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Thursday, March 28, 2013
Updated: March 29, 2:57 PM ET
Matt Kemp holds key to L.A.

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Matt Kemp is checking items rapidly off his career bucket list.

He has had an MVP-caliber season, even if the voters disagreed in 2011. He has gotten rich beyond anything he could have imagined as a kid back in small-town Oklahoma. He signed an eight-year, $160 million contract the same month Ryan Braun beat him out for the MVP by a handful of votes.

Matt Kemp
Matt Kemp has reached two All-Star games and won two Gold Gloves. But a trip to the World Series has eluded him so far.

He has lived the celebrity lifestyle. He couldn't stay off TMZ's radar a few years ago.

He has played in four postseason series, been named to two All-Star teams and won two Gold Gloves.

There is one box left unfilled: Lead a team to the World Series.

For the Dodgers to become more than a traveling collection of pricey talent, Kemp, 28, might need to take command of the clubhouse, to be the stand-up, take-all-questions conscience after tough losses, to police the team for selfishness and lackadaisical play. He might have to keep things loose when they are starting to get tense. He might have to bring the team into focus when it's drifting.

There's a lot riding on whether he can do it or not.

"I think I can get the best out of everybody," Kemp said earlier this spring. "I think I'll try."

The Dodgers have other respected players. Jerry Hairston Jr. and Mark Ellis have more service time and have had more varied experiences in the game. Adrian Gonzalez, because he is perfectly bilingual, moves more freely between the two main subcultures of a clubhouse.

But there is one overriding reason why Kemp needs to be the leader of this team.

"He is our best player," Hairston said. "I don't think it's 'arguably.'"

As Kemp does, the Dodgers figure to do. As Kemp goes, the Dodgers figure to go. Manager Don Mattingly recognizes that and has had a long-standing dialogue with him about how to comport himself around the team.

"We've talked in general and I've given him my thoughts on great players, how they go about their business and how they play," Mattingly said. "Matt plays every day. He's got the respect of the guys in that clubhouse. That instantly makes him a leader.

"He just has to recognize that he has an effect. That means if he doesn't come to play, it sends a bad message."

There are different ways to lead a team and Hairston, who broke into the big leagues in 1998, has seen various approaches. He played with Will Clark, whose loud, high-pitched voice was almost always bouncing off the clubhouse walls. He played with Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter, who went about things with more subtlety.

"They may not talk a whole lot, but when they have something to say, it's usually to right the ship and put things in perspective," Hairston said. "When those two guys talk, people listen."

In Ellis' first year, David Justice was the leader of a young, talented Oakland A's team that had just lost its best player, Jason Giambi. Justice's postseason cool and cerebral approach to hitting rubbed off on younger teammates. Ellis played with Mike Sweeney, another vocal presence, and Miguel Tejada, who led the team almost silently, by playing with sheer passion.

Kemp might not have the gravitas of a Ripken or a Jeter, but he is far from shy and is at a point in his career when he will be judged by how well his team does. If the Dodgers don't reach their goal, Kemp will be the one everyone wants to talk to. Players say his leadership style is to lighten the mood rather than to police other players' misdeeds.

"The great thing about him is he can laugh with you, but he can take the joke, too," Hairston said. "When you hear him in the dugout hooting and hollering, that's good to see. You want that from your best player. He'll be vocal at times. The great thing about Matt, too, he backs it up. He doesn't ask anything of his teammates that he doesn't expect of himself."

Ellis said Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and Carl Crawford have set an example this spring by doing more extra work than any players he has ever been around. He said the task of pointing out lapses in judgment or effort is a collective one on the Dodgers. Players often would rather hear of their mistake from a teammate than from a coach or manager.

"If somebody's not concentrating or running hard, there are a lot of guys who will say something. We all try to keep each other accountable," Ellis said. "The good thing about this clubhouse is guys have been around a long time and are not afraid to say something."

Kemp set an example that didn't quite hit its intended mark late last season. He played hurt and, for a while, dragged the team down with him. After banging into an outfield wall in Colorado on Aug. 28 and jamming his left shoulder, Kemp batted .157 with 15 strikeouts in his next 12 games as the Dodgers drifted further from contention.

A surgeon fixed Kemp's shoulder in October and Kemp seems more determined than ever to get his career back on track with his team going in the right direction. He recognizes putting up numbers isn't the only job he has signed up for.

"If there's something that needs to be said, of course I'm going to say it," Kemp said.