Matt Kemp lives in a gated, four-bedroom house tucked away in the Hollywood Hills, down the road from Leo DiCaprio's pad and the Vin Diesel compound. There's a Bentley and an Aston Martin in the garage, a sparkling pool in back and, inside the master-bedroom closets, a collection of shoes (from retro Air Jordans to the latest $1,000 Christian Louboutins) that would make Imelda Marcos faint. On a sleepy Saturday morning in early May, he was slumped on his living room couch, wearing a red Flash superhero T-shirt and baggy Dodger blue shorts, his stubble beard freshly manicured. The centerfielder gazed through the room's floor-to-ceiling windows and out into the great awakening metropolis below, where a thick purplish haze had settled over the skyline of a city that is falling in love with the Dodgers all over again.
This is an article from the May 28, 2012 issue
The franchise has a new look and a new glow, freshly lit by the 1,000-watt smile of Magic Johnson, the face of the ownership group that just plunked down $2.15 billion for the team. But the face of the first-place club's on-field renaissance is inarguably Kemp, the best Dodgers hitter in a generation and, even with a two-week stint on the DL that ends Monday, a Triple Crown threat. From his home in the hills, however, he has trained his sights higher. "I look at someone like Jay-Z, who's respected not just in the music world but way beyond that," says Kemp, who is in his seventh major league season but is just starting down the superstar road. "I look at Magic Johnson, beyond what he did on the basketball court. They're global brands. That's what I aspire to do—to expand. Make my money, and use it to make a difference in the world."
That's the long-term plan. At the moment Kemp's goals are more focused: "I want to be the best player that ever played the game."
A 27-year-old from central Oklahoma who mixes Southwestern geniality with Rodeo Drive looks (he has posed for GQ and dated Rihanna, after all), Kemp enjoys making blustery declarations almost as much as he does backing them up. Before the start of last season he declared that he would become the first Dodger to put up a 40-home-run, 40-steal season—then hit .324 with 39 homers and 40 stolen bases. (Not since Hank Aaron's 1963 season had a player finished in the top two in his league in homers and steals.) He wound up finishing second in a controversial NL MVP vote. ("That's bull----," Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly texted Kemp after Milwaukee's Ryan Braun was named the winner, echoing a widely held sentiment.)
Before this season Kemp declared that he would become baseball's first 50-50 man, then mashed his way to one of the greatest Aprils in the game's history: He became the first player to hit .400 (he hit .417) with 12 home runs and 25 RBIs in the month. Looking for proof that Kemp is human? He did have only two steals.
That start came at a pivotal moment for a franchise emerging from the dark shadows of bankruptcy and Frank McCourt's ugly seven-year reign as owner. Attendance at Chavez Ravine hit an 11-year low last season, when the Dodgers missed the postseason for the second straight year. But with the city buzzing about the sale of the team and with Kemp raking, the fans are returning—an average of 39,119 for the Dodgers' first 23 home dates, nearly 2,500 more than last season. What they're seeing in Kemp, who last November signed a franchise-record eight-year, $160 million contract extension, is a player with a magnetic personality to match his magical home run swing—in every way, the man for the moment. "He's perfect for L.A.," says Mattingly, the former Yankees great. "He's more suited for this city than he would be in New York, where it's life or death. The laid-back style here, that's more Matt—he's always loose and happy with his big old smile. It's when he's having fun that his great gifts come out."
Those include otherworldly bat speed ("He's got these quick-twitch muscles that could catch up to a 150-mph fastball," says his high school coach, Craig Troxell), jaw-dropping opposite-field power ("You don't see many guys with that kind of strength—A-Rod's one, maybe," says Mattingly), track-star speed and a Gold Glove arm. But Kemp is a baseball anomaly for another reason. In a game that is getting younger, with 19- and 20-year-old phenoms arriving in the majors fully formed, Kemp—a high school basketball standout who didn't start taking baseball seriously until he was 18—and his leap to superstardom form a case study in the major league developmental curve. He is a lesson in letting greatness bloom on its own timetable, not one set by hype and expectation.
Because before he could blend into the Hollywood Hills, before he could be on the Best Player in Baseball short list, before he could lead a great franchise into the light, Matt Kemp had to learn to love the game.
He was beloved by a great city once too—years ago, on the other side of the country. "I moved from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach," Don Mattingly likes to say. He's 51 now, still fit and trim, and yes, the sight of the Yankees icon in Dodger blue is still a little weird. Mattingly is seated behind his office desk, talking about how the game is evolving. "The days of first-round picks getting 300 grand and having a chance to grow up in the minor leagues, like I did, without being dissected, are gone," he says. "Teams aren't as willing to let a kid they've invested millions in kick around in the minors. They're getting pushed through the system."
The instant success of phenoms such as Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Starlin Castro, all of whom looked comfortable in the majors at age 21 or younger, has skewed popular thinking on player development, at least that of the game's bluest chips. The acceleration of hype in baseball over the last decade or so—fans track prospects from the moment they are drafted in a way that was impossible in the pre-Internet era—has made it easy to forget that, on average, a major leaguer doesn't reach his prime years until his mid- to late 20s. Bill James posited that a player's prime occurs from age 25 to 29. A 2009 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences argued that it is around 29. Yet many fans—and talent evaluators—are quick to label a player a bust long before that.
Two years ago the city of Los Angeles—the fans, the media, even some inside the Dodgers' organization—seemed to have given up on Kemp. He hit a career-low .249 in 2010, a season in which he was serenaded with boos at Dodger Stadium, benched by then manager Joe Torre and called out for a perceived lack of effort by general manager Ned Colletti. There were whispers that his focus had been dulled by his high-profile romance with pop superstar Rihanna, which ended in December 2010.
Kemp had a miserable year, yes. But he was also only 25. "What people don't appreciate is how raw Matt was as a ballplayer," says Mike Leuzinger, the scout who signed Kemp in 2003. When he first got called up [in '06] and was making base running mistakes, you'd listen to announcers say, 'This kid doesn't know how to run the bases?' I'm thinking, No, actually, he really doesn't."
As he was growing up in the Oklahoma City suburb Midwest City, Kemp's first love was basketball: He dreamed of becoming an NBA shooting guard. "Baseball wasn't cool where I grew up," he says. "Kids used to make fun of the kids who played baseball."
During summers, Kemp played AAU basketball, not travel league baseball. "After the state [basketball] tournament was over he'd show up on opening day in rightfield," says Troxell. "He had mechanical issues all the way through high school, and the reason was [he wasn't] practicing all year."
Things began to change during his junior year, when Kemp, who is 6'4" now but was 6'2'' at the time, realized his build would limit his basketball potential. Only then did he seriously consider a future in baseball. For the scouts who began showing up in Midwest City, it was hard not to be seduced by Kemp's raw talent. But it was just as easy to question his dedication to the game. "One day [during Kemp's senior year] I decided to stop by the school," says Leuzinger. "Practice was long over, but I could see Matt all by himself, hitting off a tee. He never knew I was there. But that day I was convinced that Matt was all in."
The Dodgers took him in the sixth round in 2003. To persuade Kemp, who was 18, to sign (for $130,000), Leuzinger visited him and his parents, Carl and Judy, at their home. Even then the family wasn't convinced that Matt had a future in the majors. "His dad asked, 'How do you think this is going to work out?' I said, 'He could be Joe Carter or Dave Winfield,'" says Leuzinger. "[But] really, my hopes and dreams were that he'd be an average hitter, hit 20-some home runs and play leftfield. An MVP candidate and a Gold Glover? No way."
Kemp's star-making 2011 season may have seemed to come out of nowhere, but in reality it was in line with the career arc of a steadily improving ballplayer. Kemp has improved his feel for the strike zone—his walk rate has gotten better every season since 2007, and his strikeout rate this year (20.9%) is below his career average (23.3%). Dodgers first base coach and baserunning guru Davey Lopes, who joined the staff before last season, has helped turn Kemp into a premier stolen base threat; after being caught 15 times on 34 attempts in '10, he failed in just 11 of 51 tries last year. "It's impressive what a kid like Bryce Harper is doing at 19," Kemp says. "When I was 19, I didn't even know if I wanted to play baseball. At the time my attitude was, Let's put some money in my pocket and see if this works out. You have to accept what God made you for. And then you put everything you have into it. And then you develop more love for the game."
What we've seen so far from the Dodgers—they were the best team in baseball at the quarter turn, after a 28--13 start—might be the two-minute trailer of what's to come. The new owners are expected to strike a local TV deal that could be worth more than $3 billion, a windfall that will put them in position to add a free-agent megastar such as Josh Hamilton or Cole Hamels this winter.
Nothing symbolizes the new promise more than their star centerfielder. He's already the best all-around talent in the game, and Kemp is only going to get better. "You still see the rawness come out," says Colletti. "And you still see improvement in everything from his pitch selection to his base running and knowledge of game situations."
Says Mattingly, "He hasn't even learned how to pull the ball with power yet. Once he gets that, it's going to be scary."
Kemp's education continues, from his knowledge of pitchers ("I used to watch video," he says, "but for the first time now, I'm watching video") to the game's history ("I wish back in the day I'd learned more. I'm starting to appreciate how important all that stuff is, and trying to learn more about Jackie Robinson and African-Americans in baseball"). He wants to make baseball cool for young African-American kids. He wants to lead the Dodgers to multiple world championships, he wants to be enshrined in Cooperstown ("I'd be disappointed if I weren't," he says). He wants to be the best player to ever play the game. "I know I've got a long, long way to go," he says. "I was behind for a while, but now I've caught up."
From where he sits, in a house atop the city's famous hills, Kemp can see that this is only a bright new dawn.