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BILL PLASCHKE

Matt Kemp sets the tone for the Dodgers in more ways than one

The center fielder is the undisputed leader of the team, making his presence clearly felt on the field and in the clubhouse.

February 23, 2013|Bill Plaschke
  • Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp makes his presence clearly felt on the field and in the clubhouse.
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp makes his presence clearly felt on the… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

There are many accents in the rich and diverse Dodgers clubhouse this spring. There are a babel of twangs and tones from the Far East to western Australia, from the Dominican Republic to Defiance, Ohio.

But, make no mistake, there is only one voice.

It announced itself recently by entering the room with a loud belch. The murmurs quieted. Everyone looked up. Matt Kemp was in the house.

The Dodgers center fielder has shown up this spring looking remarkably thinner than last season, yet he has never been bigger. His attitude is more measured, but he has never been more forceful.

During the first full week of spring training, every time he was in the clubhouse, it was as if there was nobody else in the clubhouse.

He would dance in from batting practice loudly singing along to a rap song that thumped into his headphones. He would talk trash to teammates as they walked to the shower. He would howl at teammates as they attempted to play pingpong.

One minute, he would be climbing the back of giant pitcher Ronald Belisario and riding him around the room. The next minute, he would be slapping Hanley Ramirez on the lower back. Moments later, Ramirez would be sneaking around to slap him back.

The room sounded like him, it felt like him, the energy rising with each of his large and loud steps, the place falling into a deadened silence each time he walked out. He is eternally positive, impossibly loud, always moving, always connecting.

If, as everyone says, the Dodgers' most pressing requirement this spring is to figure out the clubhouse chemistry that eluded them during last autumn's struggles, Matt Kemp is that open gas flame.

"We brought in a lot of guys, but this is Matt's team, and everybody in here wants it to be Matt's team," said second baseman Mark Ellis. "He's such a big player, such a big personality, it should be his team."

There are other players with the credentials, but none with the aura. Andre Ethier is too quiet. Adrian Gonzalez is too new. Ramirez is too unsteady. Clayton Kershaw doesn't play every day.

"He is that big presence, he's been here a long time, he knows how it works," Manager Don Mattingly said.

These Dodgers are Kemp's team in the way the Clippers are Chris Paul's team, a group of stars trying to figure out a championship by following one particularly forceful dude who seems to know where he's going.

But does Kemp know where he's going? How can anybody know? Perhaps the future of the 2013 Dodgers rests on the answer.

Two seasons ago, Kemp was certainly headed in the right direction when he was the best player in the National League who did not test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Last season was Kemp's shot at redemption, but his prediction that he would be the first member of baseball's 50-50 club (home runs and stolen bases) became as mangled as his hamstring and shoulder, as injuries cost him one-third of the season and he wound up just another member of the 23-9 club.

This year, he is coming off off-season shoulder surgery, a new experience for him. He is also much leaner than in recent years, also a new experience for him.

"I am a lot thinner," he said at the start of camp. "I'm right where I need to be."

But is he? He says his seven-pound weight loss to 213 is simply a return to his physique of two seasons, but, in looking at him you wonder how much of that is muscle loss.

"I'm playing center field, so I can't be out there and be all heavy and try to run around and make plays like Mike Trout," he said, referring to the Angels' wild child. "I have to be light to do things like that."

The Dodgers surely agree that this type of weight loss will help him navigate the field — and stay on it — but will it impact his power at the plate? The other question is, as the season progresses, about his power in the room. For now, the team rightfully follows his every move, but there are other new personalities that may eventually feel a need to be heard. Will Kemp be strong enough to level the moods of a mercurial Ramirez? And once Carl Crawford begins making an impact, where will he fit in?

For Kemp to make sure everything fits, he has to maintain not only his health, but his numbers, because the Dodgers know exactly what happened last season when he struggled with both.

"When he went down last year, it was like we lost our voice, our direction, there was definitely a void there," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "He's all energy, all positive, all real."

For now, in the loudest corner locker of Camelback Ranch, Matt Kemp is all there.

"I ain't trippin', it's all good," he said. And as long as he continues to avoid those surprise stumbles, the Dodgers will be all good indeed.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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