LOS ANGELES – In this city, where identity is not who you are but who you’re with, where home is not where you are but where you’re going, the man with the leading-man looks and Hollywood smile darkens.
“I don’t know if I got too comfortable,” he confesses.
It plays to your ego, plays to your insecurities, plays to your dreams. The scamp.
To a hill that brought him to eye level with the few skyscrapers downtown, where the vitality of the Hollywood Bowl glowed to the north, and from where he could – if he wished – look down upon the entire city, Kemp arrived from Midwest City, Okla., at age 21.
His skills were breathtaking. Built thick and strong and fast, he was the athlete baseball for decades had lost to football and basketball. A former minor league all-star with home-run power and base-stealing speed, he played center field, the glamour position of the Los Angeles, nee Brooklyn, Dodgers.
He walked with a city strut, like he owned the place, yet spoke with a soft and guarded shyness, like he knew his place as a rookie among veterans in an unforgiving game. He rented not in Pasadena, or in Hollywood, or in one of the many vogue beach cities, but in Studio City, in the San Fernando Valley, with the B-listers and their minivans and El Toritos.
Raw in spots, vulnerable to the slider away and the sly pickoff move, Kemp nevertheless dug in. He batted .342 upon becoming a regular in early summer of 2007 and, in the following two seasons, both of which saw the Dodgers play into the National League championship series, he snuck up on stardom.
Delighted (and bound by salary arbitration rules), the cash-poor Dodgers signed him to a two-year contract worth $10.95 million. In 2010, he’d be paid $4 million, a raise of more than $3.5 million over the season before. The second year – at nearly $7 million – was an act of faith.
Somewhere after that, Kemp doesn’t know if he got too comfortable.
But he was first-time rich, famous, and on the arm of Billboard Hot 100 singer and songwriter Rihanna, so tabloid meat.
The Dodgers were losing. Kemp played as if distracted. His general manager called him out in April. His manager benched him in June. His coaches prodded him through the summer. A friend of Kemp’s confided he’d lost him to a world that barely had time for baseball. His body swelled, his bat slowed, his mind appeared to wander. He didn’t compete, not the way he once had, before the money and the celebrity and the fast company.
It’s a helluva city, a careful-for-what-you-ask city, because it just might show up in a bottomless dump truck.
“I just gotta work hard,” he confesses, “and focus on baseball.”
He’s leaner. He brings his dinner in a cooler packed with Tupperware containers. He’s a pleasant young man, if perhaps mildly suspicious following a year of drama and criticism. Maybe he thinks he screwed up, went momentarily soft, I don’t know, but wonders how long he’ll have to answer for it.
It’s baseball season. There’s hardly any time for anything, much less regret. Yet, these things can linger, and the only response to a season in which he batted .249, and was thrown out attempting to steal almost as many times as he was successful, and played a sometimes careless center field, is to play well. And hard.
The Dodgers won three of their first four games, all against the San Francisco Giants, their rivals and World Series champions. Kemp had five hits and three walks. With 158 games to play, six months to play, there’s a difference in how he runs the bases, chases the ball and the shape he’s in.
In the series, he was involved in two pivotal plays.
On Thursday night, Giants catcher Buster Posey(notes) blocked a pitch in the dirt. The ball rolled in front of the plate. At third base, Kemp jab-stepped forward, then returned to the bag. When Kemp turned his head to walk the final step, Posey threw to third, wildly. As the ball bounced down the line, Kemp scored.
Said one Giant, “That was last year’s scouting report. You can catch him sleeping.”
A night later, on a routine grounder to third base, Kemp went first to third, later scoring a crucial run.
“That thing he did last night,” a scout said the next day, “90 percent of those guys couldn’t do it and the other 10 wouldn’t think about it.”
Kemp smiles thinly.
“Just picking it up, man,” he says.
Gone is the iconic manager, replaced by Don Mattingly. Gone are the coaches who rode him, replaced by Davey Lopes. And gone is the cool relationship with Ned Colletti, the general manager who’d expressed dissatisfaction with Kemp’s play, replaced by something like friendship.
“Just the personality and the body language and the look on his face shows me a guy who’s at peace with himself and comfortable with who he is,” Colletti said. “When he got to camp you could see he was in a different place.”
A different time, too. Such is the lesson from Lopes, who counsels Kemp to be a hitter, to be a baserunner and to be a center fielder, but not all at the same time.
“I think about that moment,” Kemp says.
Whatever it is.
“It’s definitely a big difference,” he says.
Before, the last moment bled into this one, and then into the next.
“Whatever,” he says. “My last at-bat. Or if I did something wrong.”
When everybody would seem mad.
“Definitely,” he says. “I can be me.”
Beneath his uniform, Kemp wears a blue T-shirt. Across the shoulders, it reads: “24.7.365.”
Back when he didn’t know if he got too comfortable, maybe those numbers might just as well have been a locker combination. Every hour, every day, all year long, this city can still keep up. It’s relentless like that.
He’s asked if last season scarred him.
“What?” he asks. “Scarred?”
“No, man,” he says. “I’m not trippin’ about last year. Last year was last year. This year is this year.”
“Cuz I’m living,” he says. “I’m healthy. My family’s healthy. I got a great family. I got a lot of good things going on.”