LOS ANGELES – Far be it for me to tell people here how to spend their time and money or how to feel about their childhood team, or to sell parking spaces for the guy who'll turn the proceeds into some lawyer's tie clip anyway.
I get the ambivalence a ballgame at Dodger Stadium engenders anymore.
Folks get enough daily hopelessness on the 405 freeway. Can they be asked to compound such anguish?
So, on perfect summer nights, when the skies go orange-pink-purple and Vin Scully goes live and an umpire points a firm finger at the pitcher's mound, the bleachers are bathed not in customers, but dignity. The upper deck is awash in apathy, field boxes streaked in discontent.
And the Los Angeles Dodgers limp to their positions.
This is what happens when a 26-year-old, toolsy, strong safety-sized center fielder reaches his spiritual, physical and emotional prime on the same winter day: .321 batting average, 31 home runs, 101 RBIs, .969 OPS, 35 stolen bases and solid – sometimes breathtaking – defense.
September calls, and he remains Triple Crown feasible, first-to-third hell-bent, and standings blind.
In a season in which the organization has collapsed around him, in which the city has lost hope, in which the nine batters to have hit behind him are James Loney(notes), Marcus Thames(notes), Juan Uribe(notes), Jerry Sands(notes), Jay Gibbons(notes), Rod Barajas(notes), Casey Blake(notes), Juan Rivera(notes) and, in nine games, Aaron Miles(notes), isn't there – I don't know – value in that?
In a National League field where more than a dozen players will draw votes, and maybe half possess the more traditional – big statistics, contending team – claim to Most Valuable Player attention, Kemp is the season's anti-establishment candidate.
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The Dodgers haven't played a meaningful game since, oh, 2009. So, while the numbers can be magnified and stretched and dismissed and recalculated, and while Kemp – along with Joey Votto(notes), Michael Morse(notes), the St. Louis Cardinals trio, the Colorado Rockies duo – can toil amid the losses, there first will be great affection for Prince Fielder(notes), Ryan Braun(notes), Shane Victorino(notes), Justin Upton(notes), even Brian McCann(notes).
And deservedly so.
Fielder's and Braun's Milwaukee Brewers have put away the NL Central with 27 wins in 32 games. In that time, Fielder has batted .322 with seven home runs, 29 RBIs, a .987 OPS and .421 on-base percentage and Braun has batted .370 with five homers, 20 RBIs, a 1.050 OPS and .429 OBP. The Brewers went from a half-game back to 10½ up.
From deep in the NL West, over the same period, Kemp batted .344, hit seven home runs, drove in 27 runs and carried an OPS of .959 and an OBP of .394. The Dodgers went 18-14 and drifted – slowly – toward third place, their October at home already sealed.
From the middle of one of the more pathetic lineups in the league, at a moment when a strike to Kemp is a borderline fireable offense, when all he has to play for is himself, the guys around him and a manager he calls "Donnie B," Kemp has posted the league's first 30-30 season in three years and is pushing the second 40-40 season in 15.
But his team. But his surroundings. But the standings. But last season, when he appeared to mope through 162 games, when he was not part of the solution at all.
But look at him now.
At his locker Monday afternoon, hours before Dodger Stadium would open its doors for the handfuls who'd show up, before he'd steal his 35th base and score his 86th run and get pitched around twice, Kemp looked the face of the franchise. He said he looks up to Jamie Carroll and Juan Pierre(notes) for their work ethics. He praised his agent, Dave Stewart, along with Davey Lopes, Don Newcombe and Maury Wills for their honesty. He recounted a long talk he recently had with Torii Hunter(notes), and dinner conversation he had two weeks ago with Gary Sheffield(notes), and recalled how positive and sincere they were.
"It's been a crazy year, man," he said with a sigh. "A crazy year."
Yet, Kemp finds himself not swallowed by it, but having the league's best end-to-end season from the perspectives of batter's box, basepaths, and premium defensive position. Maybe second-division teams don't produce many MVPs, but, you know, that doesn't mean there isn't another game tonight, and another chance to win. And hell if he's not going to get after one of the few rewards for a season that blew up a long time ago.
"I think about things like that all the time," he said. "You train to be the best. When you're good at what you do, other things come with it."
He reached the big leagues. He played in an All-Star game. He competed in the Home Run Derby. Kemp counted them off and left a finger aloft, that for the MVP.
"I feel like it doesn't matter what team you're on, good or bad," he said. "It doesn't say 'MVP on a Winning Team.' The best player should be the MVP."
That's him, the best player – the most productive player – in the league, through five months. Whether that makes him more valuable than a Brewer or a Phillie or a Diamondback, whether a meaningless game is any easier to alter than a meaningful one, the answers are unclear.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly did have one last question, however: "Is it the best year in the league or not?"
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