ATLANTA — On a late afternoon in June, Matt Kemp settles into a right-handed batter’s box during SunTrust Park to take his cuts.
The initial few pitches tossed his proceed during batting use finish adult sprinkled in a outfield grass. Then a energy from a 6’4″ Braves left fielder starts to show. Shots from his bat cruise over a outfield wall. One flies over to a right of a 400-foot pointer in right-center. Another lands in a Braves bullpen.
His swings, like his demeanor, are relaxed.
He looks comfortable. Happy. Free to be himself and giveaway of distraction.
At 32, Kemp is carrying his best deteriorate given 2011, when he was 26 and personification for a Dodgers. He’s attack .309 with 12 home runs and 37 RBI—numbers that have him in a running for a starting mark in a All-Star Game. He’s reminding turn fans of a actor who scarcely won a National League triple climax in ’11, when he led a joining with 39 home runs and 126 RBI, finished third with a .324 normal and also stole 40 bases.
Back then, it seemed like he would be a Dodger and a luminary for life.
But life over turn was swirling around him.
There was a publication fodder—like dating Rihanna in 2010. There was a expectations-setting eight-year, $160 million agreement extension. There were a injuries. And afterwards there was a trade to San Diego. The weight gain. Then a second trade, this time to a Braves, and gibberish about his San Diego palace not offered during auction. He certified in a post on the Players’ Tribune that he had “let a large contract, a Hollywood lifestyle, injuries and bad relationships” get to him, that warranted him a “reputation for being selfish, idle 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 mutation in a offseason—is expelling any inkling of those perceptions. He’s hitting. He’s healthy. By all appearances, he’s carrying fun.
And a Braves classification loves him.John Bazemore/Associated Press
“He is one of a leaders,” manager Brian Snitker says. “He is a man in a hall that people respect. … He’s usually a good man to have around.”
It’s simple, Kemp says. He was harm then. He’s not now.
“It was usually unequivocally frustrating,” Kemp says. “It wasn’t fun given infrequently we wasn’t removing a formula that we wanted. we was operative tough and doing what we indispensable to do.
“It’s tough to overcome injuries. It takes time, and once we get past those injuries, afterwards we start to spin some-more successful again, and a certainty spin comes up, and we get that swag that we once had.
“It’d be tough to hear some of a things that competence have been said, like, ‘He mislaid it.’ we didn’t remove it. With injuries and things like that, it’s not easy.”
Kemp is in a Braves clubhouse, absolutely staid in a soothing black leather chair as some teammates circuitously fire pool. Conversations surrounding him yield a pleasing hum.
He looks laid-back, wearing a black T-shirt that reads “EQUALITY” on a front and “42” on a back, in loyalty to Jackie Robinson.
The subject of review is new incidents of injustice in sports. Seventy years after Robinson pennyless a turn tone barrier, it stays one of a game’s constants. The hatred comes in several forms. Trolling on amicable media. Screaming obscenities from a stands. A fan in May uttered a N-word and threw a bag of peanuts during Orioles outfielder Adam Jones.
Kemp acknowledges fans have spewed hatred toward him dating behind to his days in a teenager leagues. He declines to name a cities where it occurred, “but it unequivocally 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 understanding with all a time. Like LeBron said, it doesn’t matter how most people admire you, how most income we have, how famous we are. Racism is still alive. It’s sad. It’s disappointing. we theory it’s something that we theory we have to understanding with. It’s tough to understanding with, nonetheless it’s sad.”
He didn’t compensate courtesy to things like that when he was younger. Maybe it didn’t exist given all he was doing was personification turn and wasn’t nonetheless famous. Maybe he usually didn’t commend it. He’s not sure.
“But when we get comparison we start to realize, like, ‘Dang. They usually unequivocally pronounced that,'” Kemp says. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Growing adult in Midwest City, Oklahoma, Kemp and his cousins were “pretty much” a usually African-Americans on his teams, he says. A two-sport athlete, his basketball teammates teased him for personification baseball—”What are we doing? Why do we have a cleats and a glove? You play basketball,” he recalls them saying—as football and hoops were some-more renouned where he lived.
“[My friends] never came to games,” Kemp says. “They didn’t know how good we was. They didn’t know that a scouts were entrance to see me play.”
He’s shown a print of himself from his childhood.
He says he’s not certain how aged he was, nonetheless a design depicts him holding a bat and holding a strong cut—”I don’t know if we was swatting flies. Hopefully we don’t pitch during pitches like that now,” he wisecracks—with a demeanour of integrity on his immature face, prolonged before a glitz and a glorious ever entered his life.
“You demeanour during a design like that, and that’s like—that’s me as a child forgetful about personification baseball, and now I’m vital that dream,” Kemp says. “Not a lot of people can contend they’re vital their dream.”
Kemp grew adult in a single-parent household, with his mom, Judy Henderson, a nurse. Even nonetheless Atlanta is some-more than 800 miles away, it was easy for him and a cousin to get bending on a Braves, whose games were promote on TBS.
“We, like, lived for a Braves,” Kemp says. “We’d come home after school, spin on a TV and watch a Braves play turn games. It was a best thing in a world.”
The dream became discernible in 2003, when a Dodgers drafted Kemp in a sixth turn out of high school. Three years later, he was personification during Dodger Stadium. The lights seem to gleam brighter in Hollywood, and he showed signs of apropos a budding luminary in 2009, when he strike .297 with 26 home runs and 101 RBI and won his initial Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
His marquee deteriorate was in 2011. He finished second to Ryan Braun in a MVP race, nonetheless after Braun’s successive PED admission, many consider Kemp should have perceived a award. As a satisfaction prize, he did win his second Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards that year.Getty Images
Life was fast-paced. He ascended a conform ladder, seen as one of a best-dressed players in baseball. Paparazzi surrounded him when he antiquated Rihanna in 2010. His average dipped to .249 that season, nonetheless he still strike 28 home runs.
Fast brazen to 7 years after in Atlanta, with a contributor perplexing to tiptoe around a Rihanna doubt with Kemp. It elicits a giggle from him.
“I consider that life. That’s usually partial of L.A.,” Kemp says. “You’re in an attention where we accommodate famous people. You have famous friends. That’s usually partial of being in L.A. we mean, that took a small removing used to, nonetheless a injuries were something we was never used to. That was harder on me that anything.”
The injuries. There were many of them. A snapshot:
Kemp had dual stints on a infirm list for hamstring injuries in 2012. The initial one finished his aria of 399 uninterrupted games, that during a time was a longest aria by an active player. In late August, he harmed his left shoulder after crashing into a wall during Coors Field, nonetheless he continued to play. In a offseason, Kemp underwent medicine to correct a ripped labrum and repairs to his rotator cuff. Doctors told him not to pitch a bat until January.
Kemp done trips to a DL in 2013 for a right hamstring aria and corner inflammation in a surgically remade shoulder. His lapse to a lineup that Jul lasted for one game, as he suffered a left ankle damage when shifting into home plate, a play in that Kemp later said he wasn’t using hard. He headed behind to a DL.
Kemp returned in mid-September, nonetheless it was a brief stay. He missed a diversion after in a month given of tenderness in his left ankle and was ruled was out for a playoffs. Kemp had a teenager surgical procession to purify adult his left shoulder and also underwent microfracture medicine on a ankle. He eventually played usually 73 games in 2013, and he would start a 2014 deteriorate on a infirm list.Nick Wass/Associated Press
Through it all, a low indicate was pang a ankle damage and eventually wanting surgery, Kemp says.
“My shoulder was tough, nonetheless we consider a ankle was a toughest given we was used to being a speed guy, hidden bases,” he says. “Now it’s not as easy to do that given my ankle doesn’t concede me to be as quick as we once was. But I’ve usually got to understanding with it.”
In 2014, his final deteriorate with Los Angeles, then-manager Don Mattingly changed Kemp out of core field, initial putting him during left and afterwards after in right. After a season, a Dodgers traded him to San Diego. While he put adult plain numbers (.265 with 23 home runs and 100 RBI in 2015, and .268 with 35 HRs and 108 RBI in 2016), he was a man with a extensive damage story and a outrageous paycheck personification for a bad team.
His huge 2011 debate continued to get serve divided in a rearview mirror.
2011 was also a year when Braves initial baseman Freddie Freeman, who was a rookie, initial met Kemp.
“He was on another level,” Freeman recalls. “Every time he got adult to a plate, we was like, ‘Oh no, here it comes.'”
Through a mutual friend, Melvin Upton Jr., who played for both a Braves (2013-14) and a Padres (2015 by partial of 2016), Freeman and Kemp hung out a integrate of times. Since Kemp arrived in Atlanta, he and Freeman have grown close. Freeman calls Kemp’s celebrity “infectious.”
“It’s a good personality,” Freeman says. “He draws people to him, and we usually wish to be around him. Every day, apparently when I’m healthy, we would go get a Starbucks together, we go out to a margin together, we do flattering most all together. …
“He wants to win. He works tough each singular day, and that rubs off on other people.”Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Kemp’s power is visible. But so is a joy, that he credits to his teammate and friend.
“Honestly, we know who has a lot to do with that is Freddie,” Kemp says. “I’ve played with a lot of guys that like to have fun and fun around, nonetheless he’s usually one man that—I overtly never see him, like, mad.”
The chemistry worked in a lineup, too. In a 56 games he played with a Braves in 2016, Kemp strike .280 with 12 home runs and had an OPS of .855.
“It was great,” Snitker says. “You get a guy, a middle-of-the-order lineup man like that, he was a acquire addition. It extended a lineup, kind of pennyless adult all a left-handers we had going.”
With Kemp on a team, opponents could no longer “pick and choose” who they pitched to. “He legitimized what we had going on,” Snitker says.
But not all was perfect. At a finish of a 2016 season, Kemp wasn’t always finishing games, personification 7 innings before being transposed for defensive reasons in left field.
“Every time that happened to him, he’d come adult to me in a cave and say, ‘This is embarrassing. we don’t wish this to occur anymore,'” Freeman says.
Heading into a offseason, Kemp was healthy, that hadn’t happened mostly in a final few years. He took advantage of it and got to work, observant there were “no limits.”
When asked what was a matter for change, Kemp all nonetheless shrugged it off.
“I haven’t unequivocally had too many offseasons where we didn’t have to rehab anything,” Kemp says. “That’s a large difference. You know, if we go into an offseason harm and we have to rehab a whole offseason, that’s usually unequivocally frustrating. we was flattering most means to work out and do whatever it is we wanted to do.”Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Snitker says Kemp told a group during a finish of a 2016 season, “You’re going to see a new me when we get here.”
“And he did,” Snitker says. “Obviously, he was unequivocally dedicated to that and worked his tail off. It was genuine lovely when we came in and saw a guy’s loyalty to what we’re perplexing to do, so it was unequivocally good to see, and it told we a lot about a person.”
Freeman got updates from Kemp during a offseason—sometimes in mid-workout.
“I got FaceTimed each week…usually when he was on a elliptical,” Freeman says. “He was doing two-a-days. He would do lifting in a morning, and he would come behind and do conditioning after in a day.”
When Freeman was with his mother in Bal Harbour, Florida, celebrating their anniversary, he ran into Kemp. The change was already noticeable.
“You could tell after a month-and-a-half, he was already looking different,” Freeman says. “People were seeking me what was he looking like, and we wouldn’t tell them. we said, ‘You guys can usually find out for yourself,’ and he came to open training apparently so most better. we consider he had mislaid like 25 pounds.”
Kemp’s work continued by open training and into a season, and a formula are clear in his numbers. He started a deteriorate 8-for-16 with 4 doubles and dual home runs in his initial 4 games. He done a brief outing to a 10-day DL for a parsimonious right hamstring in April, and he missed one diversion in Jun with left hamstring tightness. Aside from that, he has picked adult where he left off. On Apr 29 during Milwaukee, he became a initial Brave to strike 3 home runs in a diversion given Mark Teixeira did it in 2008. He strike his 250th career home run on May 31.
Kemp says there’s been no change in approach. It’s usually a byproduct of being healthy and putting in a effort.
“He was initial there, final to leave, was unequivocally unchanging in all his workouts, and he was always out there doing his drills, in a weight room, examination room, practices, everything,” Snitker says of Kemp’s open training work. “It was unequivocally good to see—and even now. we mean, a man shows adult to play each day. That’s a thing. He’s sealed on to play a games, so he is a man we can count on each day. You know he’s going to be there for you.”Dylan Buell/Getty Images
The residence in San Diego hasn’t sole yet, and Kemp doesn’t know if there will be another auction. These days, his home bottom is in Prosper, Texas, about 3 hours divided from Midwest City.
How prolonged he stays in Atlanta stays to be seen. Despite his production, a Braves are underneath .500 and are struggling to keep gait with a Nationals in a NL East. Could Kemp get dealt for a third time? Speculation is solemnly heating up, with Bob Nightingale of USA Today mentioning him as one of a tip 25 players who could switch teams this summer.
But even as a group rebuilds, Kemp is a good fit in Atlanta. He helped strengthen a Braves’ cornerstone, Freeman, in a lineup—before Freeman fractured his wrist in May—and his teammates are beholden he’s there.
“It’s good to be means to have a man like him—and Freddie and some of a other guys—but he’s kind of my large brother,” shortstop Dansby Swanson says. “I feel like he’s always got my back. He kind of, like, protects me. … He’ll take me out to cooking when we’re on a highway and kind of usually gives we that family thing. We’ve been means to strike it off unequivocally well, and we feel like we can go to him and trust him with a lot of things. So he’s special to have around, and we am unequivocally very, unequivocally beholden to have him.”
Will this get absolved of a critics? Even if it doesn’t, Freeman doesn’t consider that factors into Kemp’s mindset.
“We play in a diversion of what-have-you-done-for-me-now, and a thing is final year people pronounced he wasn’t unequivocally good, nonetheless he had 35 home runs and [close to] 110 RBI,” Freeman says. “That doesn’t happen. He’s a superstar. He’s been a luminary his whole career.
“After his 2011 year, he had shoulder medicine and he dealt with hamstring problems. It’s tough to contest during a high spin when you’re not feeling good each day. … we don’t consider he’s perplexing to put divided what people are saying; he was usually doing him. And if it comes along a proceed that it shuts people adult in a process…”
Freeman pauses, and afterwards says, “But that’s not his ultimate goal.
“He’s here perplexing to win and get behind to a playoffs given he hasn’t been there in a few years either, usually like we haven’t. That’s his categorical goal. It’s not about shutting people up, and people can contend whatever they wish about him, me…that usually comes with a territory. If we go 0-for-4, afterwards they contend we should be benched and things like that, nonetheless if we get dual hits a subsequent day, we’re a biggest people ever. That usually comes with it.
“But he’s not perplexing to do that. He’s usually perplexing to do his pursuit and assistance win games.”
There’s another component as well, and it’s manifest when Kemp’s megawatt grin is held on TV broadcasts. He’s carrying fun, suggestive to children who are personification simply for a adore of a game.
“I’ve been personification turn given we was 4 years old,” Kemp says. “It’s ostensible to be fun. It’s not ostensible to be super-duper serious. we mean, we get critical during times, and of march we get rival and we wish to win, nonetheless we consider a lot of people forget about carrying fun.”
Jill Martin is a sports news editor for CNN. Follow her on Twitter: @ByJillMartin.