In Defense of Matt Kemp

Matt Kemp
Matt Kemp
David Blumenkrantz/Arroyo Seco Journal

With apologies to Conan O'Brien, Don Mattingly is to the Dodgers as Mike D'Antoni is to the Lakers.

Yes, that is the most insulting thing I could come up with about the Dodgers' skipper without resorting to name calling. Yes, I'm aware that as one of Mattingly's harshest critics, I may be perceived as somewhat lacking creditability on the matter.

And yes, the Mattingly-to-D'Antoni analogy is a less than a perfect one. But it's a suitable enough place to start an examination of how Donnie Baseball manages his wounded men, or "charges," as I call them.

And while it may be an exaggeration to say that D'Antoni "ruined" the Lakers' franchise player, he certainly contributed to Kobe Bryant's fall by running him into the ground in the spring of 2013. Sure, Kobe might've ruptured his 34-year-old Achilles tendon on less than the fourth-in-the-league 3,013 minutes his coach subjected him to that season. But given that the Warriors' David Lee was the only other man north of 30 in the NBA's top 20 in minutes played - turning 30 during the postseason, at that - what does common sense tell you?

Matt Kemp's decline from near-MVP franchise player to whatever he is now began in 2012. He felt tightness in his left hamstring during the first game of a gloomy weekend series with the Cubs, May 5, 2012 in Chicago. With the balky hammy and on a wet track, Mattingly held his center fielder back for six innings of the Saturday game, but pinch hit him in the seventh, allowing Kemp to get to 392 consecutive games played.

He was back in the lineup May 7 and started the next six games, reaching 399 straight on May 13, when up popped the devil in what has become the Dodgers house of hell: Coors Field in Denver. Kemp tweaked the same left hamstring running out a third inning grounder and hit the disabled list the next day.

After the minimum 15 days on the DL, Kemp returned for one full game only to re-injure the hammy an inning into a loss to the Brewers in Los Angeles on May 30. This time he sat out six weeks.

After playing in two of the first three games upon his return July 13, Kemp was penciled in to start the next 30 in a row before finally getting a break on August 16. He pinch hit in that one and started the next 10, which took him right up to his infamous introduction to the Coors right center field fence on August 28.

You may recall that even after the violent collision, Kemp, for several moments fallen in a heap on the track but no doubt able to answer the "what city are you in?" question, was left in the game by his direct supervisor until he could no longer stand. Kemp begged off a play later after being unable to retrieve a fly ball to short right center.

While the labrum injury which would require post-season surgery would be discovered later, at the time the focus was on Kemp's knee and jaw. He sat for two games, played the next eight, rested another two before finishing the season with new a streak of 23 straight.

Completely forgotten was that Kemp dealt with the very same left hamstring a year earlier, leaving a game in Colorado with tightness after a double on June 19, 2011. With a consecutive games played streak at all of 269 - or about 10 percent of Cal Ripken's - Kemp played the next day.

Player agent Dave Stewart is 100 percent correct in defense of his client. "[Kemp] gave up his body for the organization." Stewart is right when he says "two years ago this guy ran into a wall, literally, for the ball club."

Look, Don Mattingly is not responsible for the various woes of any one particular player, nor did he cause Kemp's physical issues directly. There was nothing intentional, obviously.

But couldn't the skipper have been more careful with his star performer? Shouldn't Mattingly have exercised more caution, and maybe even a little wisdom with the lineup card, especially given his experience with injuries suffered during his own playing career?

Didn't he play a role? Is the "he said he was fine" line really acceptable? What does common sense tell you?

Perhaps the media's continued pointing to fundamentals and L.A.'s ranking 27th in defense this year led Mattingly to take a sudden interest in fielding, and better late than never. But it's team fielding that is the problem, and you have to demand better play to get the required results, from the opening of Spring Training straight on through to October. Two weeks in February will not suffice. In other words, drill baby drill.

More importantly, the singling out of Kemp, almost to the point of public shaming, was unfair. Mattingly has a penchant for calling out players, usually one per instance and in a high-profile manner. Last year around this time it was Andre Ethier. In the aftermath of the 2013 National League Championship Series, Yasiel Puig took his turn.

If you think this is some Zen, Phil Jackson-like approach to management that's your prerogative. But the next time a Dodger outfielder is late to depart for the airport, someone might just say, "I don't know where he is; have you checked under the bus?"

This latest controversy has been mitigated to a fair degree because of an ankle injury to Carl Crawford. But the drama was unnecessary and created entirely by the manager. If Kemp hasn't taken it well, or there has been "grumbling in the clubhouse," as one reporter has suggested, that's a perception with no evidence to back it up.

For decades in Los Angeles, skippers and general managers have excused player unhappiness about a demotion as par for the course, and actually welcomed it. If a player isn't upset about a benching or a trip to the minors, there's something wrong with him.

Or so the thinking goes. So Kemp isn't smiling enough? Give me a break.

I have no idea if Kemp will ever regain superstar status and perform to 2011 levels. Maybe not, but it's called a "career year" for a reason. It happens once. Kemp is still the "Bison," he's still a true Dodger, and he really has run into a wall for the organization. He doesn't need artificial ones placed in front of him by his manager. He's earned the benefit of the doubt.

And remember, glove conquers all.

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