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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' Kemp works to improve his image

February 17, 2008|Bill Plaschke

PHOENIX -- Five minutes into spring cleaning, and Matt Kemp and I are already having a fight.

"I'll buy," I said, holding out my credit card to the man working the cash register at Mack Daddy's, a soul food place next to his gym on a cluttered street.

"No, no, no," he said, pulling out a large bill to pay for his food.

"Listen," I said. "I buy for young players. I always have. When you make the big money, you can buy mine."

"No, dude," he said, firmly. "I can pay my own way."

He gets a plate full of catfish nuggets. I get a side dish of insight.

Five minutes into spring cleaning, and already I like Matt Kemp better than last year.

What seemed like clubhouse defiance is now calm confidence.

That deer-in-the-headlights look has become an unfettered focus.

"Last year when I heard that trade talk, I got really scared," Kemp said. "I wanted to call Ned Colletti and say, 'Please, please, let me stay.' I love the fans. I love my friends. I love the Dodgers.' "

He shakes his head with a relieved smile.

"Now that I'm still here, it's time to show Los Angeles how much fun we can have by staying together," he said. "It's time to make some history."

The Dodgers listened. The Dodgers bought. Now the entire Dodgers nation will be watching.

Matt Kemp will pay his own way?

The Dodgers' season depends on it.

Their unwillingness to deal him prevented them from obtaining this winter's top traded pitchers -- Johan Santana, Erik Bedard or Dan Haren.

The Dodgers believe that by keeping his cannon in the middle of their lineup, Kemp would blow enough smoke to shroud the hole at the top of their rotation.

"The Dodgers had an opportunity to move him," said Dave Stewart, Kemp's agent. "But they see the value."

Kemp saves them money. He saves them angry questions from fans who want to see the Dodgers kids grow together.

Now Matt Kemp has to save the season.

He can save it with his bat, capable of at least 20 home runs, at least 80 runs batted in, at least an on-base percentage in the mid-.300s.

He can save it with his arm, which is right-field strong, and his feet, which are 20 stolen-bases fast.

But more than anything, he can save it with his maturity.

Has this small-town 23-year-old grown enough to handle the big-city pressures of being a Dodger?

Will he show up at the park early for extra work? Will he stay late for interviews? Will he win the praise of veterans who will judge him as much on his hustled groundouts as on his home runs?

Who knows? But during an hour-long lunch this month, he made it clear that he will be trying.

He understands what happened last year. He knows that his raw ability was sadly overshadowed by his perceived lack of respect.

He wants Dodgers fans to know that he gets it. He wants them to know whatever problems surfaced last season, he will fix them.

He was gracious, insightful, reflective and, yes, even occasionally remorseful.

Remember last year when he was criticized for loudly complaining that a garbage can had been put next to his locker?

"If I see that trash can this year, I'm going to call a press conference with all the writers and say, 'See, I'm moving it without complaining,' " he said.

He pauses and smiles.

"No, no, just kidding," he said. "This year, I'll just move that trash can without saying a word."

That trash can incident was part of the reason that last year's veterans complained about youngsters such as Kemp and James Loney.

The veterans thought the kids didn't respect winning. They thought they didn't respect the game.

The veterans quietly complained about everything from late clubhouse arrivals to dumb baserunning errors to smiles after losses.

Those complaints reached the ears of Dodgers management, whose thoughts reached me, so I wrote a column about the possibility that Kemp would be traded.

It wasn't my idea, it was the Dodgers' idea, yet judging from the angry responses I received, you would have thought I put a "For Sale" sign in front of Kemp's locker.

In the end, the Dodgers decided to keep him.

Now they have no choice but to embrace him.

But at the end of that hug, their fingers will be crossed.

"I know everyone is looking at me," Kemp said. "But I've realized, that's good. If want to be a Dodger, that's what it's all about, and I've spent this winter getting ready for it."

He first dealt with his body, spending the winter working in Phoenix with fitness guru Mack Newton.

He has lost weight, he has strengthened a sore knee that quietly led to some of his baserunning blunders last year.

But he has also listened to Newton's daily talks about becoming a man.

"For me, the easiest part of baseball is playing . . . man, if I could only just play the game," Kemp said.

Having grown up in small-town Oklahoma, he is not used to the media hordes.

Having grown up as a star, he is not used to the criticism.

"I'll admit, I didn't like it, and I read every word of it," he said. "I want to know what people think about it. I care about that. It hurt to be criticized."

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