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Kemp Has Long and Winding Road Back : At 31, He Spends Prime of Career in Las Vegas, Victim of a Bad Eye and Arm

July 06, 1986|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — It was nearly 110 degrees at Cashman Field when Steve Kemp ran out to left field to shag flies this Tuesday afternoon. His shoulder was tight, his elbow hurt and his palms were pink and blistered.

Unlike his teammates on the Las Vegas Stars, who had been playing baseball daily since March, Kemp was not in shape, and his body was letting him know it. Released by the Pittsburgh Pirates in April, he hadn't touched a bat in nearly three months.

After laboring for more than an hour in the stifling heat, Kemp retreated to the cramped but air-conditioned clubhouse. He helped himself to oranges and watermelon provided for the players, then headed for the trainer's room for therapy.

Barely a week had passed since he reported to the Stars, the Pacific Coast League affiliate of the San Diego Padres. Kemp was beginning an attempt to learn if he could still play the game that had made him a wealthy young man before branding him a has-been at age 31 this spring.

Kemp, who is in the fourth year of a guaranteed five-year contract worth $2.6 million, wasn't expecting to play Tuesday night. He got very nervous when Manager Larry Bowa called upon him to pinch-hit in the sixth inning.

He walked to the on-deck circle for a couple of practice swings and tried to calm himself. "If you strike out, it's no big deal," he thought. "Just try to relax."

Kemp knew little about the opposing pitcher, Jeff Heathcock of the Tucson Toros. His focus was more on the advice he recently got from Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees.

Kemp, whose home is in Laguna Niguel, had gone to an Angel game against the Yankees in June and had sought out his former teammate. Mattingly provided some technical insights on how to position the hands and shoulders squarely toward the pitcher.

There hadn't been much time for rehearsals, but it didn't matter.

Kemp swung at Heathcock's first pitch and drove it high and deep to the opposite field. The ball landed on a grassy embankment beyond the fence in left-center for a three-run homer.

As he circled the bases, Kemp's thoughts turned to his 2-year-old daughter and his recently deceased grandmother.

"My little girl, Stephanie, never saw me when I was going good," Kemp said. "I want her to be able to watch her daddy and be proud of him as she grows up."

Someone retrieved the home run ball and presented it to Kemp, who later gave it to Stephanie.

It would be nice to report that she had the ball in hand as she ran through the hotel lobby the next morning, but in truth she was carrying a "Muppet Babies" raft as her mother led her toward the pool.

Kemp was saddened that his grandmother had died only a few days earlier, but he wanted to believe she knew what he had done. "I think it kept her alive a few extra years following my career," he said. "She was my biggest fan."

It was only one swing in a minor league game, but it clearly had meaning for Kemp, whose 10-year career has included time with the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox in addition to the Yankees and Pirates.

"I'm on a quest," Kemp said. "Even if I never make it back to the major leagues, I'll have the satisfaction of that home run on my first swing."

His second evening with the Stars brought more satisfaction. Kemp collected three straight hits, two singles and a double, before Tucson got him out twice late in the game.

"Hey, that's me, that's the way I used to hit," Kemp said, extending further credit to Mattingly for helping with his swing.

"After a few workouts here, my front shoulder was sore because I was trying to keep my hands positioned like Don said. Since my shoulder hurt, I knew I was doing something right. The last couple of years I had been pulling off the ball and striking out a lot, but now I'm hitting the ball to left and right center, the way I once did."

It has been a long time since Kemp consistently hit the ball with power to all fields. No one, including Kemp, is predicting he will return to the level he reached in his mid-20s before injuries threatened his career.

His best years were with the Tigers. In 1979 he hit .318 with 26 homers and 105 runs batted in. The next season he batted .293 with 21 homers and 101 RBIs.

He was traded to Chicago in 1982 and became a free agent after hitting .286 with 19 homers and 98 RBIs. The Yankees awarded him a five-year contract worth more than $500,000 a year, but his time in New York was unpleasant.

He was forced to undergo surgery for a damaged retina late in 1983, and had an operation to repair a torn rotator cuff after the next season.

After being traded to Pittsburgh, he hit .250 with just two homers last year. The Pirates released him this spring after Kemp hit .188 in three games.

His comeback was launched in late June when the Padres began looking for a veteran outfielder to help their Triple-A farm team. San Diego General Manager Jack McKeon made no promises of future employment, but he gave Kemp an opportunity to play again.

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