When next we see Matt Kemp in uniform, he'll be swinging for the fences… (Harry How / Getty Images )
Finally, Matt Kemp returns.
After being absent for nearly a third of the season, the Dodgers' most important player is scheduled to rejoin their struggling offense this week with their playoff hopes clinging to his balky hamstring.
Wait. What? He's stopping off somewhere first? He's making a detour in Kansas City?
Hold on. He's going to be swinging a bat there? Against live pitching? In a testosterone-dripping strongman contest on national television?
You mean the first time the Dodgers and their fans will see Matt Kemp swinging a bat in a competitive big league situation since May 30, he'll be doing it somewhere else and only for himself?
Welcome to another day in baseball's Bizzaro World. Yes, it's true, after sitting out 51 of the last 53 games, the Dodgers savior will be returning to action not in a pennant race, but a sideshow, that flimsy All-Star preliminary known as the Home Run Derby.
You can start holding your breath any time now.
"I've heard people saying he shouldn't do it, and I can understand why they are saying it, because he hasn't played in a long time," Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said Friday.
I'm one of those people. I think he shouldn't do it. I know all the medical evidence supports Kemp, but I still think he shouldn't do it.
I understand it's just glorified batting practice, which he has been taking for more than a month now. I get how folks can say he has played in nearly a week's worth of minor league games, he's just a couple of days from returning to the Dodgers dugout, and how much can this hurt?
But if your child was returning to school after being out two months, would you allow him to first make a stop at the circus? Monday night's derby will be a circus, filled with a bunch of big guys swinging from the heels and swaggering around the field, and who knows what can go wrong.
As the National League captain, Kemp is not only part of that circus, he's the ringleader. He had only two home runs in last year's competition, so you know he'll be pushing hard to put on a better show. He was robbed of the most-valuable-player award last year by a guy who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, so you know that with the nation watching, he'll be swinging with a chip on his shoulder. There is also absolutely no upside to winning the event, not even the sort of public respect that sluggers crave. Who won last year? Thought so.
I also know I'm going to be painted as the bad guy here, I'll be called a hater, all that stuff, but somebody has to say it.
What in the heck is Matt Kemp doing there?
"Have I thought about that question before your phone call? Absolutely," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said Friday with a nervous laugh. "Sure, I'm a little bit concerned with it, but I've had all of our medical people telling me he's healthy, he's fine, he can do it, so that's where I'm at."
Colletti is more than a little concerned with it. In fact, until the derby ends Monday night, Colletti can think of little else.
He is sending trainer Sue Falsone to Kansas City to monitor Kemp's every step, an oddity considering most derby participants are "trained" by their children. Both Colletti and Mattingly have also spoken on the phone with Kemp in recent days, their question direct, their message clear.
Recalled Colletti: "I said, 'Matt, if you even have a sliver of apprehension, I'm calling this off."
Recalled Mattingly: "I told him if he felt anything funny at all, he's got to pull out."
In both calls, Kemp said he felt fine and was excited to participate, and you can't really blame him for that. After losing the MVP to Ryan Braun, he deserves a little spotlight. After enduring a painful first half that was epitomized by his dugout tantrum when he re-injured his leg, he has earned some frivolity.
"I'm going to have fun with it," Kemp told reporters last week. "It's just like taking batting practices, which I've been doing for the last three weeks, so I'm ready for that."
But here's the thing. The Dodgers wouldn't let him play in the actual All-Star game because he hasn't played an actual game for them. What makes the home run competition any different? Since his injury, he has yet to hit an official home run for them. In fact, he hasn't hit an official homer since April 30. If Kemp wasn't named the captain of this team, there is no way he would have been picked.
"You know, I really don't think it's bad for him," Mattingly said. "I always thought guys came back from an All-Star game like they just got a shot in the arm. Being among the elite players really got them going, gave them perspective, made them want to win even more. The same thing could happen with Matt."
That's what this is about. While the Dodgers are concerned about Kemp's body, they are also mindful of his psyche. They didn't feel they could take away both the All-Star game and the derby without putting him in a sort of funk that could affect his comeback.