Matt Kemp's transformation from fading star to potential All-Star

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – The ballplayer Matt Kemp is or isn’t anymore, and how 200 at-bats as a 33-year-old plays in, seems to Matt Kemp to be almost beside the point.

He’s third among National League outfielders in the early All-Star Game voting, which is fine, he said. Just fine. He said it with a smile he tried to bury, which he did a lousy job of. But that, too, his first All-Star Game in six years, seems to him to have somewhere else to be, not with him here, in the middle of June, at Dodger Stadium, nearing his 13th big-league summer, wearing this jersey again, of all jerseys.

He is, instead, he insists, just a guy who only wants to play forever, or for as long as he wants, whichever works out, which is a lot easier to fathom when you’re more like Matt Kemp again and not some knockoff of what Matt Kemp used to be. Before his injuries. Before his body expanded. Before whatever it was in his life or his head that allowed him to allow his body to expand. Before, perhaps, the contract that began ahead of his prime and will expire after it.

A guy who wins. A guy who has a blast doing it. A guy who, sure, rakes. (Who doesn’t want to rake?) That’s what he says he wants. And if he says it with the laugh and ease of a man batting .335, who’s managing over 200 at-bats to retake a piece of the player he was, who with it is taking all of the player he believes he is still left to be, that’s because all of that is probably true. At 33, in baseball years, every new day probably leaves a little something behind. A speck of bat speed. A shred of arm strength. An inch of get-down-the-line.

But that won’t stop you from walking into the clubhouse in the middle of the afternoon and heaving a “WHOO!” into the room, just to get the day started. Or from, not so long ago, looking the length of a clubhouse visitor and deciding this buttoned-up young man could use a little help, starting with a spritz of cologne.

“You’re married?” he asks. “I don’t think she loves you, ‘cuz your style is just whack.”

Ergo, the perfume. The attire, well, nothing he could do about that.

“You look like a snitch,” he says. “But you smell good.”

Then, a few minutes later, because he’s got the room, “His skin’s not takin’ the scent. I don’t know what it is.”

It’s meant to be funny. And it is.

In the locker next to Kemp’s, actually two lockers over, because the one between them is mostly empty except for one of those old, brown desk plaques that reads, “EVERYDAY I’M HUSTLIN,” Kenley Jansen reframes a question.

“What I learned about him?” he says. “I can’t say what I learned about him. What I know about him, that boy can hit in his sleep.”

Beyond that, Jansen says, “He’s happy. He went through a lot in his life. Off-the-field stuff. I’m not going to get into that. But he went through it. A grown-up guy. A good guy who learned about life.”

Matt Kemp is third among National League outfielders in the early All-Star Game voting. (AP)
Matt Kemp is third among National League outfielders in the early All-Star Game voting. (AP)

It’s not too late for baseball, apparently, and it would have to do anyway. He saw what you saw by the end of last season, then changed as much as he could, and became a curious little story in spring training, and then for two months was about the Dodgers’ best player at a time when they sorely needed a good player. He’d become, if not the sleek and powerful and electric Matt Kemp, the Matt Kemp whose body would let him be at least capable, at least competitive, again. A part of something good again. Then, whatever Kenley Jansen was alluding to. Kemp moved to Texas, where he likes it. He sensed, perhaps, there wouldn’t be a lot more opportunities in the game. He could see the end of his contract from there. He’d already been shuffled off to San Diego, to Atlanta, back to L.A. This was not a career that was going to run through the finish line, not on its current pace. It was fading. He was fading.

“I was what?” he asked.

Fading.

“Fading. Oh.”

Not like it hurt. More like it wasn’t close to the first time he’d heard it. Like he had maybe thought the same thing.

“Oh, for sure. Yeah. Of course. What people see of me, it’s me,” he said. “I already know. I feel it, as a person. I already know. Somebody says something, I already know. It’s me. You know? Of course, you gotta sit back and think, ‘What do you want?’ And for me I just wanted to be healthy and play the game I love to play.

“I don’t know how much longer I got in this game. Baseball’s a little bit different now. It’s getting younger. But, for me, I’m gonna ride this thing till the wheels fall off, man. I’m having fun. Got this year and next year left on my deal and whatever happens, happens, man.”

Then?

“I want to keep playing,” he said. “For sure I want to keep playing. But you just never know. It’s weird now. Baseball’s a little weird now. Guys that are established in the game are getting minor-league contracts, things like that. Proven big leaguers are getting minor-league contracts. It’s a little weird. So, have fun. All the time. No matter what. ‘Cause you never know how much more you got left. That’s the thing.”

The personality still fills a room, just as the smile can. The bat still, on many nights, fills a ball field. If he’d not so long ago believed he’d done quite enough in the game, he seems to have changed his mind, decided there was more left. More to play for. And as of this week, he’s potentially an all-star.

“It’s really good to see him grow in whatever year it is in his big-league career,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He won’t admit it, but it felt good. Everybody wants to be appreciated. … Every player wants it, whether they admit it or not.”

So, eight or nine months pass, the work in those months has him third in the league in batting, sixth on on-base-plus-slugging percentages, and with 10 home runs. And one morning he wakes up to the news he’s third – behind Bryce Harper and Nick Markakis – for the National League’s starting outfield.

“Naw,” Kemp said. “Honestly, I was thinking about John Legend when I woke up this morning. Watched a great concert last night. I had John Legend music in my mind. I wasn’t worried about the All-Star Game or anything like that. Those accomplishments are good. They’re fun. But I really like the way we’re playing baseball right now.

“Honestly, whatever happens, happens with the All-Star Game. If I make it, I make it. If I don’t, at the end of the day I’m trying to help this team get to the playoffs. That’s my main concern.”

Which would bring him to the point all along.

“It’s an unpredictable game,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t control the outcome of it. You just gotta keep going.”

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