On the baseball calendar, this was opening day. For Matt Kemp, this was homecoming day.
He never wanted to leave. He was 18 when he signed with the Dodgers, 21 when he made his major league debut. He swore off free agency so he could sign a contract that would keep him with the Dodgers until he was 35, but that was before new management decided not to keep him.
On the first day of the rest of his baseball life, the schedule brought him to Dodger Stadium. He brought his parents.
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 San Diego Padres.
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 Clayton Kershaw sets an ultraserious tone. You would not see Kershaw do what Kemp did when a microphone dropped on the ground in front of him. As Kemp picked up the microphone, his eyes lit up.
“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 A.J. Ellis said. “I had no idea where he stood in the batter’s box. I had no idea really what pitches were going to work. This is brand new.
“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 Wil Myers lost a fly ball in the sun and misplayed it into a triple, pitcher Shawn Kelley missed first base in trying to tag the base for an out, and first baseman Yonder Alonso and Kelley collided in pursuit of a pop fly.
They welcomed baseball’s best closer, Craig Kimbrel, who flew from Florida on Monday morning, landed at Burbank airport a little before noon and arrived in time for pregame introductions. Kimbrel, acquired late Sunday from the Atlanta Braves, was thrilled about joining a team playing to win this year.
That left Manager Bud Black to bristle at the question of why his team lost its first game without using his two best relievers — Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit — even though the Padres had the score tied in the eighth inning. Black said he had used three relievers, was short another — the ill Dale Thayer — and was reluctant to risk using Benoit for two innings.
“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.
“Meal money today, guys,” he said. “I’m so excited. Take my mama out to eat.”