Matt Kemp is finally home again in LA

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Friday, September 14, 2018

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There is no easy way to tell a player he's been traded. But generally whatever awkwardness or emotion an executive feels from those calls is offset by the excitement of the calls welcoming the players joining the club. Last December Andrew Friedman took pleasure from neither: He had to call the team's prodigal son, Matt Kemp, to tell him he'd been reacquired by the Dodgers -- the team he came up with and with which he nearly won an MVP -- but likely wasn't staying long.

Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, cut right to the chase. "I just want to be honest with you," he told Kemp. "I'm not sure how this will play out."

This was the second time the two men had spoken. The first came in 2014, when Friedman was two months into his job in LA. The team's billionaire owners had lured him away from small-market Tampa Bay and tasked him with remaking the Dodgers into a championship contender instead of an expensive collection of disgruntled, disappointing stars. Friedman's first big trade as the Dodgers' shot caller sent Kemp, once the unquestioned face of the franchise, to the moribund Padres.

So two phone calls, two trades, both of which involved telling Kemp he wasn't a part of the team's present or future plans. Not exactly the way to start a good relationship. "S---, I got all happy at first," Kemp says of Friedman's call to him last year. "I could go back to LA where it all started. ... And then it was like, 'Damn, now I've gotta sit here and wonder the whole offseason what's going to happen.'"

It was hard to take.

The years away from Los Angeles -- languishing on last-place teams in San Diego and Atlanta, watching his once-indomitable body betray him -- had taken a toll on Kemp's spirit. He'd come to miss being a Dodger and everything that went with it: the stage, the meaningful games in August and September chasing a pennant, the sound of 50,000 fans cheering on warm nights at Chavez Ravine.

"You walk out and it's just a different smell in LA," he says. "Like the air is ... you just feel good. The sun's always shining, it barely rains. It's just this city, man. The stadium, the atmosphere, the lights. There's nothing like it."

For one moment, fortune had smiled upon him, delivering him back to LA. But in the next, Friedman was telling him not to get too comfortable with the idea. The Dodgers had dealt for him only because his salary matched up well with the package of expensive veterans the team sent to the Braves -- Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir among them -- and the deal would help the team get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold. Just like the last time Kemp had been shipped out of LA, the Dodgers had little use for an outfielder whose defense had fallen off a cliff as injuries, age and weight gain took their toll.

Kemp was at a crossroads. He was only 33, but he'd apparently reached the point in his career when teams trade him for nothing -- or cut him and pay him out, rather than find a spot for his still-productive bat.

There was little he could say to change the circumstances. There was, however, something he could do, perhaps the only thing left to do before his career fizzled out. He could show the Dodgers that he'd changed.

TORII HUNTER WAS with Kemp when he got that call from Friedman. They'd been friends for years in an older brother/younger brother kind of way. Over the course of his 19-year career, Hunter had made a point of reaching out to dozens of younger players, offering advice and mentorship, as veterans such as Twins legend Kirby Puckett had done for him when he first made it to the big leagues.

But Kemp wasn't a kid trying to find his way around the big leagues anymore. He was a veteran confronting his own baseball mortality. "It's an ego thing," Kemp says. "Getting older gets a little humbling."

Hunter, two years into retirement, knew a little something about that part too. "I was like 29 when I had to start really getting into my body," Hunter says. "I just took control, and it paid off, because I played until I was 40. And I could've played two more years after that; it's just my mind left."

Hunter had been encouraging Kemp to move to Texas and train with him full time for years. He'd get him eating right and training in a way he'd never done before. Kemp would come for a few weeks each offseason, but after the way his body felt after last season -- derailed by yet another hamstring injury, which turned him into one of the worst defensive outfielders in the game -- he knew he needed to make a deeper commitment.

Soda and processed food were out. His meals would be prepared by Hunter's longtime private chef, Kevin Ashade. He changed his workouts to focus more on flexibility, endurance and weight loss rather than strength training. His nightlife, once the fascination of tabloids and paparazzi when he was dating Rihanna, had turned into game nights and barbecue with Hunter and his wife.

"He renovated himself and built himself back up," Hunter says. "He's the same body, the same building, but he renovated. The inside is different."

Kemp had already lost 20 pounds by the time Friedman called in mid-December, and he intended to lose at least 20 more before spring training. (Hunter proudly says Kemp eventually lost 52 pounds. Kemp was more modest, saying simply that he lost "enough.") He thought about telling Friedman all of that on that phone call. About how much he'd come to appreciate being a Dodger and how much he wanted to be back. About how hard it was to watch his former teammates go to the World Series last year after yet another wasted year on a non-contender. These three seasons away had tested his spirit, but he'd made a choice in the offseason to find his love for the game again and was doing everything he could to remake himself from the inside out.

But this was literally the second time he'd ever spoken to the guy, and both had been trade calls like this. He had no idea whether he would even listen.

And more than that, Kemp knew that talk was cheap when it came to changing his reputation. The only thing he could do was swallow his pride and show the Dodgers how much he'd changed.

"What can you do?" Hunter asked him. "Just trust the process that you're going through.

"You're a new person, so just go do your thing. Help the other guys. Show them that you have that wisdom to give back. I think every organization needs a player that has great character, wisdom, that's been through stuff.

"Show them what you can do whenever you get the chance."

KENLEY JANSEN HAD an idea for Kemp to do just that. The Dodgers' All-Star closer, teammates with Kemp from 2010 to 2014, had spent the offseason campaigning for Kemp, and he was ready to ensure that his former teammate earned a spot on the LA roster.

"I told my wife," Jansen says, "I don't care if the front office is gonna be pissed off at me or whatever. All I care about is winning, and this is the guy that we need. He's the right-handed bat we've been searching for, and we already had him.

"A lot of people left and went and played on different teams -- but he's the one person, when he left, that really hurt."

Jansen had a proposal for Kemp. The Dodgers were having offseason workouts in Los Angeles in January. As long as Kemp hadn't been traded by then, he should just show up and show everyone what Jansen had been telling them for months -- Kemp could help the Dodgers.

For Kemp, that meant swallowing his pride and showing up, uninvited, to those offseason workouts.

Jansen knew that was no easy task. Kemp's first stint in LA ended in large part because he bristled publicly and privately about moving from center field, where he'd won Gold Gloves in 2009 and 2011, to a corner outfield position after injuries had greatly diminished his range and athleticism.

"If you really go back, if he would have done that, he still probably would've been a Dodger, I believe," Jansen says. "But he has his pride. And I think his ego might have been a little bit too much in his way, probably."

Then there was the open conflict between Kemp and brash young outfielder Yasiel Puig. "He tried to discipline Puig," Jansen says. "He was trying to be a veteran."

Puig didn't take it well, and things erupted after a playoff game against the Cardinals in 2014, when Kemp called out Puig in front of the team during a postgame address by then-manager Don Mattingly. Kemp and Jansen say they believe that incident was part of why he was traded to San Diego that December. Friedman denies it. He wasn't there for it, but he'd heard from the previous staff about what happened. "From our standpoint, a lot of time had passed," Friedman says. "And I was optimistic [Kemp and Puig] would be able to move past that. That wasn't much of a risk factor for us.

"There's a lot of emotion whenever you lose a playoff series, and it sounds like a lot was tied to that."

According to Friedman, Kemp was moved in 2014 primarily because the Dodgers had a glut of corner outfielders and Kemp had more trade value than Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier. By then, Kemp had accepted that he couldn't play center field like he used to. He had more 2014 games in right than center for the Dodgers, and he'd be playing there every day with the Padres as well.

"You've got to come to reality," Kemp says. "In your brain, you're thinking, 'I can still do certain things.' And then when you try to do it, your body goes, 'I can't really do that the way I used to.'

"You try to steal bases and think, 'I've got such a good jump!' and then it's like, 'Why am I running in place right now?' It's your mind playing tricks on you. So you just got to be good at what you can do and keep working on the things that you're not as good at anymore."

And after training all offseason with Hunter, working on his mind, body and spirit, Kemp felt ready to prove himself again.

"Having good people around you like that keeps you focused and makes you realize, 'Let's lock this s--- back in and try to get where I can make something happen,'" Kemp says.

FRIEDMAN IMMEDIATELY NOTICED the change in Kemp, who looked considerably leaner than he did at the end of his time in Atlanta.

In spring training, Kemp hit .263 with five home runs and impressed the Dodgers with his willingness to put time in with outfield coach George Lombard, working on his defense. What really sold Friedman, though, was his attitude.

"Early on, he scored a big run late in the game," Friedman remembers. "And I saw way more emotion out of him than I've ever seen. That really stood out to me, how much he wanted to be here and how much he wanted to win here."

In the first half of the season, the Dodgers wouldn't have won much at all without Kemp. He hit .310 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs to earn his first All-Star selection since 2012. (He was the team's only offensive selection.) His resurgence, along with the surprising star turn of infielder Max Muncy, kept the Dodgers afloat after star shortstop Corey Seager was lost to a season-ending injury and third baseman Justin Turner struggled in his return from a broken wrist. Kemp cooled off considerably after the All-Star break -- he hit just .214 in August -- but didn't fall off a cliff like he might've done in his younger days, when he was known as much for sulking his way through slumps as he was for his swagger in good times. And on Sept. 1 and 2, he came up with back-to-back walk-off hits to beat the Diamondbacks as the Dodgers erased what had been a 4-game deficit in the NL West over the span of 10 days.

"It's baseball. It's a roller coaster," Kemp says. "You have one good week and the next week you suck, and then you come back and you're good again. Then you suck again for three weeks and then you're good again for two months and then you suck again. There's not a lot of people that can just consistently be really, really good at baseball."

If it sounds like something a wise old veteran would say, you're not far off. Cody Bellinger has praised Kemp for his mentorship over the course of the season. He and Puig have reconciled, Jansen going so far as to call them "brothers for life" this spring. In July, Kemp was named the winner of the Dodgers' Heart and Hustle Award, given by former players to a player on each club who "demonstrates a passion for the game of baseball."

Kemp himself is amused by his development from mentee to mentor. It's not uncommon for him to bring a bag full of green drinks from Kreation Juicery with him to the stadium and drink one before and after the game.

"I don't drink it for the taste," he says, while holding up a glass bottle labeled "50 Shades of Green" that costs $12.20 a pop and has things like spirulina and dandelions in it. "I drink it for the feel."

Two lockers over, the Dodgers' newest star, Manny Machado, is lamenting how much food costs at high-end restaurants in Los Angeles. "Is there gold in it?!"

"That's LA, bro," Kemp yells back. "You've got to get used to it."

"I could just eat at McDonald's every day," Machado says.

Kemp laughs. "He loves McDonald's."

Machado opens up a new box of cleats and asks Kemp if he wants a pair.

"Now he's handing out Jordans," Kemp says, smiling. He used to be the Dodger with all the endorsement deals and magazine covers. Back in 2014, he became the first male celebrity chosen as the face of the clothing retailer Gap. Outside the Dodgers clubhouse is the Sports Illustrated cover he did with then-new owner Magic Johnson in 2012. Kemp was the face of the franchise in those days -- the $160 million homegrown superstar the Dodgers were determined to build around as they dug out from the disastrous reign of former owner Frank McCourt. Kemp passes by that relic every day on his way to work, a reminder of what he's been through but also how far he's come.

He's not the face of the Dodgers anymore. But he's a Dodger again, and that's enough.