On a late afternoon in June, Matt Kemp settles into the right-handed batter’s box at SunTrust Park to take his cuts.
The first few pitches tossed his way during batting practice end up sprinkled in the outfield grass. Then the power from the 6’4″ Braves left fielder starts to show. Shots from his bat sail over the outfield wall. One flies over to the right of the 400-foot sign in right-center. Another lands in the Braves bullpen.
His swings, like his demeanor, are relaxed.
He looks comfortable. Happy. Free to be himself and free of distraction.
At 32, Kemp is having his best season since 2011, when he was 26 and playing for the Dodgers. He’s hitting .309 with 12 home runs and 37 RBI—numbers that have him in the running for a starting spot in the All-Star Game. He’s reminding baseball fans of the player who nearly won the National League triple crown in ’11, when he led the league with 39 home runs and 126 RBI, finished third with a .324 average and also stole 40 bases.
Back then, it seemed like he would be a Dodger and a superstar for life.
But life beyond baseball was swirling around him.
There was the tabloid fodder—like dating Rihanna in 2010. There was the expectations-setting eight-year, $160 million contract extension. There were the injuries. And then there was the trade to San Diego. The weight gain. Then a second trade, this time to the Braves, and chatter about his San Diego mansion not selling at auction. He admitted in a post on the Players’ Tribune that he had “let a big contract, the Hollywood lifestyle, injuries and bad relationships” get to him, which earned him a “reputation for being selfish, lazy and a bad teammate.”
He was trending dangerously toward another label: bust.
But not so fast. Kemp’s story wasn’t finished. Not yet.
His resurgence in Atlanta—and his jaw-dropping transformation in the offseason—is eliminating any inkling of those perceptions. He’s hitting. He’s healthy. By all appearances, he’s having fun.
And the Braves organization loves him.
“He is one of our leaders,” manager Brian Snitker says. “He is a guy in the clubhouse that people respect. … He’s just a great guy to have around.”
It’s simple, Kemp says. He was hurt then. He’s not now.
“It was just very frustrating,” Kemp says. “It wasn’t fun because sometimes I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted. I was working hard and doing what I needed to do.
“It’s hard to overcome injuries. It takes time, and once you get past those injuries, then you start to become more successful again, and the confidence level comes up, and you get that swag that you once had.
“It’d be tough to hear some of the things that might have been said, like, ‘He lost it.’ I didn’t lose it. With injuries and things like that, it’s not easy.”
Kemp is in the Braves clubhouse, comfortably settled in a soft black leather chair as some teammates nearby shoot pool. Conversations surrounding him provide a pleasant hum.
He looks laid-back, wearing a black T-shirt that reads “EQUALITY” on the front and “42” on the back, in homage to Jackie Robinson.
The topic of conversation is recent incidents of racism in sports. Seventy years after Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, it remains one of the game’s constants. The hate comes in various forms. Trolling on social media. Screaming obscenities from the stands. A fan in May uttered the N-word and threw a bag of peanuts at Orioles outfielder Adam Jones.
Kemp acknowledges fans have spewed hate toward him dating back to his days in the minor leagues. He declines to name the cities where it occurred, “but it definitely happens, for sure,” he says.
“That’s not new to me or to LeBron or to Adam,” Kemp says. “It’s something that you’ve got to deal with all the time. Like LeBron said, it doesn’t matter how much people admire you, how much money you have, how famous you are. Racism is still alive. It’s sad. It’s disappointing. I guess it’s something that I guess we have to deal with. It’s tough to deal with, but it’s sad.”
He didn’t pay attention to things like that when he was younger. Maybe it didn’t exist because all he was doing was playing ball and wasn’t yet famous. Maybe he just didn’t recognize it. He’s not sure.
“But when you get older you start to realize, like, ‘Dang. They just really said that,'” Kemp says. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Growing up in Midwest City, Oklahoma, Kemp and his cousins were “pretty much” the only African-Americans on his teams, he says. A two-sport athlete, his basketball teammates teased him for playing baseball—”What are you doing? Why do you have the cleats and a glove? You play basketball,” he recalls them saying—as football and hoops were more popular where he lived.
“[My friends] never came to games,” Kemp says. “They didn’t know how good I was. They didn’t know that the scouts were coming to see me play.”
He’s shown a photo of himself from his childhood.
He says he’s not sure how old he was, but the picture depicts him holding a bat and taking a mighty cut—”I don’t know if I was swatting flies. Hopefully I don’t swing at pitches like that now,” he wisecracks—with a look of determination on his young face, long before the glitz and the glamour ever entered his life.
“You look at a picture like that, and that’s like—that’s me as a kid dreaming about playing baseball, and now I’m living that dream,” Kemp says. “Not a lot of people can say they’re living their dream.”
Kemp grew up in a single-parent household, with his mom, Judy Henderson, a nurse. Even though Atlanta is more than 800 miles away, it was easy for him and a cousin to get hooked on the Braves, whose games were broadcast on TBS.
“We, like, lived for the Braves,” Kemp says. “We’d come home after school, turn on the TV and watch the Braves play baseball games. It was the best thing in the world.”
The dream became tangible in 2003, when the Dodgers drafted Kemp in the sixth round out of high school. Three years later, he was playing at Dodger Stadium. The lights seem to shine brighter in Hollywood, and he showed signs of becoming a budding superstar in 2009, when he hit .297 with 26 home runs and 101 RBI and won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
His marquee season was in 2011. He finished second to Ryan Braun in the MVP race, but after Braun’s subsequent PED admission, many think Kemp should have received the award. As a consolation prize, he did win his second Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards that year.
Life was fast-paced. He ascended the fashion ladder, seen as one of the best-dressed players in baseball. Paparazzi surrounded him when he dated Rihanna in 2010. His average dipped to .249 that season, but he still hit 28 home runs.
Fast forward to seven years later in Atlanta, with a reporter trying to tiptoe around the Rihanna question with Kemp. It elicits a laugh from him.