By late afternoon, most of the players have already left the Dodgers' spring training campus at Camelback Ranch in Arizona, but Matt Kemp is still standing. After signing autographs for fans, he smiles and holds the door to let staff pass through. He's been training since dawn, and when nobody's paying attention, he rubs his eyes and stretches his neck. He's tired.
But he's not complaining. Instead, he's giving everyone in the building everything they want from him -- with, yes, a smile.
Last year things were about as bleak as could be for the Dodgers. The team finished third in its division and, off the field, the McCourt drama weighed heavily on fans and players alike. Amidst the chaos, though, Matt Kemp got better. Much better. Not that he was a slouch before -- but in 2011, the 6-foot-3-inch center fielder became one of the most dominant players in the game. He knocked in 39 home runs and 126 RBIs, batted third in the All-Star Game's starting lineup and finished second in the National League's MVP voting.
Kemp is the clear favorite for this year's MVP Award, and fortunately for L.A., he'll be playing as a Dodger. In November, the 27-year-old signed a $160 million, eight-year contract extension, a franchise record.
"It's definitely a blessing," he says. "You dream about getting to take care of your family for the rest of their lives, not letting your mom work."
He was briefly a tabloid fixture while dating pop star Rihanna, but in person Kemp comes off as soft-spoken, maybe even a bit shy. He also seems like a genuinely good guy. Celebrities frequently visit hospitals, but Kemp continues to offer encouragement to patients and their families long after the cameras are gone.
Donating to food banks isn't enough; sometimes Kemp shows up to assist with deliveries, too. "I've been put in a position to help bless others, and I think it's kinda my job to go out there, and if somebody needs help in any type of situation, I'm there to help," he says.
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Still, it's his small-town Oklahoma niceness, his spirited opinions on music, fashion and Chick-fil-A, and those personal replies on Twitter that people really connect with. He's happy to be approached by fans: "They help get you to where you are and where you want to be," he says.
With L.A. royalty Magic Johnson as the face of the team's new ownership, fans are again filling the stands. "We had some tough times the past two years," Kemp admits. "The Dodger fans have definitely stood behind us. This year we'll have to give them something to really cheer about."
Kemp came up through the team's farm system, and now it looks like he'll be in L.A. through at least 2020. So how does he feel about being a Dodger for life? "It would be pretty dope," Kemp says. "I've been to New York, I've been to Miami, I've been to all those big cities. Not just because I play in L.A. -- L.A. is my favorite city. I love livin' in L.A."