Pushing the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp issue closer to brink

During a season in which a shrugging Matt Kemp has been benched and berated, somebody has finally stepped to his defense.

It is a giant step that could eventually lead him out of town.

Dave Stewart, Kemp’s agent, fired out Thursday in anger and disgust over what he perceives as unfair treatment of his client.

“It’s almost like it’s open season on Matt, and it’s not right,” Stewart said in a phone interview. “It’s a bunch of back-seat crap.”

From the back seat to the front burner, Stewart brought the Kemp issue to a boil by raising the notion many Kemp believers have feared.

“I’m almost to the point — and maybe so are the Dodgers — where I’m thinking that this just isn’t going to work,” Stewart said. “The Dodgers have gaps on this team, and maybe they could fill them by trading Matt. It could be good for the team, and good for the player.”

Stewart emphasized he would never formally ask for a trade, but he wonders if his client can be successful while fighting off what he claims are unfair barbs from within the organization, particularly veteran coaches Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa, both of whom have been critical of the fundamental deficiencies in the budding star.

“It’s very, very difficult to play under the circumstances that Kemp is playing under,” Stewart said.

“The thing we have to look at is, is there going to be a fit? Is he going to be able to get past the public scrutiny? Matt has to wonder, ‘If these guys don’t like me, how can I play for them?’”

Kemp returned to the lineup Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies after being benched for two days, and he was the usual maddening Kemp. In the Dodgers’ devastating 10-9 loss, he helped the team to a seven-run lead with a two-run homer in the seventh inning. But one inning later, he perhaps cost them a 10th run when he stood at the plate on a blooper down the right field line that he inexplicably didn’t see. The ball fell inside the foul line, and a surprised Kemp was barely able to turn a double into a single.

Kemp leads the Dodgers with 19 homers and is second with 67 runs batted in, but his brilliance can be baffling, his greatness grating, an MVP play followed by a rookie mistake, again and again.

It is this sort of inconsistent play that drove General Manager Ned Colletti to publicly question Kemp earlier this season, but Stewart said he and Kemp had resolved that conflict.

“Everything was fine until suddenly Schaefer and Bowa start getting on him publicly,” said Stewart, a former Dodgers pitcher. “On those great Dodger teams of the past, you would never read about a player being trashed like Matt’s been trashed.”

Stewart is referring to the midseason incident in which Schaefer scolded Kemp for not backing up second base on a stolen-base attempt. Kemp replied with enough harsh words that led to his being benched for three days. Though Schaefer never criticized Kemp publicly, Stewart felt the encounter and punishment unnecessarily embarrassed his player.

Stewart’s anger with Bowa stems from a recent Times story in which Bowa chided Kemp for not always playing hard, a charge with which Kemp actually agreed at the time.

“When Larry Bowa played, he would never accept a coach talking about him in the newspaper like that, but they want to Matt to accept it?” Stewart said.

Stewart said that just because Kemp never argues about the criticism doesn’t mean it hasn’t hurt him.

“Yes, it affects the player, it has to affect the player,” Stewart said. “All this external crap coming from Schaefer and Bowa, why would you want to play for somebody like that?”

When Stewart’s words were read over the phone in Philadelphia, Schaefer and Bowa had no comment. Kemp also refused to address the issue.

Speaking for the organization, Colletti sighed. When he signed Kemp to a two-year deal this spring for a guaranteed $10.95 million, he elicited a promise from the talented 25-year-old that he wouldn’t change. But Kemp has changed. He still shows up early and does his work, but his play has often been filled with more distraction than passion.

Though some say he has been caught up in the fast life with famous girlfriend Rihanna, there is really no proof. He simply hasn’t grown up as fast as last season’s 26 homers and 101 RBIs would indicate. As the expectations have mounted, his joyful play has receded. He just doesn’t seem mature enough to handle the burden.

But to trade him now would be a premature surrender on his awesome potential, and Colletti knows it.

“No, I have no plans to trade him,” said Colletti. “He’s got a chance to be one of the best players in the history of the franchise.”

Colletti backed Schaefer and Bowa, who are considered two of the best baseball minds in the game. But he also allowed for the chance that Kemp is the sort of player who responds better to a different tone of voice.

“Our coaching staff only wants the best for the kid,” Colletti said. “Are they too hard on him? That’s a matter of opinion. But if there’s a miscommunication, we’re all adults here, let’s put everybody in a room and work it out.”

Good idea. Work it out. Don’t change the standout coaching staff to suit the needs of one player. But if you think Matt Kemp is worth it — and he probably is — don’t be afraid to add another credible clubhouse presence who can relate to him.

Matt Kemp is going to grow up someday. After enduring all this adolescent angst, the Dodgers should let it happen here.

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