seemed easy to pinpoint to anyone with a web browser. There was Matt Kemp, vacationing with Rihanna in Mexico. There he was, eating dinner with her at Sketch in London. There he was, sitting courtside with her at a Clippers game. Kemp rejects the notion that his high-profile relationship had anything to do with his struggles, his perceived listlessness. "She's a great person, and one of the busiest, most hardworking people I've ever met in my life," he says. "I was happy in my relationship. What I did on the field and off the field were two totally different things." (Their breakup late last year, he adds, was amicable.)

Casey Blake is one of Kemp's best friends on the Dodgers, and he is not so sure about Kemp's view. "This game's hard," Blake says, as Rihanna's hit What's My Name blares in the team's clubhouse. (Kemp says he encouraged teammate Juan Uribe to use the track as his at bat music.) "When you have some things on your mind other than the game, you're going to scuffle. You date a pop star or rock star, whatever you want to call her, you're throwing your image and name out there. That's what everyone wanted to talk about."

Kemp concedes that the attention wore on him. "I wasn't used to going to a restaurant, and there would be 100 cameras outside," he says. Even he attributes his turnaround partly to a new embracing of baseball's monotony. "Everything is repetition in baseball," he says. "When you get all out of whack and do something different, you feel weird."

Kemp has made a number of other changes. He cleared the air with Colletti in a meeting late last season. ("He said he felt he had a lot of people on his back, and that I was one of them," says the G.M. "I said, 'Don't carry me anymore.'") He vowed to put an end to the sullenness that he wore for much of the year. "You can say it's easy to do that when he's hitting like he's hitting, but he's done that since Day One of spring training," says Blake. Kemp also placed a renewed attention on technique rather than allowing his athleticism to carry him. Among other things, he's worked with first base coach Davey Lopes, a master basestealing instructor. "Last year, when a pitcher made a move to the plate, Matt's first move was up, like he was going for a rebound," reports Lopes. "Unfortunately, we're not playing basketball." This season Kemp has been caught on just three of his 31 stolen base attempts.

"A rough year for him was 28 homers and nearly 90 RBIs," says Mattingly. "There's nothing wrong with rough years if you grow from them." Kemp has grown from his, even if the results occur in a home stadium that is usually a third empty. "When you do something good, it can seem like there's 55,000 in there. It can sound like it," Kemp says. This year, it has for him often sounded like it.

Anything else I can get for you today?" the bespectacled waiter asks. The waiter has not had the opportunity to bring Kemp much, as Kemp spent lunch sipping ice water through a straw. He has become vigilant about his diet and had eaten breakfast—an egg-white omelet with spinach and chicken breast—not long before.

"No thanks," says Kemp.

"The girls will not shut up around here about you," the waiter says, smiling.

"Where's that at? They cute?"

"Every single one of them!"

"Thanks, man," Kemp says "Appreciate that."

Kemp was voted the National League's starting centerfielder in the All-Star Game, but there remains a sense that he has still more in him. "His upside is unlimited, and his downside is probably his 2010 season," says Ausmus. "If Matt can squeeze every ounce of ability out of his body for the next 15 years, we'll be looking at a Hall of Famer."

Kemp, in other words, must continue to find his inner Eckstein. Helping him do that, he says, will be the example of his family: his parents, Judy and Carl, who never married but strove together to support him, Judy as a nurse, Carl climbing utility poles for Oklahoma Gas & Electric. The memory of his half brother, Tyler—"The strongest little dude I ever met," Kemp says—who, when Kemp was 13, was born 15 weeks early, at one pound and one ounce, but who fought to live for more than a year. And, most of all, his 71-year-old grandmother, Doris Mukes, a dressmaker in Oklahoma. She calls with a reprimand whenever she sees him curse on the TV he bought her, and begs him to stop acquiring tattoos. "I tell him, 'You've got this beautiful body, and you mar it all up,'" Doris says. "I keep hearing about last year, when he wasn't focused. I think all this was happening to him all of a sudden, and he got too involved in outside things. I tell him, 'You've accomplished so much, but you're not there yet.'"

In 2011, Kemp has gotten somewhere. "Every day, I hit a home run, I make a diving play, I see fans cheering, I see a fan wearing my jersey, I'm like, Dang, this is crazy, this is dope," he says. "It unbelievable, but it's real life. That hits the spot, right there."

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"THE ONLY TWO GUYS I'D PUT IN THE SAME CATEGORY AS MATT KEMP AS FAR AS ATHLETIC ABILITY," SAYS AUSMUS, "ARE BO JACKSON AND CARLOS BELTRAN."
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by ROBERT BECKWELCOME MATT Kemp has shown plenty of pop: He's on pace for a career high in slugging and has put the Triple Crown in play.PHOTOPhotograph by ROBERT BECKMAN DOWN Kemp rejects the idea that his relationship with Rihanna explains his 2010 slide, but his friends aren't so sure.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (RIHANNA)[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHNUMBERS OF THE BEAST Kemp is on track for a WAR of 9.8—a performance on par with some of Mays's best.