On the baseball calendar, this was opening day. For
He never wanted to leave. He was 18 when he signed with the
On the first day of the rest of his baseball life, the schedule brought him to
He sat in the visiting dugout Monday, nearly three hours before game time, wearing a T-shirt that read "Rockstar GM," with a silhouette of the general manager that believed in him, A.J. Preller of the
He tried nonchalance to deflect the question of how much he cared about the reception he would receive. "We'll see," he said. But he kept talking, and emotion seeped out before anyone could ask another question.
"Yeah, I guess I care," Kemp said. "I left my heart and soul on the field for the Dodgers."
He was miscast as a leader by the Dodgers ownership group, at least in a clubhouse where
"I feel like a singer now," Kemp said.
The Padres love him, as a guy who wears outrageously gold sneakers, leads the team basketball shooting competition, and raises the decibel level in a mild clubhouse. And, most of all, as a guy who picked up where he left off here last summer, as one of the best hitters in baseball.
Rare is the hitter who can say he has a career batting average of .667 against Kershaw. Kemp faced Kershaw three times, recording a single and double and driving in all three San Diego runs.
"He's the best pitcher in baseball, hands down," Kemp said.
A few questions and a few answers later, the assessment had changed, slightly.
"I like facing the best," Kemp said. "He is one of the best."
The Dodgers know how to get Kemp out better than any team in baseball, but they knew better than to say so Monday.
"Clayton and I had never called pitches with Matt at the plate before," catcher
"I've known Matt since rookie ball back in 2003 and I don't think I've ever sat behind home plate when Matt was hitting. That was bizarre, pretty surreal."
The San Diego players were not a downbeat bunch after the game, even though the Padres had staved off Kershaw and handed a 3-2 lead to the bullpen.
The Padres struck out 12 times. Their defense was hideous — Howie Kendrick took an extra base on Kemp in right field, center fielder
They welcomed baseball's best closer,
That left Manager
"There's a game tomorrow," Black said. "There's a game the next day. There's a game the day after that. You can't use relievers every single day."
Kemp maintained his sunny mood after the game. The tattoo across his back reads "Living for the moment," and this moment was good.
The Dodgers' fans had cheered him, long and loud, many of them rising to their feet to applaud.
"It was overwhelming," Kemp said. "It was great to come back here and get the love that I got."
He even got a nod from Kershaw, who stepped off the pitching rubber so Kemp could doff his helmet toward the fans.
"Kershaw is a very respectful person," Kemp said. "I've got a lot of respect for him. I feel he has a lot of respect for me."
Said Kershaw: "He's a good hitter. He got the best of me today."
Kemp laughed about the boos he got later in the game, when the homecoming serenade was over and he was officially an enemy. He put on his hat, and his leather jacket, and he smiled. He had a few extra dollars.