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BILL PLASCHKE

Matt Kemp's new contract is the first step in Dodgers' revival

Center fielder's $160-million, eight-year deal gives the club a centerpiece in its quest to regain its footing on the field.

November 14, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp sits with a group of children during the dedication of the Dodger Dreamfield at Mona Park in Compton on Monday.
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp sits with a group of children during the… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Amid the clutter of a Compton playground, there appeared the deep greens and rich browns of a new baseball field.

Sitting next to a pale and thinning Frank McCourt, there appeared a beaming Matt Kemp.

At the end of the darkest of Dodgers chapters, there appeared hope.

Call it the $160-million metaphor, the Dodgers parading Kemp through a refurbished corner of Compton on Monday while putting the finishing touches on his new eight-year contract that will be the richest and perhaps most important in Dodgers history.

The deal probably won't be officially celebrated until later this week, but Kemp said it all during a speech to fourth- and fifth-graders sitting in the infield dirt at Mona Park's new Dodger Dreamfield.

"You've got to stay motivated, stay humble, always work hard,'' Kemp said. "It doesn't happen overnight … but dreams can come true … I'm the living truth.''

The pulse of Monday's truth was as powerful as Kemp's words, his new contract representing the first sign that the Dodgers can become the Dodgers again.

We don't know who will own them; we don't know who will eventually run them; we don't know what is going to happen to the stadium or the television deal or whether someone will finally figure out the dang parking lot.

But we now know that their best position player will be part of it.

"I'm here for the long haul,'' he said.

We don't know how the lineup card is going to look; we don't know whether it can or will be improved; we don't know whether Don Mattingly will be given more than one more year to fill it out.

But we now know that their leading most-valuable-player candidate and Gold Glove center fielder will be in it, in ink.

"The Dodgers gave me a chance to fulfill my dream, now I'm going to give them a chance,'' Kemp said.

McCourt obviously thought the signing would be a dream for him too. He seemingly figured the retaining of Kemp would be a nice goodbye gift to fans, and it appeared he was hoping he could announce the signing at the Dreamfield celebration so he could bask in the glory.

"I'm now very, very focused on making sure I pass the baton here in a way that is as professional as possible and make sure that I hand off the franchise in better shape than I found it,'' McCourt said Monday.

But seriously, McCourt is signing Kemp with somebody else's money. He is signing him because the Dodgers will be a more valuable property with Kemp in the house. "Better shape'' means nothing more than a higher asking price. Hold off on those second thoughts about McCourt's legacy.

This was not about McCourt. This was not even about Kemp. This was about the Dodgers.

Kemp could have probably made more money playing out the final year of his contract. He could have gone to a baseball team that was not under reconstruction. He could have gone to a media market where baseball wasn't the second game in town.

But even through the smoke and rubble of the last two seasons, he saw that the Dodgers could still be the Dodgers, and $160 million was enough to persuade him to stay.

"For me, it's always been nothing but blue,'' he said. "I hope to wear blue to the end of my career.''

Imagine that, a rich and famous ballplayer celebrating not just green, but blue. Even after McCourt spray-painted it with greed, somehow that color still shines.

"There's nothing but positives coming out of here, and I want to be part of it,'' Kemp said.

This could be just the start. Clayton Kershaw is surely watching. Veteran free agents are surely watching. It's easier to rebuild with a cornerstone, and now that a cornerstone is staying, who knows what cool construction is next?

"If this gives the fans hope, that's good,'' Kemp said.

Those fans are hoping that Kemp reacts more diligently to this contract than his last multi-year deal, which team officials believed caused him to slack off two seasons ago. That's the biggest question behind this biggest of Dodgers contracts.

Will he still work hard? Will he still care as much? After watching him last season, my guess is yes. Everything he did seemed more mature, and that's not even counting his 39 home runs and 126 runs batted in. He was smarter on the field and more of a leader in the clubhouse, and this deal should not change that.

"This means I have to keep playing up to my capabilities to get us to the top," Kemp said.

In the meantime, he is nobly trying to reach his capabilities in the community. Kemp agreed to show up at Monday's Dreamfield celebration even before the contract talks heated up. He seemed genuinely pleased to speak to the children, and patiently sign autographs for dozens of members of the community.

McCourt disappeared shortly after the dedication ended. Kemp stayed behind to hang out with the fans.

The end of an error. The beginning of hope.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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