Two years ago the city of Los Angeles—the fans, the media, even some inside the Dodgers' organization—seemed to have given up on Kemp. He hit a career-low .249 in 2010, a season in which he was serenaded with boos at Dodger Stadium, benched by then manager Joe Torre and called out for a perceived lack of effort by general manager Ned Colletti. There were whispers that his focus had been dulled by his high-profile romance with pop superstar Rihanna, which ended in December 2010.
Kemp had a miserable year, yes. But he was also only 25. "What people don't appreciate is how raw Matt was as a ballplayer," says Mike Leuzinger, the scout who signed Kemp in 2003. When he first got called up [in '06] and was making base running mistakes, you'd listen to announcers say, 'This kid doesn't know how to run the bases?' I'm thinking, No, actually, he really doesn't."
As he was growing up in the Oklahoma City suburb Midwest City, Kemp's first love was basketball: He dreamed of becoming an NBA shooting guard. "Baseball wasn't cool where I grew up," he says. "Kids used to make fun of the kids who played baseball."
During summers, Kemp played AAU basketball, not travel league baseball. "After the state [basketball] tournament was over he'd show up on opening day in rightfield," says Troxell. "He had mechanical issues all the way through high school, and the reason was [he wasn't] practicing all year."
Things began to change during his junior year, when Kemp, who is 6'4" now but was 6'2'' at the time, realized his build would limit his basketball potential. Only then did he seriously consider a future in baseball. For the scouts who began showing up in Midwest City, it was hard not to be seduced by Kemp's raw talent. But it was just as easy to question his dedication to the game. "One day [during Kemp's senior year] I decided to stop by the school," says Leuzinger. "Practice was long over, but I could see Matt all by himself, hitting off a tee. He never knew I was there. But that day I was convinced that Matt was all in."
The Dodgers took him in the sixth round in 2003. To persuade Kemp, who was 18, to sign (for $130,000), Leuzinger visited him and his parents, Carl and Judy, at their home. Even then the family wasn't convinced that Matt had a future in the majors. "His dad asked, 'How do you think this is going to work out?' I said, 'He could be Joe Carter or Dave Winfield,'" says Leuzinger. "[But] really, my hopes and dreams were that he'd be an average hitter, hit 20-some home runs and play leftfield. An MVP candidate and a Gold Glover? No way."
Kemp's star-making 2011 season may have seemed to come out of nowhere, but in reality it was in line with the career arc of a steadily improving ballplayer. Kemp has improved his feel for the strike zone—his walk rate has gotten better every season since 2007, and his strikeout rate this year (20.9%) is below his career average (23.3%). Dodgers first base coach and baserunning guru Davey Lopes, who joined the staff before last season, has helped turn Kemp into a premier stolen base threat; after being caught 15 times on 34 attempts in '10, he failed in just 11 of 51 tries last year. "It's impressive what a kid like Bryce Harper is doing at 19," Kemp says. "When I was 19, I didn't even know if I wanted to play baseball. At the time my attitude was, Let's put some money in my pocket and see if this works out. You have to accept what God made you for. And then you put everything you have into it. And then you develop more love for the game."
What we've seen so far from the Dodgers—they were the best team in baseball at the quarter turn, after a 28--13 start—might be the two-minute trailer of what's to come. The new owners are expected to strike a local TV deal that could be worth more than $3 billion, a windfall that will put them in position to add a free-agent megastar such as Josh Hamilton or Cole Hamels this winter.
Nothing symbolizes the new promise more than their star centerfielder. He's already the best all-around talent in the game, and Kemp is only going to get better. "You still see the rawness come out," says Colletti. "And you still see improvement in everything from his pitch selection to his base running and knowledge of game situations."
Says Mattingly, "He hasn't even learned how to pull the ball with power yet. Once he gets that, it's going to be scary."