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Kurt Streeter

Kemp has a high ceiling, unless the walls close in

August 17, 2008|Kurt Streeter

One of the all-timers, longtime Yankee Don Mattingly, now the Dodgers' hitting coach, listened intently to a simple question.

When you think of Matt Kemp, what word first pops to mind?

There was no pause. He looked me dead in the eye. "Potential," he said.

Ah, glorious potential.

Said the way Mattingly said it, with the glowing look one gets when seeing a flashy Lamborghini buzz down Sunset Boulevard, "potential" is a catchall word that brings to mind speed and will and power and Hall of Fame, all at once.

It brings to mind -- and this is true for no one in baseball more than the young Matt Kemp -- the burden and heavy weight of great expectations, which can either boost a young player or cause a sad crumble.

These days, luckily for Dodgers fans, there is little crumble in Kemp.

Of the players who have been on the roster all season, none has improved as much as the young Oklahoman.

And other than Manny Ramirez, there may be no player more vital to the Dodgers' playoff hopes than Kemp, an imposing 23-year-old who stands 6 feet 3 and looks as if he would fit right in on an NFL team. He must keep up the pace if his team is to stay in the hunt. And if he gets as hot as it seems he might, the Dodgers may well have a chance at turning heads come October.

On a steady rise since the All-Star break, Kemp is hitting for average and power, .298 this season with 14 homers going into Saturday night's game against Milwaukee. He is on pace to burst well past 30 stolen bases. Occasionally, he bats leadoff. When needed, he uncorks an arm that makes you think of Dave Parker playing for the late-1970s Pittsburgh Pirates.

True, Kemp still makes the mistakes of a guy who did not get serious about baseball until high school. He will sometimes blow past third base and get caught. Sometimes, he will fail to find a cutoff man. But steadily, consistently, his game grows.

Take the current homestand. Kemp, part of a fresh young crop of outstanding African American major leaguers, went into Saturday night's game batting .380 this week with two doubles, five RBIs and one home run.

On Monday, he started the week off with three hits, a walk and two runs in an 8-6 Dodgers victory.

The next night, with the Dodgers down, 1-0, to the Phillies in the bottom of the first, he scorched a bullet to left field, ran the bases like a locomotive, and ended up on third after a Phillies player bobbled the ball. Kemp eventually scored, establishing a tone for the week: This was a team that was going to bounce back.

"He's way ahead of schedule," Dodgers third base coach Larry Bowa said of Kemp after Friday's win over the Brewers, in which Kemp had another double. "Right now, he's at the point I thought he might be in two or three years, that's how much he has improved."

I told Bowa about a conversation in which I had asked Kemp where he saw himself in 10 years. He had said he wanted to be just like Ramirez: so good that fans rise to their feet with his every at-bat, so good that even his strikeouts get cheered.

"Oh man, that's good to hear," Bowa said. "He's setting his sights really high, that's great. The guy already works tremendously hard. He's here at the park early, putting his time in. So to hear that he is bold enough to say he wants to be like Manny, one of the greats in the game, that's the kind of goal he should have."

Of course, it must be noted that, for all the kind words coming from the Dodgers and their fans right now, it has not always been a smooth path for Matt Kemp.

For some reason, in some corners of the organization and some parts of the fan base, Kemp has spent good chunks of his first two years in the majors being unfairly maligned. Hopefully, the derision aimed at Kemp is simply a matter of the difficulty that comes with great expectations. Nothing more, nothing worse.

It makes little sense that, while Kemp has put up stats that compare favorably with those of established stars such as Cleveland's Grady Sizemore, there have long been rumblings about his attitude and even his smarts.

Fact is, if you talk to Kemp for any length of time, so long as he feels some trust you quickly get the sense that he is friendly, engaging and sharp. Sure, he also comes across as shy and casual. Still working on himself, still a bit uncertain. Still something of a kid at 23, as most that age are. In other words, he is human.

It is too easy for critics to forget that Kemp grew up in small-town Oklahoma, hardly taking baseball seriously until high school. If he is still learning the game and still getting used to big league life and already this good, then it should not be hard to see where he will be once things really start clicking.

I sat with Kemp in the stands this week, before one of the games. He spoke of how, when he runs out to right field, turns around and looks at all those people in the stands, it still feels as if this is some kind of dream.

I asked what he thinks when he considers his game and the word that carries both burden and hope: "potential."

"What comes to mind is someone who might be really good, could be great," Kemp said. "I know I could be that, sure. I know people say that about me, but I try not to listen. I still have a lot of work to do. A whole lot. Now, I'm just trying to learn from some good guys and get better and keep improving. Potential will take care of itself."

He looked away, staring at the field that he may well dominate one day, smiling the smile of the talented and young.

--

Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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