Thursday, September 01, 2011

SI Gushes Even More Over Matt Kemp

I'm a little behind in reading my Sports Illustrated issues (which all should change now that I've got their nifty iPad app), but I would be woefully remiss if I didn't link to a great article by Ben Reiter called "Matt Kemp Is Just Killing It (August 8, 2011 issue). Click to read the whole piece, but here's an excerpt, picking up in the lobby of a Minneapolis steak house on a Tuesday afternoon:

Then a young man entered the lobby. He pushed his aviator sunglasses up to his forehead, where they would remain for the next hour and a half. He was tall, 6'3", and strong, with muscular arms, the left one covered with a sleeve tattoo, extending out of his gray, fashionably gauzy V-neck T-shirt. With each stride his suede shoes revealed lacquered red soles, the trademark of the French designer Christian Louboutin. Both his teeth and a diamond in his left ear gleamed.

The ladies in the Murray's lobby clearly did not know the young man's identity. What they knew was that this was somebody who was somebody. "Oh," one of the ladies whispered. Their conversation stopped abruptly—cue the needle screeching on the record—so that they could devote their attention to watching him.

The man was Matt Kemp, the 26-year-old Dodgers centerfielder who has this year emerged as baseball's best all-around player, and a shining light amid an unprecedentedly gloomy year for L.A. The Dodgers' season has included not only losses (they were 48--59 through Sunday) but also plunging attendance, the brutal beating of a fan in their parking lot and a protracted battle between the club's owner, Frank McCourt, and Major League Baseball, as McCourt holds on to his tendril-thin control of his bankrupt team.

Kemp, though, ranks near the top of the National League in each of the Triple Crown categories—first in RBIs (82) through Sunday, second in home runs (26) and fifth in batting average (.317)—and he is also third in stolen bases, with 28. No one has won a Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and the last player to do so while also stealing as many bags as Kemp has this season was Ty Cobb in 1909. It is a season that is shaping up to be on a par with Willie Mays's very best.

Kemp's gifts are of the type that is both a blessing and a curse, in that they are so immediately obvious, to strangers in a restaurant and baseball fans alike. He is extraordinarily athletic. He can not only dunk a basketball but also leap, pass the ball between his legs and then slam it, a move that most baseball players couldn't execute in a video game. That is a gift that made the chunky boy from Midwest City, Okla., who was obsessed with Air Jordans ("You can imagine what that can do to a brother's pocket," says his father, Carl), a big leaguer for good by age 22. There he has made enough money to comfortably afford nearly 200 pairs of shoes, including one that has spikes. ("Spikes!" says his mother, Judy Henderson, for whom Matt has purchased a house and a Mercedes. "They look like they could be a weapon.")

Kemp's athleticism inspires his teammates and coaches to wax both superlative and poetic. "There are only two guys I would put in the same category as Matt Kemp as far as athletic ability," says Brad Ausmus, who last fall retired as a Dodger after 18 years as a major league catcher. "One would be Bo Jackson, and two would be Carlos Beltran. The one thing that they can do that most ballplayers can't is this: They can do everything."

If you've got the print edition, you also have some outstanding photos of Kemp by Robert Beck, some of which you can see at his gallery here (Beck took the photo at the top of this piece, as well). There are some great photos all over west coast locales featured on Beck's website; I also was fond of this one, of the Giants' Aubrey Huff faceplanting into the Dodger Stadium outfield wall.

Earlier: SI Gushes Over Matt Kemp