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The Redemption of Matt Kemp

July 28th, 2018 · 1 Comment · Baseball, Dodgers

The Dodgers publicity release landed in my inbox earlier this week, and I was flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. Gobsmacked.

Confused.

The title of the email:

“Matt Kemp Wins Los Angeles Dodgers Heart and Hustle Award

(Emphasis added.)

My first thought was a silly one: Is there another Matt Kemp in baseball?

There was a Steve Kemp, a pretty good outfielder with Detroit in the late 1970s/early 1980s, but that guy never played with the Dodgers. Another Kemp is currently active, the tiny Houston infielder named Tony Kemp. But this clearly was not him.

No, it was the Matt Kemp whom Dodgers fans came to know from 2006 through 2014. The gifted guy who established a reputation for nice numbers on offense — but also for a wandering mind, poor decision-making and talent untested.

The one the Dodgers got rid of ahead of the 2015 season … just to have him gone.

And now he gets this citation from an organization called the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association … and what we have here is a full-blown redemption story.

And we love redemption stories!

A decade ago, I was out there in the first rank of Dodgers observers who watched Matt Kemp play and, too often, despaired. On September 28 of 2009, I wrote on this blog: Matt Kemp Is the Biggest Dodger Dolt.

(At that time, Kemp still had lots of fans, and they rose up, with more than a little venom, and pelted me with advanced metrics proving that our lying eyes could not withstand the cold numbers of advanced metrics that reflected Kemp’s quality.

Less than a year later, after Kemp had signed a two-year, $11 million contract, Kemp’s commitment was questioned by his own team’s general manager, Ned Colletti, as well as by two Dodgers coaches — Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa.

You can see the complete rants at this link. In short, Ned wondered whether the contract had made Kemp lackadaisical, especially in the outfield and on the base paths.

Schaefer came next, suggesting Kemp’s refusal/unwillingness to back up throws to second base saddled catcher Russell Martin with errors that Kemp should have forestalled.

And then came Bowa’s critique in the Los Angeles Times which can be summed up by this quote: “I wish I had Matt Kemp’s tools because I would be in Cooperstown. He has so much athleticism. I don’t know if he knows what it’s like to go full bore for nine innings.”

Kemp got a huge contract after the 2011 season, signing for eight years and $160 million.

Then came injuries, missed games, misplaced priorities, friction in the clubhouse, and time spent hanging out with entertainment glitterati (hello, Rihanna), and by 2015 the new owners of the Dodgers wanted Kemp gone, trading him to the San Diego Padres and throwing in $30m cash to get the Padres to take the once-great outfielder.

After a year and a half, the Padres traded Kemp to the Atlanta Braves, where he lasted long enough to lead the league in grounded-into-double-plays in 2017 while playing a “terrible” outfield and carrying too much weight. Then last December the Dodgers got him via trade with Atlanta.

It was not because, SoCal reporters were quick to note, because the Dodgers intended to keep him, let alone play him … but because his salary matched up well with what the Dodgers were paying the players they sent to Atlanta, including Adrian Gonzalez, and the trade enabled the Dodgers to get below MLB’s luxury tax. That’s all it was; he wasn’t returning to center field. Yes, sighs of relief.

Then a curious thing happened. A guy who had fallen out of shape in Atlanta, perhaps seeing the penalty of his prodigality, got serious about conditioning ahead of the current season. He arrived at spring training having shed 40, maybe 50 pounds. A few more trade rumors worked their way through the reportorial  ranks … and then on opening day, there was Matt Kemp. Still wearing Dodger Blue. Playing on opening day. Having a strong early part of the season. Providing pop for a lineup without, first, Justin Turner, then Corey Seager … and becoming the sort of teammate, it would seem, that he had never been before.

He was voted an All-Star Game starter for the first time since 2012. And even after cooling off a bit, he still leads the Dodgers in RBI (64), on-base percentage (.360), hits (100) and batting average (.311). He is second in home runs (17) and third in runs (49).

Amazing.

Maybe it is about Matt Kemp realizing he was going to be 34 in September and maybe he needed to demonstrate he can have value, once the big contract runs out.

People noticed. The New Matt Kemp. The Matt Kemp who wanted to play in the World Series, with the Dodgers. The Kemp who wanted to be with the Dodgers when they finally win the World Series.

Then came this recognition from the Players Alumni Organization. “We are proud to present Matt with this award,” said Dan Foster, chief executive of the group. “He always has a great attitude and plays hard every day.”

(Emphasis added.)

I checked around with some people who see a lot of Dodgers baseball. Said one: “He’s done a lot to re-invent himself since the end of last season,” noting that a Dodgers coach recalled an instance in April when Kemp failed to run hard and was thrown out at second base.

The coach said that Kemp immediately apologized upon returning to the dugout, and those close to the team say that “other than that one play” he’s hustled every time he’s needed to.

Well, hell. Who knew Matt Kemp could come back and be the guy he apparently is now. An inspiration to young players.

The star his own redemption story.

 

 

 

 

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 David // Jul 28, 2018 at 9:21 pm

    Along with this, he’s apparently remade himself in the clubhouse. The original Kemp was never exactly a media sweetheart, but I had a chance to talk to a couple of guys traveling with the Dodgers last week, and they say he’s been terrific to deal with.

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