Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES — The crack of the bat is unmistakable amid the pop music blaring from Dodger Stadium’s loudspeakers on a warm May afternoon. A familiar figure lofts a towering shot into the mostly empty bleachers three hours before a game against the Cincinnati Reds. The few fans who arrived early have seen this long, powerful swing before. Most just never thought they’d see it in 2018. But Matt Kemp, the Dodgers’ best hitter so far this season, barrels up another baseball and smiles because he’s just happy to be home.
“This is where I came up,” Kemp says following a round of batting practice. “This is where they gave me an opportunity to be a professional baseball player and live out my dream. It’s a great city and they’ve always shown me love here. What better place to come back and try to help these guys win a World Series than LA?”
Kemp, now a 12-year veteran, is relaxed while sitting in the dugout, gazing out toward the manicured grass, yet his journey to this unlikely reunion has been anything but smooth.
Los Angeles drafted Kemp out of high school in 2003, and by 2011 the Oklahoma native seemed destined for superstardom, finishing as National League MVP runner-up that year for the only organization he had ever known. He was the face of a franchise in Hollywood’s backyard and played the part, dating Rihanna and signing what was then the richest contract in NL history following his breakout campaign. Kemp kept it rolling into the next season, clobbering 12 home runs in the opening month of 2012.
But a strained hamstring shortly thereafter ended his streak of 399 consecutive games played, which was the longest in the majors at the time. This injury not only halted what looked to be another MVP-caliber season for the athletic center fielder, it was the first of many health issues that sidetracked Kemp’s blossoming career.
Various hamstring, shoulder, and ankle problems limited Kemp to 179 games combined in 2012 and 2013. His speed on the base paths declined. His defense in the outfield suffered. Once considered an ironman, Kemp’s futile search to rediscover a lost consistency boiled over into public frustration with the growing perception that he was “injury-prone.” Whether it was fragility or a string of bad luck, Kemp struggled defensively and appeared unable to handle the rigors of playing center field. After one particularly ugly performance on the road against the New York Mets in 2014, the Dodgers slid him to left field, a move that both Kemp and his agent chafed at.
Although Kemp finished the season strong, his relationship with the team and city seemed, if not frayed, different from what it had been before the injuries. It was unclear what role the Dodgers would ask him to play going forward. The uncertainty was quickly resolved, however, when a new front office took the reins that winter and traded Kemp to the San Diego Padres. The deal stunned many, a blunt end to an era that once carried so much promise.
When Kemp returned to Chavez Ravine as a visitor on Opening Day 2015, most of the fans gave him a standing ovation that drowned out a smattering of boos. Both sides then ostensibly moved on, the Dodgers earning the third postseason berth of their current five-season run as a playoff team while Kemp faded into the obscurity synonymous with professional baseball in San Diego. It wasn’t until the Padres traded Kemp to the Atlanta Braves in 2016 that old wounds in Los Angeles were reopened.
Upon arriving in Georgia, Kemp infamously remarked on his new digs by saying “I’ve never really played in a baseball town before. So I am excited about that.” The quote reverberated back to Southern California like a petty potshot from a bitter ex. Many proud Angelenos resented Kemp’s comment as an affront against their city, which had led the league in attendance for four straight years to that point.
“I think the Dodgers fans took that a little personal,” Kemp says now. “When I was playing with LA [before], it was all about the Lakers. As I got older and as we got better, it became more of a baseball town. … They took it out of context. I think the fans were mad at me for that, but they didn’t read that whole article and what I meant by that. I never had any bad blood with the fans.”
Kemp did, however, admit to letting “a big contract, the Hollywood lifestyle, injuries and bad relationships tarnish the reputation I had worked so hard to establish” in a separate article for The Players’ Tribune around the same time that his “baseball town” statement went public.
“Sadly, I gained a reputation for being selfish, lazy and a bad teammate,” he wrote.
To make matters worse, there was mounting evidence to suggest that Kemp’s value on the field was in decline. His 121 hits last year were the fewest of any season in which he played at least 100 games, and his 0.7 WAR from 2014-17 ranked second-worst among players who appeared in at least 500 games during that time.
But the existence of any animosity between Kemp and Los Angeles would have remained largely hypothetical if not for the scenario that unfolded this past December, when Kemp received what he believed to be a prank call from his agent.
The Braves had traded him back to the Dodgers.
This was not a drill, but there was a caveat:
Los Angeles had no real intention of rekindling its relationship with Kemp because the 33-year-old reportedly did not fit into the team’s future plans. Rather, the Dodgers were more interested in absorbing the $43 million remaining on his contract in order to offload a handful of their own players in an economically balanced deal.
There was no guarantee that Kemp would even suit up for the Dodgers, who subsequently tried to flip him elsewhere and even told the veteran to stay away from their annual FanFest in January so he could avoid questions about the situation. However, Los Angeles was unable to find a suitor and had no choice but to bring an old face to spring training, where the former two-time All-Star would have to earn a roster spot.
Nearly two months into the 2018 season, Kemp has done more than just earn that roster spot. After swatting a team-high five home runs during the spring, he edged out Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles for the starting job in left field and ran with it. Kemp’s .317 batting average through May 15 is tops on the Dodgers.
This early-season production is one of the few bright spots for the defending NL champions, who have seen their encore performance decimated by a rash of injuries to key players such as Justin Turner, Corey Seager, and Clayton Kershaw — each an All-Star in 2017.
“I’m feeling good at the plate right now,” says Kemp, his frame slimmer after shedding 40 pounds over the winter, making him more agile and restoring some of his speed. “But I honestly feel like we could play better. We need to play better. We have a great team and we just got to pick it up a little bit.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts agrees with his left fielder, whom he coached previously in San Diego and now regularly slots into the middle of his makeshift lineup.
“It means a lot having him here,” Roberts says. “The thing with Matt is his preparation each day, his professionalism… It’s hard to imagine us without his production up to this point.”
Kemp’s teammates, both new and old, have his back. All-Star closer Kenley Jansen is one of seven players on the 2018 Dodgers who played with Kemp during his first stint in Los Angeles and believes that his success this season is “because he’s enjoying himself. He’s having fun and being relaxed out there and playing ball the right way.”
“I’m glad for him to be back. To me, he’s the same guy. He never was a problem here.”
Utility man Kiké Hernández has only shared a clubhouse with Kemp for a couple of months, but is similarly quick to defend him against any false perceptions about his fit in the clubhouse that may be lingering in the media.
“If you’re trying to get any dirt, you’re not going to get any,” Hernández says. “Those things out there are straight rumors. I honestly have nothing bad to say about him. He’s having a great year and hopefully he can keep it up because, by the looks of it, we’re going to need it.”
This is perhaps the most surprising part of Kemp’s Los Angeles renaissance. Six months ago, he returned to this familiar baseball town unsure if he’d even make the team.
Now, the Dodgers need Matt Kemp.