Matt Kemp enjoys his success
The Dodgers outfielder is relishing playing on the brink of baseball history
SAN DIEGO -- The latest chapter in Matt Kemp's quest for immortality included a home run to a nearly impossible-to-reach cranny in one of baseball's most cavernous parks, a cake-frosting goatee after a postgame birthday celebration and a momentary belief that he had been the victim of another clubhouse prank in which a teammate had stolen his underwear from his locker while he was in the shower.
It turned out Kemp was mistaken on the last one, which was good news not only for him but also for the reporters who were waiting to interview him after the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2-0 victory over the San Diego Padres before 32,658 on Friday night at Petco Park.
Once Kemp had toweled off and gotten dressed, drawers and all, he was asked whether he knows where he currently stands, whether he knows what his offensive numbers are and whether he knows how far away he is from becoming the fifth all-time member of baseball's 40-homer/40-steals club and possibly winning baseball's first Triple Crown in four decades.
"I don't," he said with a straight face. "I don't."
"OK, yeah, I do."
Of course he does. And so do you.
If you have been paying attention, you know that Kemp's seventh-inning blast off Padres lefty Wade LeBlanc, which landed about five rows deep in right-center to the right of the 400-foot sign, was his 37th of the season. You know Kemp has hit four home runs in five games since stealing his 40th base last Saturday against Pittsburgh. You know Kemp needs three home runs in the Dodgers' final five games of the season to get to 40/40, something he flippantly predicted at the end of last season that he might do in 2011.
"It was just a number that I threw out there," Kemp said. "I didn't really think about it when I said it. But you know, the sky is the limit."
You probably know that Kemp is hitting .326, which is three points behind co-leaders Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers and Jose Reyes of the New York Mets. Kemp is tied with Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League home-run lead, and his 119 RBIs are six more than any other NL player. You definitely know that, because of all this, Kemp has a shot at the Triple Crown, something no major league player has done since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and no NL player has done since Joe Medwick in 1937.
Kemp knows these things too, although perhaps not in such detail. As he was busy turning 27 on Friday -- "Man, I'm getting old," he said the night before, oblivious to the irony of making this lament to a group of mostly much-older reporters -- Kemp was well aware of the rarity of what he is trying to do and that, even with all the spectacular seasons he figures to have in front of him, he might never come this close to doing this again.
With the Dodgers (79-77) going nowhere but home when the season ends next Wednesday night -- shoot, this is the first time they have been two games above .500 in more than five months -- isn't it tempting for Kemp to start swinging from his heels, to do everything he can to get those final three homers?
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"Not really," he said. "I thought it would be, but I just have to relax. When I try to hit home runs, I try too hard and I'm not too successful. If I just relax and have fun, then whatever happens is going to happen."
This is the Kemp we saw far too little of last year. He wasn't relaxed, and from the looks of things, he absolutely wasn't having fun. Not when he was in a relationship with one of the biggest stars in the music industry. Not when he was constantly a target of criticism, sometimes publicly and sometimes within the clubhouse, from the front office, the coaching staff, the media and whomever else you can think of.
"I have had a lot of attention on me before," Kemp said. "I'm kind of used to it. It really isn't that big of a deal. It's not going to stop me from playing hard and doing my job and doing whatever it is I have to do to get us wins."
These days, Kemp doesn't bristle at the attention. Reporters who approach him aren't made to talk to the back of his head as much as they once were. His relationship with the coaching staff, the front office and his teammates appears to be just this side of perfect, and really, would he have been wearing that cake-frosting goatee if it weren't?
As lucky as we are to be witnessing this bit of individual history-making -- it would be nice if we also were watching a contending club, but for now, this is what we have -- perhaps the most enjoyable part of this show is the realization that Kemp is loving every second of it. Eating it up. Taking in the view.
"We have talked to Matty all year long about how you just have to keep playing, keep playing," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "If you do that, at the end of the year, there is going to be a pile of numbers there."
They might not be Triple Crown numbers, and they might not be 40/40 numbers. But they could be one of those, and they could be both.
Either way, Kemp is having the season of his life. If he ultimately falls short of some arbitrary statistical goal, why should he be disappointed, and why should we? No matter what happens from here, Kemp has delivered a performance that none of us will soon forget, one that might be worthy of the NL Most Valuable Player award.
And other than the occasional clubhouse underwear thief, you get the feeling Kemp isn't going to let anything stop him from enjoying the heck out of it.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.