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Dodgers happy to have their star back

Matt Kemp leads the NL with 20 homers and a 1.056 OPS and is second with 56 RBI.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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This is the player everyone wanted to see, from the general manager who criticized him publicly to the coaches who bemoaned his lack of effort to the fans, media and even opponents who spent last season wondering, What the heck is going on with Matt Kemp?

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The answer still is not entirely clear. But Kemp sure looks different now.

No longer is Kemp, in the words of his agent, Dave Stewart, “the whipping boy” for anything that is wrong with the Dodgers. One year later, after facing major questions about his attitude — questions that surfaced while he was dating international pop star Rihanna — Kemp is a front-runner for National League MVP.

Kemp, 26, leads the NL with 20 homers and is second with a 1.053 OPS and 56 RBIs. He is running hard, playing hard, displaying the form that earned him both Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2009.

Another difference also is evident under new manager Don Mattingly and the Dodgers’ new coaches: Kemp is paying greater attention to detail, restoring a part of his game that disintegrated last season under former manager Joe Torre and his staff.

Former Dodgers bench coach Bob Schaefer, now a special assistant in the Nationals’ front office, recalls that Kemp was slow to back up plays, stopped taking fly balls during batting practice and declined to work on his throwing, diminishing his powerful arm.

“I had a few discussions with him about these parts of his game and his reply was, ‘Why are you picking on me? I am good,’ ” Schaefer says.

“I said, ‘First, I am not picking on you and second, you are not good. You are embarrassing yourself the way you play. Last year you won a Gold Glove, this year you are a poor fielder.’

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“Coaches and other players on other teams would ask me, ‘What is wrong with your center fielder?’ I have always told the players I coached, you get better if you work hard and you get worse if you don’t work. He didn’t work and he got worse.”

Some perceived the differences between Kemp and coaches such as Schaefer, 67, and Larry Bowa, 65, as an old-school/new-age culture clash. Schaefer and Bowa, however, say they wanted only the best for Kemp, and Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti supports the view of his former coaches.

At one point last season, Kemp told the Los Angeles Times, in response to Bowa questioning his effort, “There’s more there. I agree. It’s something I need to sit here and think about and then change.”

Stewart, Kemp’s agent and the MVP of the 1989 World Series as a pitcher for the Oakland Athletics, acknowledges that the Kemp of 2010 was a lesser version of the one in '09.

Kemp hit a career-high 28 homers, but batted a career-low .249. His OPS declined from .842 to .760. His stolen-base total and success rate dropped markedly. He rated as one of the worst defensive center fielders in the majors, according to advanced metrics.

“In my opinion, was he the best player he could have been last year? Probably not,” Stewart says. “He’ll tell you that. He did say that. He admitted to that.”

What turned it around? Only Kemp knows, and he declined to be interviewed for this article.

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However, his comeback reinforces a time-honored baseball lesson, one that is true even for players who possess immense talent, play for marquee franchises and date celebrities even more famous than themselves.

Young players take time.

Tough times in 2010

To Stewart, the trouble began less than one month into the 2010 season, when Colletti spoke disapprovingly of Kemp in an interview with a Los Angeles radio station.

Colletti said that Kemp’s defense and base-running were below average and questioned whether the player had grown too comfortable in the first year of his new, two-year, $10.95 million contract.

“When your general manager is the first one to jump on you publicly, I’ll always say that should never happen,” says Stewart, who began his 16-year career with the Dodgers in 1978.

“You’re talking about Dodger tradition. When Al Campanis was general manager of that club, when Peter O’Malley was the owner and Tommy Lasorda was the manager, there was never a time when Tommy didn’t make every player out to be the best player in America.

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“You should never hear a general manager or staff publicly criticize a player. Whether he was playing well or not, it should not have happened.”

In the team’s view, however, the issue went beyond Kemp’s on-field performance. To Bowa and others, he seemed distracted.

“The first two weeks of spring training, he came in with the greatest attitude I’ve ever seen a player have,” recalls Bowa, who is now an analyst for MLB Network.

“He was energetic, outgoing, taking extra work. As spring training wore down, you could see it starting to tail. He got some life again around Opening Day. But by May, that was it. He was a completely different person.”

Was it the new contract? The criticism from Colletti? A disconnect with the coaches? The difficult of maintaining a high-profile relationship with Rihanna during the season?

All of the above?

“I don’t think it had anything to do with his ability,” Bowa says. “But his mind was not in the place it needed to be when the game started.”

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Privately, Dodgers people believe that Rihanna contributed to Kemp’s lack of focus, citing a simple fact: The lifestyle of a pop star is different than the lifestyle of a baseball player who is in the middle of a 162-game grind.

Kemp and Rihanna broke up last December, according to published reports. Stewart, when discussing the impact of the relationship on Kemp, initially references his client’s own comments.

“He said it himself: What he does in his personal life and private life away from baseball, in his opinion, does not affect what he does at the baseball stadium,” Stewart says.

Stewart, though, does not necessarily share that opinion.

“He’s a sensitive kid. He’s learning to separate the two,” Stewart says. “The baseball stadium is his own private domain. Nothing should enter that space.

“He hasn’t quite harnessed that yet. This year is better. Every year he’s getting better, with maturity, more time in the big leagues.

“It’s not just his relationship with Rihanna. It’s life in general. If it’s not good, it finds a way to show itself with him. I think that’s great. It’s a rarity in people to be vulnerable enough to show that part of yourself.”

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However, Stewart makes it clear that “as much as people want to blame Rihanna,” Kemp also was sensitive to the public criticisms of him by the Dodgers.

Torre even benched Kemp for three games in June, punishing him, in part, for an argument he had with Schaefer, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“He got benched by Joe for his lack of effort and some reporters said he got benched because of me,” Schaefer says. “I tried to keep him from getting benched and he would not change his ways.”

However, Kemp slowly came around. In August, after one particularly rough game, Colletti said that he received a call from Stewart suggesting that he chat with Kemp. The two met later that day, in a private area of the Dodgers’ clubhouse. The conversation lasted about 45 minutes. It was a man-to-man, open discussion, emotional in a good way, Colletti said.

Kemp acknowledged to Colletti that his play had been disappointing, even to himself. Colletti asked Kemp if he felt like he had been “carrying a lot of people on his back.” When Kemp indicated yes, Colletti said, “take me off.” The GM asked Kemp for maximum effort, nothing more.

The conversation proved a turning point in their relationship. How much did it contribute to Kemp’s increased effort this season? Not even Colletti can say.

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“That’s a question that I truly don’t have an answer for,” Colletti says. “I know his focus and dedication and work since spring training and in the winter time have been beyond reproach. He’s locked in to not only saying he wants to be great, but doing everything, big and small, to get to that point.

“If that’s a product of conversations he had last year, if that’s a product of coaching, a product of him not willing to go through the type of year he had a year ago . . . those are all educated guesses. I don’t know. He’s the one person that can answer that. But his attention to the ‘small things’ inside a game has been excellent. Excellent.”

Patience pays off

Of course, it’s not just coaches and executives who grow impatient when a gifted young player fails to realize his potential. It’s fans and sportswriters, too.

At one point last June, I wrote that the Dodgers should trade Kemp. My argument wasn’t just that Kemp appeared to need a change, though that was part of it. The more significant part was that I saw no other way for the Dodgers to acquire a top-of-the-rotation starter, and that the team could not afford to keep together five prominent players, including Kemp, who were eligible for free agency after the 2012 season.

At the time, I thought the column made sense. Now? Well, could I have been any dumber?

It’s an age of snap judgments, from managers and coaches trying to win games, front offices trying to justify big-money expenditures, media members trying to be first with cogent analyses.

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Baseball often requires greater patience.

“When you’re a young player just getting into the game, sometimes you don’t really understand the things that work for you and the things that don’t,” Stewart says.

“With this game, the more you play, the longer you play, the more you know about yourself, all around you’re going to be better. It’s the mental progression of baseball. When I was 39 and on my way out, there were still things I was learning.”

Whatever lessons Kemp learned in 2010, he clearly is applying them this season. Stewart says that Kemp went back to basics, returning to his original strength and fitness coach in Arizona and others who “set him on a good path from the start” — and the right path now.

“Last year was a good learning experience for Matt,” Schaefer says. “He knew he played poorly and I think he changed his work ethic.”

Bowa concurs.

“(The criticism) might have paid off,” Bowa says. “Maybe he went home this winter and said, ‘Everyone can’t be wrong about this.’

“This game will humble you real quick. It will bring you to your knees. You have to reach that low ebb before you go up again.

“You’re going to get beat up at some time in your career. He got beat up last year. He didn’t like it, getting ripped. In fairness, it might have done some good.”

Maybe. Or maybe Kemp just needed to grow into the player he was destined to become all along.

Tagged: Dodgers, Matt Kemp

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