How Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp rebuilt his body and reclaimed his reputation
Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier shared the Dodgers clubhouse for a decade. They debuted in the same month in the spring of 2006, and contributed to four division titles. On Wednesday, the Dodgers announced they would honor Ethier’s retirement with a ceremony at Dodger Stadium next week. A day later, Kemp mused about the passage of time, and pondered his own place in franchise lore.
“I hope I get one of those,” Kemp cracked.
The prospect looked unlikely when the Dodgers dealt Kemp to the San Diego Padres before the 2015 season. It still seemed unlikely when the Dodgers reacquired the outfielder last winter. As Ethier was sidelined for chunks of time because of injuries in their three years apart, Kemp bounced from the Padres to the Atlanta Braves, suffering from his own ailments and chafing at the losing.
Yet on Thursday, Kemp wore a Dodgers uniform inside the visitor’s clubhouse at SunTrust Park. His time in Atlanta represented the nadir of his career. His legs broke down. His production sagged. His reputation suffered. When the Braves traded him for a four-player bundle of bad contracts last winter, the headline from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution read, “With Kemp gone, a cloud has been lifted from the Braves.”
Unable to move Kemp and the $43.5 million remaining on his contract, the Dodgers invited him to spring training. They kept an open mind. And they benefited from an unforeseen revival.
After last season, Kemp fixed his diet, refreshed his perspective and reshaped his physique under the mentoring of former big leaguers LaTroy Hawkins and Torii Hunter. He re-established his status among his peers, starting for the National League in last week’s All-Star game. He reclaimed his status as a leader by offering advice and acting as a sounding board for younger players such as Cody Bellinger, Enrique Hernandez and Joc Pederson.
“Wisdom is healed pain,” Hunter said. “The only reason he’s wise is because he’s failed, and he’s made some adjustments in his life, and that’s how you get wisdom. You don’t get wisdom because you just have it. You have to heal from some pain. And he’s been through some stuff.”
Kemp, 33, was once a five-tool marvel. He nearly won the National League most valuable player award in 2011, finishing one home run shy of a 40-40 season. He made his second All-Star team a year later. From there, his body started to betray him.
There was a nettlesome hamstring injury in 2012, plus an ugly outfield collision that damaged a knee and shoulder. An operation repaired his torn labrum after the season. A year later, dogged by the residuals from his surgery, he appeared in only 73 games. He needed microfracture surgery on his ankle that winter.
He bounced back in an excellent 2014 season — 25 homers, 38 doubles and an .852 on-base plus slugging percentage — just in time to increase his trade value as the new baseball operations department led by Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi sent him to San Diego in exchange for catcher Yasmani Grandal. The trade represented a new day for the franchise. It also devastated Kemp.
Manager Dave Roberts was a member of the Padres coaching staff when Kemp arrived in 2015. He recalled a player who “was in a place that at point in time, there was some strife,” Roberts said. “Wasn’t happy.”
The discontent followed him to Atlanta after the Padres dumped his contract in the summer of 2016. Kemp struggled with a hamstring injury throughout last season. Scouts questioned his effort in the outfield. His conditioning suffered. His weight ballooned.
“When you get to the point where you can’t do some of the things you’re used to doing, you know what?” Hawkins said. “Maybe he did put on a few pounds.”
For years, Hawkins and Hunter had hounded Kemp about leaving his offseason home in Los Angeles and joining them outside Dallas. The message broke through after 2016. Kemp found a house in the same neighborhood as his two friends. When he returned after the 2017 season, Kemp had a new goal in mind.
“Matt just dedicated his whole offseason to ‘I’m just going to eat right, period,’” Hunter said.
Hunter was willing to help, ready with literature about financial literacy, business acumen and dietary changes. He directed Kemp to a personal chef who could cook “all-natural foods,” Hunter said. Kemp ate something healthy every few hours. He forsook alcohol and sweetened drinks. He carried a gallon jug of water “everywhere he went,” Hunter said. “I haven’t had a soda in 17 years, and I would slap a soda out of his hand if he had one.”
As he restructured his diet, Kemp sweated at Michael Johnson Performance, a fitness center run by the four-time Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter. Kemp grinded through workouts with a group that included Hunter, Hunter’s son Torii, Jr., Ian Kinsler and future Dodgers breakout star Max Muncy. The weight melted off. And Kemp would soon have more motivation.
Kemp was dining with friends one day in December when he got a call from his agent, Larry Reynolds. Kemp was leaving Atlanta, Reynolds explained. The agent laughed when he relayed the destination. “Stop lying,” Kemp told Reynolds.
“He was like, ‘Man, I’m going back to L.A. — but I don’t know why,’” Hunter said. “He was like, ‘Why, though? Why would they have me go back?’”
The Dodgers did not acquire Kemp with the intention of starting him in the outfield on opening day. His contract happened to match up with the money owed Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy. The trade helped the Dodgers get their luxury-tax payroll beneath the $197 million threshold. They hoped to unload some of Kemp’s money so they could spend elsewhere.
In the interim, Kemp was a Dodger. Soon after the trade, he connected with strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel. In the offseason, McDaniel explained, he operates as a “concierge” for the players. He answered Kemp’s questions about what had changed with the organization. He offered recommendations on supplements and tips for setting up Kemp’s diet in Los Angeles. He found Kemp a pilates instructor. He invited him to work out at Dodger Stadium.
Kemp visited in the second week of January. A mixture of old friends and new faces greeted him. He joined a group including Justin Turner, Chase Utley, Kenley Jansen, Hernandez, Pederson, Bellinger and a few younger players. Kemp looked nothing like the boulder he had been in Atlanta.
“Everyone was like ‘Holy ... ,” Bellinger said — and that was before Kemp paired up to work with outfield prospect D.J. Peters, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound specimen.
“D.J. is a 22-year-old beast,” McDaniel said. “So it seemed a little unfair. But man, Matt ran with him, Matt lifted with him, he kept up with him. It was really impressive.”
McDaniel had known Kemp since 2012. He respected Kemp’s attention to detail with his diet. He never felt compelled to place Kemp on a scale. “Matt’s a big boy,” McDaniel said. “He’s going to take care of himself.”
By the time spring training rolled around, Kemp was still a Dodger. The front office had not found a suitable offer. Kemp reported to Camelback Ranch about 40 to 50 pounds lighter than he had been with the Braves. Kemp operated with “a weight” on his shoulders during the spring, unsure of his place on the team, he said. That lifted when the Dodgers told him he would be there on opening day.
The rest of the story is well known by now. Kemp boosted the offense after a sluggish start. He earned a spot on the All-Star team. His teammates voted him the recipient of the team’s heart and hustle award this week. This October, he’ll get a chance to capture the championship that eluded him during his first go-round with the Dodgers.
And he’ll get a chance to end his career with a ceremony like the one that awaits Ethier.
“He never wanted to leave,” Hunter said. “His home is right there in L.A. with the Dodgers. He bleeds blue. He loves it to the core. Him being there, him playing well, it’s because he feels like he’s home, with his family.”
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