Commentary

The Matt Kemp-Ryan Braun tie

The two most feared hitters in the NL are always trying to prove themselves

Updated: May 30, 2012, 3:21 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The boos were always going to rain down on Ryan Braun the first time he set foot in Los Angeles this season. Even before what happened at the end of last season. Before he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs this winter, then after he was exonerated by an arbiter. The boos were waiting for him here.

Yes, the Milwaukee Brewers left fielder grew up a short commute from Dodger Stadium. Heck, he hit a home run here in his final high school at-bat in 2003. But as far as the locals are concerned, Braun is the guy who beat out Matt Kemp for the MVP award last year. That alone is enough reason to throw a ball he kindly tossed into the crowd in left field back at him.

That's just how it is. Braun may not like it, but he gets it. Just as he gets why everything else he went through this offseason compounded the issue, even as he vigorously maintained his innocence and was subsequently exonerated.

"It didn't really surprise me too much," Braun said of the boos from his hometown fans after the Brewers' 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium. "It's not the way that I would choose for it to be, but it definitely makes it enjoyable as a competitor."

On Tuesday night, Braun answered those boos with a two-run homer in the first inning off Dodgers starter Nathan Eovaldi that gave the Brewers all the offense they would need.

It is the only way he can answer his critics now. On the field, with his bat, by his performance. He's already defended himself in a court of law and in the media. There isn't much more to say. Some people will choose to believe him. Others will remain skeptical. That's it. That's how these things go.

It's something Kemp, his one true rival in the National League, seems to have noticed and come to respect.

"His numbers are the same they were last year," Kemp said of Braun, who is batting .315 with 14 home runs and 36 RBIs. "I don't see a change, so I'm sure whatever happened -- if it did happen or it didn't happen -- he's still the same player that he was last year."

For as long as they play, Kemp and Braun will be linked. They are two of the brightest young stars in the game coming into their primes at the same moment. Both can hit for power and average, steal a bunch of bases and drive in boatloads of runs. Both have charisma, swagger and a winning smile.

"What he's doing is really special," Braun said of Kemp, who is now hitting .355 with 12 home runs and 28 RBIs after a two-week stint on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. "It's historic. It's amazing where he's headed."

Said Kemp: "He's one of my favorite players."

But now it's never just going to be about that, which is sad for both of them. But in a strange way it's also brought them closer together.

They've always been friendly on and off the field. It is a cordial relationship, although nothing especially close. Mostly just a friendship based on mutual respect and offseason text messages.

Still, Kemp seems to have rallied behind Braun's cause in all this by saying and doing a lot more than he had to.

"I've heard Matt say that he was happy when it got cleared," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I don't think guys want other guys doing that. So they seem to be good."

To understand why Kemp would be so sympathetic and respectful of Braun, one need only look into Kemp's recent past. It's wasn't all that long ago that Kemp was put in the position of defending himself against a chorus of critics, too. That was for a very different reason, of course. But being humbled and maligned changes a man, no matter the cause.

Kemp dealt with his issues last season by having a season for the ages. It was amazing how quickly people forgot the 2010 version of Kemp -- the moody, underachieving young star who frustrated the Dodgers' old-guard coaching staff to no end.

Aside from a few polite comments throughout the season, Kemp mostly declined to comment on his relationship with his three harshest critics -- former manager Joe Torre, former bench coach Bob Schaefer and former third-base coach Larry Bowa. He simply went out and played so well that everybody forgot there was ever an issue.

There was an issue, of course, and Kemp might not have gotten past it and stayed with the Dodgers if it hadn't been for his agent, Dave Stewart, and the wise counsel of Dodgers legend Don Newcombe.

"Matt was in need of help in 2010. There were some things going on and I was trying to keep him calm," Newcombe said. "It's just a case of friendship. I try to use this wisdom I have from what I've gone through in this game. Try to pass it on to him and maybe sometime he'll pass it on to some other youngster."

All that is in the past now because Kemp refused to let it define him. He played through it and got past it. Only his play would change people's minds.

Braun finds himself in a similar place now. There are those who will never believe him.

All he can do is let his play speak for him. And so far, that's just what he's done, despite losing the protection of Prince Fielder in the lineup, and despite the rash of injuries up and down the Brewers' lineup.

"There's no doubt that it's more challenging without having Prince hitting behind me. He's an intimidating force, and I'm definitely being pitched at least a little bit differently," Braun said. "But ultimately I think good hitters hit."

This attitude seems to come naturally to Braun. He's always been both classy and supremely confident. It's how you go from being an undrafted player out of high school to the No. 5 pick in the draft in three years. It's probably even why he went to the high school he did -- Granada Hills High -- when most of the top players in the San Fernando Valley flocked to City Section powerhouses like Chatsworth High (Mike Moustakas, Matt Dominguez) or El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills (Randy Wolf, Conor Jackson).

"I guess I kind of embraced the fact that we weren't the powerhouse school," Braun said. "I liked that."

It took confidence to like that. Real confidence. The kind you just have and don't need to talk about.

That's something great players tend to have from an early age. It's why Kemp and Braun have developed an easy, natural friendship over the years in much the same way Kemp's new owner, Magic Johnson, always had with Larry Bird. There's an understanding there. A recognition that the other guy is one of only a handful of players in the league who knows what the air up there is like.

It's competitive, in a way. "If you're one of those top guys in the league, the other guys, you kind of pay attention," Mattingly said. "It's not really all about that, but I still think you get pushed a little bit."

You get pushed a little bit because, being Matt Kemp or Ryan Braun, the only bar you have to clear is the one you set for yourself.

It's why Kemp throws out goals like 50 home runs or 50 steals. It's why he and Braun pay attention to each other, even if it's mostly from afar. In a way, they need each other to reach their own ceilings.

It would be great if that's all their relationship would be about now and in the future. If Braun's greatness and accomplishments were the only reason Dodgers fans were booing him during this four-game series.

But it's not. There will always be more to it, now. All Braun can do is play through it. Meantime, you can't help getting the feeling that Kemp is pulling for him.

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