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T.J. SIMERS

Dodgers' Matt Kemp is one cool dawg

Center fielder, sidelined because of an injury, shows his fun and serious sides in a conversation that ranges from his desire to win a championship to wanting to be an inspiration to African American kids pursuing a baseball career.

June 26, 2012|T.J. Simers

SAN FRANCISCO — Matt Kemp talks about crying, failure hitting him hard.

He talks about wanting to be normal, but what a thrill to see someone wearing his jersey. "That's tight," he says, and I can't say I always understand what he's saying.

He talks about winning championships, and what that has to do with the Dodgers I do not know until he says they must do so if he's ever going to achieve greatness like Kobe, Michael and now LeBron.

"Kevin Durant is going to win championships," he says. "When I saw Kevin Durant hug his mother, I felt it."

He talks about wanting to put an African American face to baseball as Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. did for him.

And as he continues to talk, recalling now how he was just a kid when we first met six years ago, he sounds all grown up.

It's Tuesday morning, Kemp with some time before the veteran will take Dee Gordon out for some lunch and advice.

So what was it like when he was a kid, and the veterans were Manny Ramirez and Jeff Kent?

"I didn't learn anything from Kent," Kemp says, and, amen, what a waste to have all the knowledge and experience Kent had, and scare everyone off.

"Manny was a great teacher," Kemp says. "He was approachable; he taught me so much about hitting. If I can pass something on now to my dog then I'll do whatever I can."

Kemp talks about his dog a lot, or is it, dawg? But then don't we all until it becomes clear he's talking about a two-legged Gordon, the next minute moving onto Torii Hunter, and who calls Hunter a dog, or dawg?

"My brother, my homeboy," Kemp says, and I think he's talking about Hunter. They attended a concert together last week at the Honda Center, and when Hunter was brought on stage, he was booed.

A moment later Kemp takes the stage, booing Hunter as he does, and arriving to massive cheers.

"I told Torii there's only one team in L.A. that everybody loves, and that's the Dodgers."

The concert is in Anaheim "and right across the street from the stadium," as Kemp points out to Hunter, "and how cool is that?"

I ask him who was in concert, and he says their names, but I've never heard of them. I can't even begin to guess how to spell them, and Kemp loves it.

He calls it "keeping it real," and everything you get with Kemp now is real even though he was telling folks a day earlier his name is now "James."

You never know with Kemp, and I'm not talking about the way he used to run the bases. He just wants to have fun, so when he's mistaken for James Loney on Monday, he gives the fans what they want.

"I've experienced what it's like having no fun; I'm not going to let that happen again," Kemp says. "If I could do it over, I'd want to come up to the big leagues like Mike Trout. He's exciting and I like watching him."

Funny to hear Kemp, the phenom once upon a time, already reflecting on the next kid loaded with promise.

"When I started, it was like God gave me a little taste of it and then pulled it back," he says. "And I fell hard. It took a lot of work to come back, tears, and yeah, I cried."

The young player who cried is now the best player in the game. Better than Albert Pujols, as someone tells Kemp recently until he says they have it all wrong.

"Pujols is better than me," Kemp says without hesitation. "Pujols has won championships. I don't have anything. It doesn't mean anything if you're not winning."

Maybe so, but Kemp will be on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" this week, and he's already on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. He recently appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!". Just think what kind of coverage he might be getting if he were actually playing.

"I don't do stuff to be a star," he says, smiling and admitting he likes the attention.

"I do it because I feel it's important for kids, African American kids, to see an African American face that plays baseball. I'm always telling people baseball needs to be more prominent in the African American community.

"What a better way to do so, going on these TV shows and appearing on the cover of this or that. Now kids can see how baseball can change your life. Frank Thomas did that for me."

Kemp is good on TV, too, quick to laugh at himself and oozing with personality. He does dress funny, though. "Stylin'," as he calls it, but who buys jeans with holes already in them?

"The girls love them," he says, while suggesting we will probably never shop at the same stores.

A regular guy, as the best player in baseball still calls himself, Kemp says he has no choice.

"My family keeps me grounded," he says. "It's cool for people to recognize you, but really the coolest thing is to see someone in my jersey. That's one of the best feelings I've had. Somebody actually went and spent money to wear my jersey."

As much as Kemp has to offer fans, these are tough days for the Dodgers and the leading All-Star vote getter among National League outfielders. They are losing and he's not playing.

But at the risk of throwing him a compliment, and usually it is only jabs we exchange, he's every bit the disabled-list MVP as he is a hitter.

While his hamstring mends, he hangs with his teammates and approaches each game as if he might deliver the winning hit, or cheer.

It's the work of a team leader, Kemp excusing himself now to eat so he can also use the time to encourage Gordon.

Righteous, dude.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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