Matt Kemp cares. A lot.

It just took a long time and some hard lessons for him to figure that out

Updated: June 14, 2012, 6:12 PM ET
By Molly Knight | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the June 25 Debate Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

HE IS OFF with the crack of the bat.

Andre Ethier smokes a line drive toward the wall in left-center, and though Matt Kemp has a small lead off first base, he thinks one thing: score. With his head down and legs pumping, Kemp is a blur in home whites as he rounds second. It's May 30, and he is only two days removed from a 15-day stint on the DL with a bum hammy -- but the duct-taped Dodgers improbably own the best record in baseball. Kemp is their leader, having mashed 12 homers in April and posting a video-game-like line that has people talking about the 27-year-old centerfielder as the player of a generation. And tonight, in the first inning of his second game back, he has drawn a walk. Now he has designs on home.

The trouble hits as he rounds third, the muscle fibers in the back of his left thigh seizing up again, slowing him to a trot. Kemp scores easily but walks back to the dugout a bit gimpy.

He knows this injury is worse than the first, but he descends the stairs and puts his helmet in its cubby and acts as if nothing is up. This is the attitude we've seen in the past. Placid, seemingly indifferent. That has been his MO since first reaching the majors, much to the frustration of veteran players, old coaches and the Dodgers front office: Matt Kemp was too cool to care. But his manager, Don Mattingly, knows better. He asks Kemp, "Are you okay?"

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Peggy SirotaKemp was second in MVP voting last year.

"I'm good," Kemp says, staring at the field.

Mattingly isn't buying it. "Matty," he asks, pressing, staring at him now. "Are you okay?"

Looking Mattingly in the eye, Kemp shakes his head. "No," he says. "I'm not good."

Mattingly pulls Kemp from the game, and now critics think they see what they've always considered the close cousin of Kemp's affected apathy: immaturity. He wheels around and throws his arms over his head in anguish. And when pacing the dugout fails to calm him, he grabs a bat, leaps into the air and breaks it over his right leg. He throws the barrel of it at the bench, disgusted, and as dazed teammates look on, he carries its severed handle down the steps to the clubhouse and slams it to the ground as well.

From the outside, he looks like the same old Kemp: a guy whose talent is as raw as his composure is unformed, beguiling fans with the preternatural ability he doesn't care to hone. But perceptions are deceiving with Kemp, especially of late. The harder the game treats him, the more he respects it, cares about it -- and the better he plays.


THIS WAS HOW easy Kemp had it: Baseball wasn't even his first choice.

Growing up just outside Oklahoma City, Kemp was a sophomore when his high school basketball team, the Midwest City Bombers, won a state title, led by Shelden Williams, the future Duke star and NBA veteran. By his senior year, Kemp was an Oklahoman All-City selection, averaging 20 points a game. He got some offers to play in college as a guard, but at 6'3" and not getting any taller, he realized his best shot at going pro would be on the diamond. He spent his senior year playing hardball year-round, the first time he'd done that, and scouts began turning up at his games. Kemp, a baseball player but not a baseball guy, assumed they were college scouts. "I had no idea you could get drafted out of high school," he says with a laugh.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Peggy SirotaHe knows he will lift that trophy before his career is over.

The Dodgers liked his body: quick, strong hands that could catch up to any major league fastball and flick it over the fence, a cannon for an arm and those long, powerful legs that made him look like he could fly. The game could be learned; those tools could not. Despite the fact that he'd been playing baseball year-round for only a season, LA took him in the sixth round of the 2003 draft and offered him $130,000. That was more money than he'd ever seen. Though Kemp's father had been in his life, he was raised by his mother, Judy Henderson, a registered nurse. "We definitely weren't poor growing up, but we weren't rich," Kemp says. The bond they shared only strengthened when Kemp was 13. Judy had given birth to a second son, Tyler, who was born premature, weighing 1 pound and 1 ounce and without a set of fully developed lungs. But Tyler fought on well past any doctor's expectations. On the days that Judy would leave at dawn to be by Tyler's side at the hospital and not come home until after dark, Kemp got himself to school, did the cooking and finished his homework alone. When Henderson needed a soft word, Kemp was there. "If it wasn't for him, I don't know if I could have made it," she says. Tyler died shortly after his first birthday, but Kemp considered his brother the strongest person he'd ever known.

As a pro he excelled immediately, hitting 18 home runs in A-ball at age 19 and smacking 27 homers and stealing 23 bases the following season. Catcher Russell Martin spent some time with Kemp in the minors. Those were fun days, Kemp at one point cramming as many as five teammates in a three-bedroom house by partitioning off parts of the living room. Martin says Kemp was the self-conscious one, always dressing fashionably but quick to withdraw and fall silent when criticized. Martin remembers Kemp being so green he would be thrown out on the base paths standing up, but he was also the best player among them. "You just knew he could be a superstar," Martin says.

In 2006, just four years after he started taking baseball seriously, the Dodgers called up the 21-year-old Kemp. His first game was at RFK Stadium the afternoon before Memorial Day. "I'd never been in an outfield that big," Kemp says.

That year was Ned Colletti's first as Dodgers general manager. "When I got here, I saw a guy with more talent than most, who had probably played less baseball than most," says Colletti. "That can be a tough combination because you have great expectation, but you can't microwave experience."

The following year, Kemp hit .342 in 98 games. And in 2009 he hit .297 with 26 home runs and 34 stolen bases and led all major league centerfielders with an .842 OPS. He took home the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and helped the Dodgers to the NLCS for the second year in a row.

But his gaudy numbers did not endear him to Dodgers veterans. In 2007, Jeff Kent chided Kemp and other young players for lacking professionalism and the desire to close out a season as strong as the Dodgers had started it. Dodgers infielder Nomar Garciaparra recalls a time he sat next to Kemp in the dugout and offered some constructive criticism: Kemp had all the tools to be an MVP someday, but he had to care enough to become one. "So many of us saw how special he was," says Garciaparra. "He'd listen, but sometimes he took it the wrong way. He'd take it like he must be doing something wrong, and he'd go into instant defense mode. It was sort of like him against the world."


[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Peggy SirotaThe $160 million man learned to grow up -- and give up LA's club scene.

ONE NIGHT A month into the 2012 season, with the Dodgers and Nationals tied at 3 in the bottom of the 10th, Matt Kemp takes a slow walk to the batter's box. The crowd shouts "MVP! MVP!" Kemp has hit 10 homers in April, four more than anyone else in the NL. He leads the league's batting race too, by 74 points, with a .452 average. And his 23 RBIs are one behind his teammate Ethier. Nationals reliever Tom Gorzelanny kicks the dirt on the mound, facing his plight with a look of practiced indifference. This night has belonged to Bryce Harper, the super hyped prospect who made his debut with the Nats, going 1-for-3 and driving in a run. But now Kemp is behind in the count, 1 and 2, against Gorzelanny. The lefty fires a fastball over the plate, and Kemp takes it deep and high into centerfield. The crowd follows its arc, screaming as it soars: a walk-off home run, Kemp's 11th long ball of the month, a Dodgers record. After Kemp touches home, he runs to the backstop and reaches for his mother's hand, grabbing it in celebration.

Two years earlier, with Kemp at his lowest, he had reached out to his mom too. He was hitting .230 through June and had gone into the defensive mode Garciaparra had seen earlier. If a reporter approached him, Kemp kept the answers short. Yes. No. I don't know. He let himself be misunderstood. "That was just out of frustration," Kemp says. "And not really being used to failure."

He was also not used to having his personal life scrutinized. He was 25, a pro athlete in LA with money in his pocket. He hit clubs like the Colony and Drai's and events at the Playboy Mansion. He was photographed around town as arm candy for Rihanna. But when his numbers plummeted, People magazine compared the couple to Jessica Simpson and Tony Romo. Everywhere they went in LA, the paparazzi followed, which only affirmed his critics' suspicions that he didn't care about his game. "My girl has nothing to do with what I do on the baseball field," Kemp said at the time. "If anything, she helps. She makes me happy. And as stressed as I am coming home sometimes, it's nice to have someone there who just wants to support you."


BY 2010, MANY of the veterans had retired. It was Kemp's team now. And as the Dodgers walked toward the cellar that season, the clubhouse grew more tense and Kemp's play stiffened. Old habits -- the basketball player trying baseball -- popped up. He got thrown out trying to steal a base without attempting to slide. He swung at too many pitches in the dirt. Manager Joe Torre silently fumed.

The displeasure escalated in June when Kemp failed to back up Russell Martin's errant toss from home to second on a stolen base attempt. The coaches had been on Kemp for weeks to back up and felt that his failure to do so was partly responsible for Martin's seven errors. Kemp thought the team was positioning him too deep for him to sprint in and make any kind of difference. When bench coach Bob Schaefer approached him after the latest error, Kemp told Schaefer to leave him alone. Torre benched Kemp and waited for him to issue an apology. Kemp didn't. The stare-down dragged out for three games -- Torre never saying why Kemp sat, Kemp never saying anything -- before Kemp finally relented and they met in Torre's office. The two have never addressed what was said in that meeting, but Torre stated earlier this season, "He has always been a kid who likes to play every single day, and you like to see that."

Still, he was the symbol of the Dodgers' malaise. Third base coach Larry Bowa said, "I wish I had Matt Kemp's tools because I would be in Cooperstown." Ned Colletti gave a radio interview in which he questioned Kemp's effort. Soon rumors swirled that Kemp could be traded.

Kemp felt misunderstood. But if anything, Kemp had allowed himself to be misunderstood, his stoicism forcing everyone to fill in the gaps between the guy they saw sputtering on the field and partying in the limelight.

Kemp called his mom, night after frustrating night, back in Oklahoma, the only solace he could find. He cried. A lot. Sometimes he said nothing at all. Henderson reached a point where she could no longer watch his games. She'd turn to another channel, flipping back when she thought he might be at bat. And if she saw a wounded look in his eyes, if his lips were pursed tight, she'd change the station. She knew that at-bat would not end well.

He struck out 170 times in 2010, a Dodgers single-season record. He hit .249 with a .310 on-base percentage. "It just wasn't a good year," he says.


HE DECIDED HE had to get out of LA. After his first year in the minors, another Oklahoman, Junior Spivey, then with the Brewers, had taken an interest in Kemp and invited him to Arizona to train. Spivey didn't know Kemp, had only heard of him through mutual friends, but he had a soft spot for a fellow Oklahoma native finding his way. Kemp trained alongside Spivey and played against major leaguers that offseason -- and they weren't much better than he was. That's when he realized what he could become. So six years later, he packed his bags and went back to the place where he first felt like a ballplayer. "I love LA," he says. "But you can get into a lot of trouble out here."

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn Jr., Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillOnce Kemp became a great player he also became a great teammate.

In Los Angeles, there was always a party to go to or a new bar to check out. It had become more and more difficult to get up in the morning for workouts. There was always tomorrow. He needed to change his habits. He needed to change how people perceived him. So he began training at a gym in Scottsdale owned by Philadelphia Eagles guard Evan Mathis. He cut junk food from his diet and dropped 15 pounds from his 230-pound frame, reporting to camp the following spring faster and stronger. After watching him hit, legendary former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe asked Kemp to win him the MVP Award. It didn't seem out of the question.

Kemp opened up more in spring training, especially with new manager Mattingly, who had served as the Dodgers hitting coach the previous three seasons. While Mattingly had no managerial experience heading into the season, he had a gift relating to players. "Donnie always had my back," Kemp says. Adds Colletti: "Donnie's a great manager. He's a great manager of players. He understands the psychology of everybody." Even though Dodgers owner Frank McCourt drove the team into bankruptcy, the club finished 41-28 in the second half, one of the best clips in baseball. And Kemp, the year before he would become a free agent, was nothing short of spectacular. "His concentration got way better," says Mattingly. Kemp finished the year with a .324 batting average, never dipping below .300 the entire season. He smacked 39 home runs and stole 40 bases, one dinger shy of becoming only the fifth guy in MLB history to go 40/40. He patrolled the outfield like an Air Force drone. By every advanced statistical measure, he was one of the best players in baseball. He passed the eyeball test too: ran out every grounder, backed up every play, read situations and developed an instinct for when to take an extra base and when to stay put.

When the Brewers' Ryan Braun won the 2011 MVP Award, Kemp did not sulk. He used the slight as motivation. In a conference call with reporters following the vote, he said, "Y'all created a monster." Next year, he said, he'd go 50/50.

The Dodgers seemed to agree. When Kemp flew to New York in November to accept his second Gold Glove Award, he received a call from his agent, Dave Stewart. Stewart told him he had reached an agreement with the Dodgers on an eight-year, $160 million extension -- then the biggest contract in National League history. Kemp broke down and cried at baggage claim. "You think about the 2010 season, all the struggles before that, your whole life," Kemp says, shaking his head. "And then I was like, 'Wow, now I can take care of my mama.'"


THE ENORMOUS CONTRACT seemed to make Kemp only better, even more focused. He moved his mom to LA, renting her a condo near his place. And he had that first month unlike anyone had ever seen. But then on May 5 in Chicago, while fielding a hit to the gap, he felt a sting in his left leg. He downplayed how bad it hurt, but soon fly balls dropped in for hits and Kemp seemed tentative on the base paths. He didn't look like himself, but he played on. By May 13, his batting average had dipped 33 points, from .392 to .359. The Dodgers scheduled an MRI for him the following day. He stood in front of his locker after that game, and a reporter asked him if the disabled list was a possibility. "I'm definitely not going on the DL," he said defiantly. One day later, after tests revealed a hamstring strain, Kemp was put on the 15-day DL.

Over that two-week span, he sent out 47 tweets that contained 65 exclamation points, most of them encouraging his teammates. He became the Dodgers' biggest cheerleader. When rookie Scott Van Slyke hit a game-winning home run against the Cardinals, Kemp was the one with the postgame whipped-cream pie.

Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon has struggled mightily at the plate and in the field this season. Like Kemp, Gordon played basketball growing up, and Kemp has taken him on, giving him the sort of talks Kemp himself once bristled at, when he tried to block out all those "baseball guys" around him. After a couple of days on the bench, Gordon turned a spectacular double play to end the Dodgers' most emotional game this season, overcoming a five-run deficit for an 8-7 win at Arizona on May 22. It was Kemp who stormed the field first, sprinting toward Gordon from the dugout, his celebratory screams heard all the way in the Chase Field press box. "Having the best player in the league get that excited for you to make a play is awesome," says Gordon. "That's a true leader right there."

Matt Kemp, too cool to care, now cares a lot. So let's look at that bat-breaking moment again, this time from a different perspective. Not the one in which Matt Kemp is the phenom for whom the majors were a backup plan. Not the one in which Matt Kemp ticks off baseball purists or spends more time paying attention to pop stars than pop flies. Let's look at him for what he is now: a baseball guy who is in his prime, one who knows how hard the game can be and how transcendent his gifts are. He is a player in full who understands enough to recognize that the streak he was on, the way his team was playing, is precious, a moment that may never be recaptured.

Watch him acting like a madman in the dugout, his hamstring burning a little hotter this time than the last after just two games following a stint on the DL. That's not someone struggling with immaturity. Sometimes resignation can look a lot like regression if you aren't used to seeing it.

He will be back, in time to keep the Dodgers in the playoff race and put up the kind of gaudy stats that draw comparisons that cross generations. But he will take his time mending. And that will be okay. Because the game needed to become hard for Matt Kemp to fully appreciate it. And even when it gets easy again, greatness won't be measured just by his home runs or stolen bases. It will depend on his response to that next disappointment.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.