Composed Kemp getting help from unlikely mentor
LOS ANGELES – Don Newcombe, 85, hoisted himself from a seat behind home plate, bowed his head and asked his wife, Karen, if she would excuse him.
She grinned and nodded, then watched him saunter toward the rear of the batting cage, where several players had gathered on a late afternoon at Dodger Stadium.
Bent slightly from his sternum, Don stepped from the warning track dirt onto the green grass, at which point he became “Newk,” the iconic right-hander from a generation of Brooklyn Dodgers, and a real-life traveler from the summer of ’55.
His suit falls gracefully over his thick, towering frame. His tie is done in a perfect Windsor. His fedora, which he tips respectfully to the ladies, is old-school cool.
At a time when the local ballclub has exhausted the patience of even its most forgiving followers, Newk is a dignified symbol of its past. He arrived in the big leagues two years and a month after Jackie Robinson. Six decades later he bears the same composure, wears the same Dodger colors and elicits the same deep respect.
That afternoon, like most afternoons, Newk was looking for one man in particular. He likes them all, of course, the young men who toil at a game in which he’s so familiar. But, one, he’s special.
“Almost like a son to me, to us,” he said, motioning toward Karen in the stands.
Newk took two more shuffling steps and wrapped Kemp in a hug. With his left hand, Newk stealthily reached down and reinserted Kemp’s inside out and flapping back pocket.
There’s a way to wear the uniform, the gesture said, a way to present yourself, a way to be a pro’s pro.
Just like Newk.
Fifty-five years ago, he was the National League’s MVP, along with its Cy Young Award winner. It was the year he won 27 games, the year after he won 20.
Now, the man in his arms was having the kind of season that could result in an MVP award, and that could end in the NL’s first Triple Crown since 1937. With three games to play, all of them in the hitters’ park that is Arizona’s Chase Field (where he has batted .292 in 2011 and .304 in his career), Kemp is batting .324 with 37 home runs and 120 RBI. He is .009 points behind Ryan Braun(notes) (and .007 behind Jose Reyes(notes)) in the batting race, tied with Albert Pujols(notes) in home runs and leading the league in RBI by five.
Newk nodded at such statistical excess, at the transformation of Matt Kemp from drowning talent to relentless gamer.
“He is a wonderful young man,” Newk said. “He has his idiosyncrasies. But who doesn’t have idiosyncrasies? Those who don’t know him, they ought to change their minds.”
True enough, over six months now, from the reliable effort to the steady eye contact, he is a different player and a different man. He looks especially good standing beside the gentlemanly Newk, nodding through intimate conversations, laughing at inside jokes, promising to keep an eye on that stray pocket.
“He respects me and I respect him,” Newk said. “It doesn’t hurt to take some of your wisdom and try to pass it along. He’s going to learn this game. When he does, he’s a Hall of Famer.
“Matt Kemp can do whatever he decides to do.”
Sometimes, Kemp and Newk communicate without a word. Their eyes meet and Newk cocks an eyebrow, asking what the game will bring, and Kemp nods, answering that he’s going to hit four balls hard tonight.
The sun fell behind the stadium late that afternoon, turning the air cool. Kemp returned to the batting cage, touching Newk’s shoulder as he did. Newk gripped Kemp’s elbow, gave it a shake, and turned to go. He’d take Karen to dinner, then get back in time to watch those four at-bats.
Kemp watched Newk leave.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kemp said warmly. “He’s my dawg.”
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