In 100 years, music will be all but unrecognizable—techno/country/pop/rock will give way to new technologies and styles. Art will have gone through a dozen movements until the only thing that’s left is the meta-conceptual. Fashion will exist in a completely different context, or may not even exist at all, or bras will shoot laser beams to fend off perves. The polar icecaps will definitely be melted. Oil may be phased out, god willing. Wars will be fought, and disasters of all walks will shake our foundation, and the world’s finances will go through a series of changes. America may not be a superpower at all. But baseball will be baseball. And baseball players will be baseball players.
But forget 100 years from now. Think now, 2011, smack in the dog days of August, when the sun cooks like a grill and the only things worth doing are games. Now, in the middle of the pointless war with Afghanistan, with the debt crisis, with the economic see-saw, with Brad Pitt’s baseball economics film Moneyball about to play in theaters. Now, there is a baseball player sitting in front of me, in the Galleria mall in Redondo Beach (a gag-reflex monument to the sprawl of Los Angeles), and that ballplayer is Matt Kemp, and I am feeling nostalgic for a game I was never really that good at, and had to “retire from” when I tore a rotator cuff in the preseason of my Freshman year after tossing too hard before warming up.
“It’s America’s pastime still,” says Kemp, as he bites carefully into a non-descript melt sandwich at a non-descript café chain full of Redondo Beach’s Dodger faithful, come over for a bite after their hero’s autograph signing appearance at a non-descript furniture chain. “A lot of people love baseball. Shoot, I love baseball. I think it’s an exciting sport, and it’s fun for me.”
In 100 years, it will still be very frustrating to interview a baseball player.
Baseball is an intricate game. It is a languid game (due to its languidness, purple prose such as that demonstrated above is common amongst its writers, possibly because they have so much time between pitches). It is a game of inches, as the cliché goes, and it is a game of great athleticism and intensely measurable skill. For instance, Matt Kemp, at the time of this article, has an outside shot at hitting 40 home runs (the ultimate display of power) and stealing 40 bases (a display of cunning and swiftness on the basepaths), a feat reached by only four in Major League Baseball’s 142 years, including the ubiquitous A-Rod, the gone-but-unfortunately-not-forgotten ‘roid-gobbler Jose Canseco, the ‘roid poster boy Barry Bonds, and a guy named Alfonso Soriano, who is otherwise famous for nothing. It is such a rare accomplishment, Jay-Z named his chain of lounges the 40/40 Club.
“I’ve been playing baseball since I was four years old. Now, we’re grown men playing a little kid’s sport, so why not have fun doing it, and get paid some good money to do it, too? I’m living the dream, man. Not everybody gets to go to work everyday and love what they do,” says Kemp. A manager of the non-descript café approaches Kemp and asks him to autograph a clear plastic to-go cup with the café’s logo on it. He obliges. He may win the Most Valuable Player award this year for the National League. He is good. I tell him that he is good. I feel stupid for saying it, but then I wait, and let the statement hang in the air like a ball tossed up. Kemp swings. “That’s the icing on the cake right there.” He grins. It is the grin of a man making around $7 million this year.
The night previous: for the purpose of understanding Matt Kemp, I am afforded access to the Dodgers as a sports beat writer. Before the game, I am allowed on the field for batting practice.
Dodger Stadium is legendary. It is here, in 1980, that “Fernandomania” happened1. It is on this same mound that, in 1965, Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs in what has been selected by the Society for American Baseball Research as “the greatest game ever pitched.” The Dodgers have won five World Series here (not including the title they won as the Brooklyn-based franchise). Kirk Gibson sparked them to their last World Series, 23 years ago, with a fist-pumping home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 9th inning of Game One.
There is also, to be fair, a little flair at Dodgers Stadium that gives it a particularly special Los Angeles charm. True to the city’s slick nature, the stadium was built on land obtained by the city under dubious circumstances, a power struggle that displaced an entire Chicano community. In 1976, Rick Monday famously ran into the outfield to save an American flag from Vietnam War protesters who intended to burn it. And of course, there’s the Dodger lifestyle. After hometeam wins here, the whole crowd dances, singing Randy Newman’s anthem, “I Love L.A.” The games are announced here by Vin Scully, who has been doing it for 62 years (since the Dodgers were in Brooklyn). And the motherly Nancy Bea plays the organ during intermissions.
They say the hardest thing in the world to do is hit a baseball, or is it the hardest thing to do in sport? Either way, Kemp steps in during his turn in batting practice and swats a ball to the right field bleachers. Then he does it again. And again. At the time of this article, Kemp has hit 32 out of the park this season, third most in the National League. He is having the quintessential “breakout season” that so few stars go through. The guy’s the total package, a five-tool player2.
I head up to the press box. I nod in some guys’ direction, but the 44 bespeckeled, slick-haired hacks from Yahoo.com and The L.A. Times aren’t interested in a magazine guy wearing Tom Ford glasses. The seats aren’t anything special—perhaps owing to the simple fact about baseball: it’s a working-man’s sport. People from all over the L.A. area travel up Chavez Ravine to spend their hard-earned bucks on entertainment from the fellas on the field. Perhaps it’s this proletariat atmosphere that makes it difficult for baseball players to be interviewed. They make a lot of money—they are in an elite tax bracket. Because of this contrast, they can’t turn the common man against them with exhortations of lavish spending and superfluous pursuits of leisure. The baseball player cannot be distracted from the one thing the fan came to see: wins.
The aforementioned organ-player, Nancy Bea, sits to my right in the press box, her organ set up with a Dodgers logo on a flat-screen behind her. She is playing with performer’s smile, in case the camera trains on her. It’s game time.
Fast forward to Redondo: Matt Kemp is talking about family. Family is important to him, he says. Very important. He carries a tattoo on his arm, a gesture for his brother, whom he lost when he was 14. He talks about his mother, a former registered nurse in Oklahoma, who now lives a life of repose. He tells me she just “chills” now. I tell him, given the opportunity, most of us would do the very same for our parents. I ask him about Oklahoma. He tells me he goes back a few times a year.
Matt Kemp lives in Tinseltown now. He wears fashion glasses, a pair purchased at the Beverly Center. “Yeah,” he laughs, “it’s a little different living out here. There are good restaurants. Sushi—I never would have thought I’d be eating sushi. Like when I first moved out here, I was like, ‘I’m not eating that shit. Sushi? That’s raw fish. I’m not putting that shit in my mouth. It’s not going to happen.’ But one day, I would be around people that would say I’ve got to try new things. So I give everything a chance, you know? And fortunately I tried sushi one day and it actually became one of my favorite foods. So, I definitely can get a little bougie. We all change. I’m from Oklahoma. Back home is a little behind because it’s a slower city. It’s not a big city. But it’s definitely growing now that we have an NBA team3. We just got a Saks Fifth. I’m happy about that. Saks Fifth Avenue. I’m going to be going there. Oklahoma ain’t never had one of those.”
If there is one weakness to Matt Kemp, it’s shopping. We’re not just talking your everyday, garden variety shopping either. Kemp is a power shopper. The way Kemp puts it, Veronica Lodge herself would have a hard time keeping up with him. Barneys? I suggest, knowingly. He nods. “Yeah, that’s one of my favorites.” What section do you beeline for? “Shoes!” he says. It is the singular moment during this interview when Matt Kemp’s eyes sparkle. “Shoes and clothes, man,” he continues. “I like to look nice when I go places. I think we all do for the most part. You want to walk around feeling good about yourself. In the past year-and-a-half, two years, I got into being around fashionable people. I started to enjoy the things that other people I was around enjoyed like clothes and shoes. It’s fun. I think it’s fun to go into a store and try to figure out what to put with some shoes or your outfit or whatever, and rock it.
“I’m like a chameleon, man,” Kemp continues. “I can switch it up. I can one day be wearing some Jordans or nice retro sportswear with some jeans, a shirt, and a hat, and make that look nice. And then I can wear a collared shirt with some RRL jeans.” He goes on to reference Lanvin and YSL.
Sometimes, I offer, do you go too far?
“Sometimes,” Kemp replies. “There’s times. You’ve got to set a little budget for every month or two for yourself. If you go over that budget, it means that you have do less next month. It’s all about saving money. But looking good at the same time.”
At this point, I would like a show of hands: does Matt Kemp look good?
The Los Angeles Dodgers have gone through a pretty rough patch of late. Their last superstar, Manny Ramirez, was chased out of town after a few years of injecting estrogen and not playing very well. The team’s owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt, became embroiled in bitter divorce proceedings in October 2009. Jamie was the CEO. Frank fired her, claiming she was boffing her bodyguard, but the judge rejected Frank’s post-nups and the Dodgers subsequently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. On April 20th, 2011, Major League Baseball decided Frank couldn’t meet payroll, and the league took over ownership of the Dodgers. By this point, though, the fans have become disaffected by scandal. The seats, as I look over the stadium from the press box, are nearly empty.
But tonight, the Dodgers are facing the lowly Astros from Houston, the worst team in the league. The Dodgers, not exctly in the pennant chase themselves, are locked in a scoreless tie with the hapless Astros. It is a pitcher’s duel of the worst kind—boring, long, scoreless. Even the mighty Matt Kemp has gone 0 for 4. Perhaps he is nervous about his big magazine profile, I joke to myself.
Kemp addresses the Dodgers’ dismal situation in the Redondo café. “I don’t really know the whole situation or who is to blame or whatever—I don’t try to get in other people’s business,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned: I can’t worry about things I can’t control, and in the front office—that’s one thing you can’t control is what’s going on off the field. I can only control what’s going on on the field. So I just try to play my game and try to make everyone forget about the unfortunate situation that happened off the field.”
He is, of course, referring to the McCourts, but he may as well be referring to any number of off-the-field disturbances, including his yearlong dalliance with pop singer Rihanna, which began seven months after her previous boyfriend, pop singer Chris Brown, battered her. And though prying would be tacky, I ask some questions about love. “I’ve been in love twice,” he says. “Only twice. That’s enough at 26.”
What do you like in a girl?
“What do I look for?” he laughs. “I like confident people. I like positive people. Somebody that can make me a better person. Somebody that makes me want to be a better person. Smart. Pretty, of course. Somebody that is close with their family and loves their family just as much as I love my family. Somebody that knows how to dress. It just boils down to being confident and being comfortable in your own skin and the person that you are.”
Somebody that you can go shopping with?
“Definitely,” he says. “Somebody that can help me [shop]. I love looking and seeing what kind of shoes women wear. I think that tells me if a person knows what they’re doing. To me, shoes are…” Kemp trails off. “If I like your shoes, and you’re pretty, that’s a good quality. As well as being confident.”
Back at the game, a Pokémon beach ball bounces around, creating a serious scene in the stands. All game long, Dodger fans boo when the beach ball in their section, finally, eventually, goes over the railing, down into the lower sections, the sections closer to the field, where the seats cost more. In the press box, one writer is writing about Dodgers Assistant GM Logan White for ESPNLA. The Yahoo! Sports guy has a tin of Copenhagan snuff next to his computer. Nancy Bea plays the seventh inning stretch.
The game itself has gotten more intense. It stays scoreless through nine innings. The Dodgers’ young reliever Josh Lindblom gets through the Astros side pretty easily. When the Dodgers Casey Blake rips a double to right, the Dodgers faithful rise to their feet. Andre Ethier, a fan favorite and a very good hitter, is intentionally walked so as to create force outs at each base4.
Matt Kemp, for the fifth time tonight, steps to the plate. He has the chance, with one swing, to win the game.
“You go out and play,” says Don “Donnie Baseball” Mattingly, the Yankee great who played in the most middling era of Yankee history, when I ask him how Kemp continues to play great baseball on his mediocre team. Mattingly is Kemp’s manager now. “It’s part of the job of professional sports. You’re not always going to end up on that team that’s the top. I’ve had great years on teams that were right there and didn’t quite get there and good years on teams that were bad. I think that it’s definitely tougher when you’re not winning. But that’s part of the challenge of playing—getting ready, because the fans are coming to see you play. You’ve signed a contract with an organization to do the best you can, and I think that’s just the pride in what you do. You have to have respect for the game, respect for your teammates, respect for the organization, and respect for the fans. And I think he’s doing that.”
Respect for the fans. For Kemp, that’s the easy part. A man, with a soul patch, in full regalia—a Dodgers pancho, blue Santa hat, white sunglasses, and, absurdly, a rain stick—stands in the chain furniture store in Redondo. People have waited for nine hours to get Matt Kemp to sign their jerseys, balls, breasts—whatever a Sharpie can write on. Soul patch’s name is Vic “The Brick” and he’s got an AM sports talk radio show with Pat O’Brien, the former host of Access Hollywood. He has introduced Kemp to the crowd this afternoon, and I ask him for a few words on Kemp’s season. “In this season of darkness,” Vic “The Brick” opines, “he takes us to light. In the season of exile, he takes us to freedom. In this season of Dodger devastation, he takes us to hope. He is blossoming before our eyes. We have been one with Matt as a kid growing up in the Dodger organization and to see him blossom like this, especially after last year’s debacle with Rihanna—what he’s done this year with such a lousy team has just been miraculous. For Dodger fans to see Matt at bat is hope. He is light, he is the illumination.”
The illumination, in fact, is up to bat. We’re in extra innnings, no score, and Kemp strides into the batters box, teammate Casey Blake anxiously astride the second base bag. The Houston pitcher, David Carpenter, throws a strike. He throws another. One more strike and I will have a hard time telling this story. Kemp will have had a very dismal night at the plate. Baseball, I will write, is a game of disappointments, where even the mighty can have an off night.
Kemp taps at a cleat with his bat, more a ritual than an actual attempt to dislodge dirt from his shoe. He stretches the bat to tap the front of the plate, another ritual. Carpenter delivers. Kemp’s eyes follow the ball, his body rotating like a powerful centrifuge. Kemp’s bat connects with the ball, and it flutters into right field, dropping into the close-cropped grass. Not a glamorous rip, but a rip nonetheless. It’s just a little, just enough. Blake rounds third and coasts in across home plate. The tie is broken. The game is won. Kemp rounds first base as his teammates rush out to tackle him. Kemp is visibly laughing. Matt Kemp has won the game—he’s encrusted his magazine feature with nothing short of gold.
After the game, I am allowed access into the locker room. The locker room is no man’s land. If I was nine years old, I would be freaking out. There’s James Loney. There’s Juan Uribe. But now, it looks smallish, unassuming. Guys shower and dress. There’s not much interaction between the teammates. A small group of beat writers surround Kemp. I stick my dictaphone into the fray. “It always feels good to get the game-winning hit,” he says when a beat writer pops the question about game-winning hits. “It’s probably one of the most exciting parts of baseball right there, is winning. Being responsible for helping the team win. And that moment is pretty fun.”
I wait for the hacks to clear out and give Matt Kemp a fist bump. He’s having a good year, I think. The Dodgers? Not so much. He is a winner on a losing team. It’s like Vic “The Brick” says: Matt Kemp is the most valuable player on a team in exile. That is to say, the Dodgers are a joke, but Kemp’s still having a laugh.
I ask Matt Kemp if he knew the walk-off hit would make the perfect ending to the article.
“Ha ha,” he says. “I did know that. You came at the right day, man.”
1 “Fernandomania” was a media circus surrounding the Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela in his rookie year. Two months after “The Mexican Sandy Koufax” pitched his major league debut, then-President Ronald Reagan invited him to a luncheon for Mexico’s then-President Jose Lopez Portillo at the White House. 2 A five-tool player can hit for average, has power, can field, has baserunning skills and speed, and has a good throwing arm. Willie Mays was the prime example of this. I, conversely, was a zero-tool player. 3 The Seattle Supersonics packed up house and became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008. They currently have Kevin Durant, basketball’s equivalent of Matt Kemp, on their team. Seattle is none too jazzed about that. 4 Walking Ethier on purpose sets up the possibility that Kemp will ground into a double play—doing so would kill the Dodgers’ rally. Thus, with one swing, Kemp could also be the game’s, and this article’s, goat.