Among those things: In April, Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti suggested in a radio interview that Kemp's newly signed two-year, $10.95 million contract had sapped him of his effort. In June then manager Joe Torre benched Kemp for three games after Kemp got into an argument with bench coach Bob Schaefer about whether the centerfielder had properly backed up second base. Kemp's batting average dropped from .297 in 2009 to .249, while his strikeouts jumped from 139 to 170. He was also thrown out on 15 of his 34 stolen base attempts, the lowest success rate (55.9%) for any player with at least 15 steals since '03. The Dodgers' leader in homers and RBIs was booed, lustily, in his home ballpark. Late in the season Kemp publicly apologized for his performance.
The source of Kemp's decline seemed easy to pinpoint to anyone with a web browser. There was Matt Kemp, vacationing with Rihanna in Mexico. There he was, eating dinner with her at Sketch in London. There he was, sitting courtside with her at a Clippers game. Kemp rejects the notion that his high-profile relationship had anything to do with his struggles, his perceived listlessness. "She's a great person, and one of the busiest, most hardworking people I've ever met in my life," he says. "I was happy in my relationship. What I did on the field and off the field were two totally different things." (Their breakup late last year, he adds, was amicable.)
Casey Blake is one of Kemp's best friends on the Dodgers, and he is not so sure about Kemp's view. "This game's hard," Blake says, as Rihanna's hit What's My Name blares in the team's clubhouse. (Kemp says he encouraged teammate Juan Uribe to use the track as his at bat music.) "When you have some things on your mind other than the game, you're going to scuffle. You date a pop star or rock star, whatever you want to call her, you're throwing your image and name out there. That's what everyone wanted to talk about."
Kemp concedes that the attention wore on him. "I wasn't used to going to a restaurant, and there would be 100 cameras outside," he says. Even he attributes his turnaround partly to a new embracing of baseball's monotony. "Everything is repetition in baseball," he says. "When you get all out of whack and do something different, you feel weird."
Kemp has made a number of other changes. He cleared the air with Colletti in a meeting late last season. ("He said he felt he had a lot of people on his back, and that I was one of them," says the G.M. "I said, 'Don't carry me anymore.'") He vowed to put an end to the sullenness that he wore for much of the year. "You can say it's easy to do that when he's hitting like he's hitting, but he's done that since Day One of spring training," says Blake. Kemp also placed a renewed attention on technique rather than allowing his athleticism to carry him. Among other things, he's worked with first base coach Davey Lopes, a master basestealing instructor. "Last year, when a pitcher made a move to the plate, Matt's first move was up, like he was going for a rebound," reports Lopes. "Unfortunately, we're not playing basketball." This season Kemp has been caught on just three of his 31 stolen base attempts.
"A rough year for him was 28 homers and nearly 90 RBIs," says Mattingly. "There's nothing wrong with rough years if you grow from them." Kemp has grown from his, even if the results occur in a home stadium that is usually a third empty. "When you do something good, it can seem like there's 55,000 in there. It can sound like it," Kemp says. This year, it has for him often sounded like it.
Anything else I can get for you today?" the bespectacled waiter asks. The waiter has not had the opportunity to bring Kemp much, as Kemp spent lunch sipping ice water through a straw. He has become vigilant about his diet and had eaten breakfast—an egg-white omelet with spinach and chicken breast—not long before.
"No thanks," says Kemp.
"The girls will not shut up around here about you," the waiter says, smiling.
"Where's that at? They cute?"