In his first game at San Diego since the Padres traded him to the Braves, Matt Kemp went 0-for-4 with a strikeout Tuesday including 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position. This pleased what seemed to be a majority of fans in attendance at Petco Park, judging from the boisterous round of boos Kemp received upon being introduced each time he came to bat.
It was about the only thing to warm the hearts of Padres fans on a night when Braves rookie Sean Newcomb had another and perhaps his best start in a 3-0 Atlanta win.
Kemp used to hurt the Padres a lot during his nine years with the Dodgers before being traded to San Diego before the 2015 season, and he’s been significantly more productive for the Braves since being traded from the Padres to Atlanta in late July 2016, so he couldn’t have been surprised by the reception he received.
And judging from his reaction to questions by a couple of San Diego media members during a rather uncomfortable interview at his locker a few hours before the game, Kemp also didn’t seem surprised by the tone of their questions, several of which stemmed from this “Hello Atlanta” letter published by The Players’ Tribune after the trade to the Braves.
The Padres have had immense roster churn in the past couple of seasons and the only Padre who appeared in both Tuesday’s series-opening loss to the Braves and Kemp’s last game for the Padres was All-Star Wil Myers, who was asked by San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Bryce Miller to comment on Kemp upon his first trip back to play in San Diego.
“Matt Kemp is a guy who was born to hit,” Myers said. “He’s going to put up offensive numbers every single year. He’s going to hit 30 (homers) and drive in 100, because those are the things he takes pride in.”
What about defense, Miller asked. “Dude can hit,” Myers said, “and that’s all that matters.”
Those of us who cover the Braves have had no problems with Kemp since he arrived in Atlanta last summer. He’s not the most available player in terms of interviews, but he’s there far more often than not when we want to speak to him, and he can be playful, funny and engaging with reporters, as he is seemingly all the time with teammates.
That’s the most important thing, by the way, not how he interacts with us reporters, but with teammates and coaches. He’s been embraced by teammates such as Freddie Freeman from Day 1 in Atlanta, and his playful, sometimes loud personality has been an integral part of a Braves clubhouse chemistry that every player says has helped them in the past couple of years, both to finish strong in a 2016 season that started in dismal fashion and to overcome some rough patches early this season.
Despite cooling off in June, Kemp still has a .315 average, .356 OBP, and .538 slugging percentage for an .894 OPS, with 32 extra-base hits (12 homers) and 35 RBIs in 63 games. The average would be his highest since 2011, when then-Dodgers center fielder Kemp was the MVP runner-up after hitting .324 with career-bests in homers (39), RBIs (126) and OPS (.986). He was a first-time All-Star and won his second Gold Glove and second Silver Slugger award that year.
His current OPS would be his best since .906 in 2012, when he made his second consecutive All-Star team.
Kemp reported to spring training this year in better shape and started out blazing when the regular season began, hitting an otherworldly .352 with 16 doubles, 10 home runs, 30 RBIs and a .387 OBP, .614 slugging percentage and 1.001 OPS in his first 42 games through June 2, despite an April stint on the disabled list for a hamstring strain.
In his past 21 games beginning June 3, Kemp has hit .227 (17-for-75) with four doubles, two homers, five RBIs, a .284 OBP and .360 slugging percentage (.644 OPS). He has one homer, three RBIs and no multi-hit games in his past 10, but the Braves are 7-3 in those games, another sign of how others in their offense have stepped forward to carry the load on any given night in the absence, figuratively or literally, of the two sluggers in the middle, Kemp and star Freddie Freeman, who’s been out six weeks with a fractured wrist.
With the Padres, Kemp hit .264 with a modest .763 OPS but had 46 homers and 169 RBIs in 254 games. That included 156 games in 2015 after being traded from the Dodgers in the offseason, and 100 games in 2016 before he was traded to the Braves at the end of July when the Braves were looking to dump the toxic contract Hector Olivera and the Padres were ready to move on front Kemp. The Olivera trade – it cost the Braves Alex Wood and Jose Peraza – was the worst the Braves have made in years, but at least the Braves ended up a year later with Kemp, albeit after taking on more money to cover about $18 million annually of his $21.5 million salary in a contract that runs through 2019.
But getting back to that contentious interview at Kemp’s locker Tuesday, which could be used as a textbook example of why some players develop a bad relationship with the media and have a hard time changing their attitude toward us once they do start to develop an us-versus-them view of the situation. I’ve seen it many times before with players on teams I’ve covered in Miami and Atlanta, how a player can come to that team or go to another team and I’ll hear about what a bad guy he was – or in a couple of cases, what a good guy he was – when we experienced none of that while he was with the team I covered. Bobby Bonilla, for example: Loathsome reputation with the Mets, but a productive, engaging, media-friendly player with the Marlins (having Jim Leyland as manager at that time certainly helped).
Anyway, here’s how the Kemp interview went Tuesday, as a couple of us Atlanta reporters listened in while he got interviewed by a couple of San Diego reporters.
The first question was a standard softball, something along the lines of what it’s like to be back in San Diego
Kemp: “I miss my house, man. I got to sleep in my bed. I was excited. I’m refreshed. Ready to place some baseball.”
Then the tone turned quickly. “When you first got to the Braves, you wrote a piece for (The Players’) Tribune talking about them getting the Matt Kemp of old. Which Matt Kemp did San Diego get for the time you were here?”
“They got a good Matt Kemp. (Laughs.) Y’all are funny, right off the bat. I mean, I came here and I had a couple of injuries, so it was tough for me getting back. The further I get away from my injuries, I feel like the more I get back to (being) myself. I worked hard when I was here. I enjoyed my time when I was here. And I gave San Diego everything I had.”
Were you comfortable being a face guy – at your intro press conference you and (then Padres manager) Buddy Black talked about you being really the face of the organization. Did you like that role, were you comfortable?
“I mean, I’ve played on some teams where I was one of the (main) guys, so it was nothing new for me. I don’t know what else I can say about that.”
In your words in that Players’ Tribune piece, you talked about building a reputation as lazy or a bad teammate. How did you mean that, in the context of San Diego or…
(Kemp begins answer before question finished) “I’ve never considered myself a bad teammate. You can ask the teams I’ve played on. That was something somebody gave me, I don’t know where it came from. But I’ve never been bad teammate, I always had my teammates’ back. I’ve always enjoyed playing this game, I’ve always had fun, and like I said, I enjoyed playing here in San Diego in the time I was here. Beautiful city, great fans. I’m just in Atlanta right now and I’m enjoying myself.”
“We keep asking you questions from the past, is there anything you would have changed from when you were here?”
“No, not at all. I feel like we had some better teams, we could have played a lot better than we did. We didn’t. It is what it is. I’m on the Atlanta Braves now, enjoying myself and having fun playing baseball.”
Kemp was asked for any keys to having such a great start this year
“No, I’m just having fun. I think people have always considered me a slow starter; I don’t know where that came from. I think I’ve only had a couple of seasons where I kind of started off a little slow and finished strong, but it’s good to get off to a good start. I’m just trying to ride this wave and keep it going for the whole year.”
On Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler calling his comments in the Players’ Tribune article “B.S.” and current manager Andy Green taking offense to Kemp implying Atlanta was more of a baseball city than San Diego.
“You (San Diego columnist) just want to talk about drama.”
Columnist: I’m just curious what you think about it.
“Honestly it doesn’t matter to me, I’ve already moved on. Atlanta Braves. Good.”
The Padres changed managers from Bud Black to interim manager Pat Murphy 65 games into Kemp’s only full season with the Padres in 2015, and then to current manager Andy Green after the 2015 season. Kemp was asked to compare Black to the current manager.
“Buddy Black was a great manager. I didn’t have that much time with Murph. I’m with a great manager now (Brian Snitker), a guy that I enjoy playing for…. Are you talking about Andy or the manager I’m playing with now?”
“Andy,” the reporter responded.
“Oh. Well, I didn’t get that much time with him as well, we were only there for three months. But he’s a great communicator, he’s got a lot of knowledge about the game and I’m sure he’s doing some great things over there with those young guys.”
Another question about his current season and what’s different now from when he was in San Diego, what’s contributed to the better production:
“I’m just off to a good start, man. I feel good, having fun.”
With that, Kemp made it clear he’d had about enough of the interview and had other things he wanted to do. And the scrum broke up.
Frankly, about the best that could be said for anyone involved in that interview was that it was over.
• OK, let’s close with this early classic from the great Tom Waits, who spent some years in San Diego and surely saw (and did) some things.
“SAN DIEGO SERENADE” by Tom Waits
I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night
I never saw the sunshine ’til you turned out the light
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long
I never heard the melody, until I needed a song.
I never saw the white line, ’til I was leaving you behind
I never knew I needed you ’til I was caught up in a bind
I never spoke ‘I love you’ ’til I cursed you in vain,
I never felt my heartstrings until I nearly went insane.
I never saw the east coast ’til I move to the west
I never saw the moonlight until it shone off your breast
I never saw your heart ’til someone tried to steal, tried to steal it away
I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face.