Most popular stories from USA TODAY

  1. HF Test1857.19:09:53.8198231
Dodgers' Kemp plays with chip on shoulder
Updated 5/11/2012 4:22 PM ET
Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, with a bite of egg whites and turkey in his mouth, swigs a large glass of imported water and allows the words to leave his tongue without the slightest fear of consequence.

"I want to be the best," he says. "I want to be the best center fielder who ever played this game. Well, not just the best center fielder.

"I want to be the best player that ever played this game."

PHOTOS: Kemp - Dodgers star and Hollywood celebrity PHOTOS: Baseball's Triple Crown winners

Kemp pauses, realizing the power of his words.

"I don't play this game to be mediocre," he says. "I don't want to be just all right.

"I play this game to be the best. That's not being cocky. That's just being confident."

Kemp, 27, is the face of the Dodgers organization, symbolizing their fall and return to greatness. Nearly run out of town two years ago, he now is their greatest and most popular player, hitting a National League-leading .385 with an NL-best 12 homers and 27 RBI.

Monday, he caught the ceremonial first pitch from franchise great Don Newcombe in the Dodgers' first home game under new ownership that includes Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson, seated by the on-deck circle.

No one is more exhilarated by new management than Kemp. Beaten down by his own organization in 2010, scorned by management, he dreaded going to work to play the game he grew up loving.

"That was a bad year," Kemp says. "Everything was just so out of whack. It's hard to play when you're not having fun or you're not happy. I wasn't happy at all that year, and it showed."

These days, Kemp wakes up to study videos of the day's opposing pitcher, shows up early to the stadium, encourages his teammates from the first to last pitch and is ready to do it all again the next day. He nearly broke 160-pound shortstop Dee Gordon in half last week in Denver when Gordon hit his first major league homer. And he had his teammates falling out laughing after his walk-off homer against the Washington Nationals, doing the "Cooking Dance" by rapper Lil B as he approached home.

Kemp, who nearly won the Triple Crown last year by hitting .324 with 39 homers and 126 RBI to go along with 40 stolen bases, concedes he was heartbroken finishing runner-up to the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun in NL MVP voting. He said he stared at his phone for 30 minutes, awaiting news that never came.

He vows to make it easier on voters this year, thinking he can become the first 50-homer, 50-steal player ever.

"I'm saying it," Kemp says, "because I believe it."

Kemp's picking up a whole lot of believers, becoming the fourth player to finish April batting at least .400 with more than 10 homers and 20 RBI. He enters today's game ranked among the top four in 13 offensive categories.

"He's a monster, that's the bottom line," says Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who managed the Dodgers when Kemp was in the minors. "To see what his character has become, and his energy on the field … I didn't see that two years ago.

"I see a completely different human being."

"I couldn't be happier for him," says Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols, a three-time NL MVP. "There were a lot of people that doubted him, didn't believe in him. Everybody was on him. I don't hear anyone talking (expletive) now."

Resisting L.A.'s allure

Kemp has GQ looks and a Hollywood smile, a brand-new Bentley, an Aston Martin and a Range Rover among his fleet of cars. He has a closet full of designer suits and, at last count, more than 300 pairs of shoes.

"For me, if you look good, you'll feel good," Kemp says. "And if you feel good, you're going to play good. Right now, I couldn't be feeling any better."

Despite the expensive toys and the access to Hollywood stars, Kemp resists the lure of the Los Angeles nightlife.

"There are times you want a girlfriend or whatever, but right now," Kemp says, "it's all about baseball. That's all I'm concentrating on. I definitely want to get married. And I want to have kids after I get married. And I want to get married once, not five or six or 10 times."

This baseball gig has put a serious cramp in his dating life, particularly in the aftermath of dating singer Rihanna for nearly a year in 2010. You want to find him at night? He'll be at his rented home near Beverly Hills, where his mom, Judy Henderson, will greet you.

Kemp, raised in Oklahoma by Henderson, says simply, "Don't get me wrong. Los Angeles is a great city, but the lifestyle out there is not normal. You can get yourself in trouble out there, man. L.A. is pretty loud. There are a lot of people out there that have ulterior motives."

Hollywood can wait. Kemp has games to play. He has played 396 consecutive games, the longest among any active player.

"Juan Pierre, that's my dawg. He's the reason why I want to play every single game," Kemp said of his former teammate, now with the Philadelphia Phillies. "He always used to tell me you're doing your team no good sitting on the bench. He's the reason I want to play all 162."

Said Pierre: "We used to talk all of the time, but I didn't know if it registered or not. You can sure tell it did. He's the best in the game, and he's showing it."

Playing blame game

Kemp won't waste his time holding grudges, but he's driven by the memories.

Two years ago, the Dodgers fueled whispers that Kemp was one of the game's biggest underachievers. Coaches Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa were open in their disdain, thinking he cared more about the Hollywood scene than baseball. Manager Joe Torre benched him and general manager Ned Colletti called him out in a radio interview.

"I know Matt hated me," Schaefer said, "but I would have hated myself if I didn't say anything. His work habits were terrible. It looked like he stopped trying. I know he was a good person; the effort wasn't there."

Said Kemp's agent, former 20-game winner Dave Stewart: "These guys can say anything they want now, but they attacked him. There was a lot going on, a lot going wrong with that team, but they had open season on Matt."

Kemp felt everyone was blaming him for the Dodgers' fall from winning back-to-back division titles to a fourth-place finish. He hit a career-low .249 with 170 strikeouts but still had 28 homers and 89 RBI.

"As his mom, I was very worried," says Henderson, a nurse. "I wanted to fix it, but I didn't know how. You can't just stop loving a sport, but there were a lot of distractions, negativity."

Schaefer says Newcombe, the Dodgers' 1956 NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, might have been the real hero.

"It was not the case of being a peace-maker," Newcombe says, who has Kemp's picture on his mantel, alongside President Obama's. "I wanted Matt to be at peace. We had to make him understand that whatever was bothering him, he had a job to do with the Dodgers."

Stewart says he would have requested a trade if the coaching staff stayed intact. But Torre retired at the end of 2010 and was replaced by Don Mattingly. Bowa and Schaefer departed and were replaced by Davey Lopes and Trey Hillman.

"I don't want to go through the details, but Matt wasn't happy," said Mattingly, who summoned Kemp to Los Angeles for a talk in January 2011. "Matt made the decision that he wanted to be a great player."

Kemp moved to Arizona, just far enough away from the distractions of Los Angeles. He entered a rigorous six-day-a-week training program and lost 20 pounds. He came to spring training focused, telling Newcombe he would win the MVP Award for him.

"It had nothing to do with (dating singer) Rihanna or any of that," said close friend and former major leaguer Junior Spivey. "He went back to what that got him there, and being the Matt Kemp that was so hungry. He's a fighter, and that dude does not like losing. He wants to win more than anyone."

And now he has become the player Schaefer envisioned.

"I wouldn't have wasted my time with him if I didn't believe in him," Schaefer says.

'Help along the way'

Kemp, raised by his mom and grandmother in Oklahoma, says basketball was always his first love. He can still light it up on the basketball court, and is a diehard Lakers fan. Yet, it was his dad who convinced him to play baseball. It was Spivey who taught him how to train for baseball. Former batting champion Gary Sheffield taught him how to power inside pitches.

Hunter helped Kemp's maturation by having him live with him at his Dallas-area home. Lopes taught him how to use his speed on the basepaths. Stewart, Kemp says, helped him become a man.

"I've had a whole lot of help along the way, a lot of big brothers," says Kemp, who has also had his father, Carl Kemp, in his life. Carl and Judy never married one another but have remained friends.

"Growing up, my mom didn't have the most money, but she always made me feel like everything was OK," Kemp says. "Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. It was a real group effort to take care of my little bad butt."

The Dodgers, who resisted overtures to trade him two years ago, feel just as fortunate to have Kemp around. He may not have a "C" on his jersey, but there's no question who's the team leader.

He's deeply impressed the sons of major leaguers on his team: Outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. raves about his heart; infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. gushes about his soul; and Gordon (son of former pitcher Tom Gordon) calls him his guardian angel.

Kemp even played the role of recruiter last winter, attempting to persuade free agent first baseman Prince Fielder to join the Dodgers.

"I tried, I tried real hard, I wanted him over here bad," Kemp says. "The Detroit thing, I don't know where that came from. He had $214 million reasons to go there.''

Kemp, still a kid at heart, grew up idolizing Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sheffield, and he says Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera has become his favorite player to watch. He was a Braves' fan growing up, and his mom still has all of his Braves' jerseys, jackets and hats. She even saved the inspirational notes he scribbled and posted on his wall, quoting everyone from Jackie Robinson to Tommy Lasorda to Satchel Paige.

"Maybe there was a time when he got caught up in the L.A. lifestyle a little bit," Lopes says. "Let's face it, he was doing some pretty good things, on and off the field. How many people would not have acted the same way? But whatever it was, I sure don't see it now.''

Kemp realizes he has a lifetime to enjoy the Hollywood scene. He is not with Rihanna anymore. These days, his full-time relationship is with baseball.

"The thing with Rihanna was extremely hard," his mom says. "I remember saying before (the relationship) happened. I said, 'You realize your life wont be private anymore.' He said, "I'll be OK. I'll be fine.'

"But I don't think he realized it would be like it was, the enormity of it. He was saying, 'Oh my goodness, I can't go anywhere without cameras following me.' That was hard for him. He's very private. He doesn't want his life to be on TMZ. Whoever he falls in love with, it would be nice to be just an ordinary person."

Says Kemp: "Don't get me wrong, Los Angeles is a great city, but the lifestyle out there is not normal. You can get yourself in trouble out there, man. L.A. is pretty loud. There are a lot of people out there that have ulterior motives."

Kemp exhales, knowing he has found peace. Never has he been more relaxed. Never has he been more confident. And never has he been wealthier, signing an eight-year, $160 million extension last winter.

"When I didn't get that MVP last year, I was hurt, real hurt," Kemp says. "But it almost makes you stronger. It was like God was saying, 'Nah, we're not going to give it to you this year. We're going to make you want it even more.'

"Well, I really want it now. It's not just the award. I want to put up those big numbers so I can help lead my team to the World Series.

"I really believe we're going to do that. I know we can.

"Again, that's not being cocky.

"That's just having confidence."

Posted 5/10/2012 10:47 PM ET
Updated 5/11/2012 4:22 PM ET
Dodgers' Matt Kemp says he was heartbroken when he finished runner-up in NL MVP voting last season.
By Gary A. Vasquez, US PRESSWIRE
Dodgers' Matt Kemp says he was heartbroken when he finished runner-up in NL MVP voting last season.

Copyright © 2011 All rights reserved. Users of this site agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights (Terms Updated 2011)