Matthew Ryan Kemp was born on September 23, 1984 in Midwest City, Oklahoma. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Both of his parents worked from the bottom up, instilling in him the values of hard work and improvement. His mother, Judy Henderson, was a nurse. His father, Carl Kemp, was a manager for an electric company. Matt had a younger brother named Carlton, who was diagnosed with autism as a child.
Matt was an excellent athlete. His favorite sport was basketball. He was a huge fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. While too young to remember the glory days of Pat Reilly, Magic Johnson and "Showtime" basketball, he was a diehard supporter of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the rest of Phil Jackson’s championship teams of the early 2000s.
By his teen years, Matt had developed into an oustadning two-sport star at Midwest City High School. He played basketball in the winter, and then pulled on a baseball jersey for the Bombers in the spring.
Midwest City boasted great talent, especially on the hardwood. Matt’s teammates included Shelden Williams, who was named Oklahoma Player of the Year in 2001 and later starred for Duke. By the time Matt was a junior, he had grown into his body and was a rock-solid 6-3 guard. He helped the Bombers win the state basketball title that year.
In January of 2002, Matt found himself in deep trouble when he, Williams, and three other teammates were accused of raping a 19-year-old woman during a high school tournament in a Columbus, Ohio. All five were suspended from the team during the investigation, but ultimately the woman did not press charges. The district attorney did not pursue the case because of a lack of evidence.
Matt was pursued heavily by college basketball recruiters. For a while, it looked like he might go to the University of Oklahoma on a full-ride. But thins changed when he blossomed on the diamond during his senior year. Scouts were in attendance for most of his games, and when the college hoops coaches heard he was leaning toward baseball, they stopped coming around. Matt was chosen by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the sixth round of the 2003 draft. He was signed by scout Mike Leuzinger.
ON THE RISE
Matt began his professional career with the Gulf Coast Dodgers in the summer of ’03. He played in 42 games, batting .270 with one homer and 17 RBIs. The following season, he made the jump to the Columbus Catfish of the Class-A South Atlantic League. Matt batted .304 in 15 games—and had a three-homer game—before being promoted to the Vero Beach Dodgers. All told, he appeared in 123 games in ’04, batting .293 with 18 homers, 27 doubles, and 75 RBIs.
In 2005, Matt rejoined Vero Beach. From the first day of the season, he displayed five-tool potential. Matt set team records with 27 home runs and a .569 slugging percentage. He also led the clubwith 90 RBIs and 238 total bases, and shared top honors with Chin-lung Hu with 23 steals. Matt was named the Topps Florida State League Player for the month of July and the Dodgers Minor League Player of the Month for August. He was also selected to the FSL All-Star team as a designated hitter.
After the 2005 season, Matt headed west to play for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. Thanks in large part to him, the team captured the league title. He went 4-for-4 with two home runs in the championship game, finishing the fall season with a .383 average, three homers, 16 RBIs, and a .414 on-base percentage. His performance earned him raves from baseball insiders. Baseball America named him the game’s ninth-best prospect and the top athlete in the Dodgers' farm system.
Matt started the 2006 season writ the Class-AA Jacksonville Suns. Again, he dominated through sheer athleticism. It seemed there was nothing Matt couldn’t do on a baseball field. In 48 games, he hit .327 with seven homers, 34 RBIs, and 11 steals.
Matt was called up to the Dodgers at the end of May to give center fielder Kenny Lofton and oft-injured right fielder J.D. Drew some rest. He collected his first hit off Washington reliever Jon Rauch. In Atlanta against the Braves on May 29, he registered his first RBI and stolen base. His first home run came a few days later on June 1 at home against the Philadelpphia Phillies. It was just his second at-bat in Dodgers Stadium. Matt blasted homers in his next two games, too.
When Lofton and Drew returned to health, Matt was briefly demoted to the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s. There he hit a .353 with three home runs, 36 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. He returned to the Dodgers on September 1.
After playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Matt showed up at spring training intent on making the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster. He did just that and was on fire at the start of the season before landing on the disabled list after running into an outfield wall. When he returned, the Dodgers sent him to Las Vegas. He again tore it up against Pacific Coast League pitching and played his way back to Los Angeles.
Matt wasn’t the only hot outfield prospect in the Dodgers’ system. Andre Ethier was just as highly regarded. In fact, the two often split time in the second half of the season in Los Angeles. Usually on the bench against tough righties, Matt sizzled whenever he was inserted into the lineup. He batted .342 in 98 games with 10 homers and 42 RBIs. His average was the fourth-highest in the Dodgers’ long history and the best mark in the National League—although he did not have enough at-bats to win the batting championship. The highlight of Matt's season took place in the outfield, when he leaped high against the wall in St. Louis and stole a home run from Jim Edmonds.
Matt’s breakout season came in 2008, when he took over in center after veteran Andruw Jones was injured. Matt thrived in his everyday role. At the plate, he used the whole field, showing power from foul line to foul line. In the field, he used his breakaway speed to track down flyballs, and opposing runners learned over time not to test his arm. Overall, Matt hit .297 with 38 doubles, 18 homers and 76 RBIs. He also finishing second on the club to Juan Pierre in stolen bases with 35.
With Ethier also enjoying a big year, the Dodgers won the NL West and met the Chicago Cubs in the first round of the playoffs. Boasting a deep pitching staff, Los Angeles had the look of a World Series contender. The Dodgers proved as much by sweeping Chicago to advance to the NL Championship Series. There they ran into the Phillies, who overwhelmed them in five games. Philadelphia pitchers neutralized the Los Angeles offense, and the Phils got clutch hits when they needed them. For Matt, it was a clinic in playoff baseball.
Matt opened the 2009 season with a 14-game hitting streak and also strung together a 10-gamer and 13-gamer during the year. He belted 26 home runs (including three grand slams) and had 101 RBIs and 97 runs scored. He also stole 34 bases and had 14 outfield assists. Matt’s 10 RBIs in extra innings werethe most for a player since 1991, and he became the first NL player to reach double-digits in this category since 1982. After the season, he won a Gold Glove Award and a Silver Slugger Award.
With Matt leading the way, the Dodgers won 95 games—the most in the NL. In the NLDS against the Cardinals, he homered in his first at-bat against St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter. Los Angeles swept the Cards in three games and advanced to the NLCS in a rematch with the Phillies. The outcome was no different. Philadelphia overpowered the Dodgers in five games again. The team’s mix of big bats and lights-out pitching was too much for Los Angeles. Matt was a bright spot for the Dodgers, collecting five hits in the series, including a home run.
Matt was rewarded for his efforts with a two-year contract worth nearly $11 million. He responded to the pressure of his new deal early in the 2010 season with seven home runs in April, including four in four days. But as time passed, Matt appeared more and more detached. Off the field, he always seemed to be running late. On the field, his play was inconsistent. He didn’t get to balls in the outfield and made lazy throws. At one point he was thrown out on a steal while not bothering to slide.
His defense regressing and his offensive numbers plummeting, he ended the campaign with a .249 average, 28 homers, 89 RBIs, 82 runs scored, and 19 steals (in 34 attempts)—all while playing in 162 games for the first time. Five of his homers came in the final five games. For almost any other player, these stats were very good. For Matt, they were disappointing.
Among those who publicly criticized Matt was Dodgers GM Ned Colletti. During a radio interview, Colletti blasted Matt for his questionable effort on the field. Los Angeles coaches Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa also lamented Matt’s attitude. Each took him aside aside to talk to him personally.
Matt retreated as the criticism grew. He was dismissive of the media and became frustrated when reporters entered the locker room or requested interviews. He turned a cold shoulder to anyone who seemed to dwell on his mistakes. No one knew whether he was pouting, lacking focus, or just in a funk. Some knocked Matt for “going Hollywood,” believing he was more concerned with being seen as a celebrity.
MAKING HIS MARK
At a crossroads, Matt refocused and recommitted himself to baseball over the winter. He came into training camp a changed man. That was music to the ears of new Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly. A living example of what could be accomplished when talent, desire and hard work were combined, Mattingly had established himself as the game’s best player during his career with the New York Yankees. He was a perfect mentor for Matt.
Under Mattingly’s guidance, Matt learned what it meant to be a true professional and what it would take to be consistently one of the best players in the game. In the midst of a chaotic ownership situation and a dismal losing season, he reestablished himself as one of the top all-around players in the game in 2011.
Matt broke from the gate on a tear, batting .362 in April. His average dipped in May, but his power numbers increased. June was a sublime month. Matt could do no wrong. He hit .375 with six doubles, two triples, nine homers and 23 RBIs. He was also perfect in eight stolen base attempts. Despite the sinking ship that had become the Dodgers, Matt was reaching his full potential.
In July, he was voted the starting center fielder for the NL in the All-Star Game. Matt went 1-for-2 with a walk. After the break, he continued smashing the ball. During one stretch starting in late July, he had multiple hits in eight of 10 games.
By then, opposing pitchers had come to the realization that Matt was the bat to avoid in the Los Angeles lineup. Still, despite seeing fewer and fewer good pitches, he continued to keep his average over .300 and drive in runs. He rode a hot September to the NL home run crown with 39 and the RBI championship with 126. Matt also led the league with 115 runs scored and 353 total bases, and finished second in slugging and third in batting with a .324 average. He added a second Gold Glove for good measure. The Dodgers spent the bulk of 2011 as an also-ran, so when the MVP balloting was revealed, Matt finished second to Ryan Braun, who led the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs.
Matt led a revamped Los Angeles team into battle in the NL West in 2012. The Dodgers beefed up their pitching but mostly stood pat on the rest of their lineup. Much would depend on Matt. In the early going, he responded to the challenge with one of the more memorable Aprils in team history. Through 23 games, he was leading the league in hits, runs, homers, RBIs, batting, slugging and on-base percentage. More important, the Dodgers were in first place in the division on May 1.
Normally laid-back LA fans have taken to chanting "MVP! MVP!" whenever Matt comes to the plate. Obviously, they like the dailies from what could very well be a career-defining year. Perhaps the greatest compliment they can pay him is that they are breaking with tradition and sticking around past the seventh inning in droves. No one wants to miss a Matt Kemp at-bat.
MATT THE PLAYER
Matt is the epitome of the five-tool player. He does everything well—runs, fields, throws, hits for average and for power. Even in cavernous Dodger Stadium, he is a constant threat to go deep. Matt’s greatest asset may be his speed, which is deceving for a man his size. His body and combination of skills are reminiscent of Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
Like Mr. October, Matt’s weakness is plate discipline—it’s much harder to walk him than strike him out. That being said, he has the talent to be a .300 hitter, with big numbers across the board.
During the first few years of his career, Matt often batted in the bottom third of the order. Dodger manager Joe Torre, in particular, was reluctant to hit him third or fourth because of his strikeout issues. Starting in late 2009, he was moved into the heart of the order. His production did drop for several months, but in 2011 Matt showed that he had adjusted to enemy pitching patterns. In fact, batting cleanup behind Andre Ethier—and without adequate protection in the five-hole—he still flourished.
There are some who continue to question Matt’s attitude. That may be the only thing that hurts his market value. If and when he becomes a free agent, it will be interesting to see how big of a deal he gets.
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