Kemp's gifts also include his looks and his charisma, which helps explain how he spent the majority of 2010 as the boyfriend of Rihanna, the 23-year-old Barbadian pop superstar. That Kemp wooed one of the world's most desired chanteuses also suggests a downside to his gifts: His star quality engenders especially elevated expectations.
"I've talked with him about it," says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who as the former captain of the Yankees knows something about expectations. "Everyone can see that you're capable of doing everything, so no matter what you're doing, people always want a little more. You hit for power, they want more power. You hit for more power, they want average. They want you to get on base, they want you to steal bases. They want you to play great defense and throw people out."
Baseball fans, and the men who run the game, love stars, but they might love even more another type of player, the one whose talents are limited but who, it seems, extracts everything out of them. They love, in other words, David Eckstein, the 5'6" infielder who retired last season but whose name still comes up in conversations with scouts perhaps more than any other. And they love Jamey Carroll, the 5'9", 37-year-old Dodgers infielder whom Mattingly calls "our Eckstein," and who has hit 12 home runs in his 10 seasons. Says Carroll of Kemp, "I'd like to have, just for one round of seven pitches in BP, his strength and his pop, just to know what it'd be like."
Kemp's only limitation seems to be his own effort. And while Eckstein fit perfectly into baseball's beloved "dirtbag" archetype—he was unassuming and would rarely have turned heads in a restaurant far from home—Kemp, who dreamed of making the NBA as a high school shooting guard, is an outlier in a sport that remains conservative.
Baseball is conformist in its expectations for the miens of its stars—always wary, unlike, say, the NBA, of fully embracing anyone other than the safest of icons, such as Derek Jeter and, in his way, Eckstein. Matt Kemp is a preeminent talent who plays a valued position for a storied franchise, and yet there is the sense that he will be deemed not worthy if he fails to run out a few grounders or has momentary fits of temper. Then there is Kemp's personal style. Baseball yearns for more African-American players and fans, and Kemp—rakish, a squire of starlets, inspired by hip-hop in a game that still loves John Fogerty and Terry Cashman—would seem to be the perfect inspiration for kids such as he was. But he knows that is not the popular view of him. "You don't see a lot of African-Americans playing the game," Kemp says. "If people got to know me, they'd think I'm a good guy." (This is confirmed by his teammates.) "They probably think, Oh, my God, he's got tattoos, he's a thug!"
This season, no one has any reason to think poorly of Matt Kemp, based upon his effort, his bearing and his production. Last season, it was a different story.
You from out of town?" a bespectacled Murray's waiter asks Kemp.
"Yeah, yeah. I live in L.A."
"L.A.? Yeah?" The waiter leans in, conspiratorially. "You whupped our asses yesterday."
Standout performances were few for Kemp in 2010. In his third full season he hit 28 home runs, but it was still considered, by Kemp and everyone else, an annus horribilis. "It was not fun—at all," Kemp says. "I tried everything. You always thought stuff was going to turn around, and then something happened."