Down 40 pounds, Matt Kemp wants fresh start back where it all started

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The man with the nascent afro and carefree glaze, who once was and still could be Matt Kemp, who once was and apparently and for the moment could again be a Dodger, said Tuesday, basically, this time, you know, oh let’s just see how it plays out.

Actually, he said something about getting after it and winning a World Series and there was other stuff too, like how he was surprised to be back, and happy about it too. Really very happy. And that he was eager to mentor some of the younger guys in camp, which folded right into his confusion over how he might have become known as a self-absorbed teammate over the past year or eight. Sometimes reputations like that are little more than other people’s insecurities bubbling up, except in this case that’s a lot of bubbles in a lot of clubhouses. But who’s to say? When you’re an All Star they call that focus. Drive. Bad intentions.

Matt Kemp hasn’t been an All Star in a while.

For what now seems like an eye-blink, Matt Kemp was a breathtaking baseball player. You remember. He was the young, hyper-athletic, strong, swift athlete the game had been missing out on. He was handsome and charismatic. He was kind to the boys and girls for whom he was heroic. The Los Angeles Dodgers also thought he could at times be a handful. Then they got Yasiel Puig and ran out of hands, and now, for the moment, you could cover both of their lockers with the same beach towel. This, because two months ago Kemp’s contract (and not Scott Kazmir’s, Adrian Gonzalez’s or Brandon McCarthy’s) became part of a grander budgetary plan, and two months later the man himself was taking batting practice on a back field at Camelback Ranch. Same swing. Same chatter. Same decisions around the cage on who (and what) has swag and who (and what) doesn’t.

In the three years he was gone, which is not to say he is definitely back, but he certainly is here, he hit 77 home runs and OPSed .780 and, judging by his defensive metrics, grew roots. Also, he lost 265 games and won 220 while his old ballclub was winning its division for the third, fourth and fifth times in a row and going to the NLCS and World Series.

All of which is to say today is a new day, and today he is here, and Matt Kemp is slimmer by something like 40 pounds and in a good mood and looks cool in his new ‘do, and hardly anyone doubts he can still hit at 33 years old. The rest of it is somewhat vague, as in whether he can defend, and whether he can run (he had 40 steals in 2011 and has 40 since), and whether he can fold into what most view as a pretty decent clubhouse and, then, whether Dodgers management has the stomach to even find out. The third act of Matt Kemp’s career, after phenom and journeyman, is as likely to play out elsewhere as here.

Atlanta Braves’ Matt Kemp waves to a fan after the team’s baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday, June 24, 2017, in Atlanta. The Braves won 3-1. (AP)

Meantime, he’ll be the guy who is familiar and yet not, on the depth chart at two positions and at the top of neither. That’s what today looks like for a guy who hasn’t had to make a team or fight for at-bats or whatever this becomes in more than a decade, which on Tuesday didn’t seem to bother him in the least. He laughed at the pointy stuff, like whether Los Angeles is really a baseball town. (It is, he said, “So, bam, and that’s the truth.”) Or if he was a crummy teammate. (He wasn’t, he said, so now you know.) Not that it really matters anymore. He laughed at the easy stuff, like his secret to leaning out. (“Uh, eat, uh, less.”) He even granted a 30-homer, 20-steal season wasn’t out of the question, though he laughed at that too.

Mostly, he seemed to like what is ahead of him. Nobody is sure what that is. But he seemed to like it. And, yeah, everybody is happy on Day 1.

“I’ve still got a lot of baseball in me,” he said. “I can help this team win. … We all got something to prove every year. It’s a fresh start. Why not do it back where I started?

“I’m gonna ride this thing until the wheels fall off. Literally.”

Wherever that is.

“This is it,” he said. “This is where I’m at.”