In case you haven’t noticed, baseball has changed a lot over the past 25 years.
Analytics have become the driving force of team management, with the ever-evolving Statcast superseding some of the most popular sabermetric tools. And for the common fans with access to computers or smartphones, a simple keystroke allows them to instantly discover when a player is about to be traded, if that player is having an extramarital affair, or even when he is napping in the clubhouse.
Like the game of baseball itself, sports journalism has also evolved. Now, in addition to the internet, we have this thing called “blogging,” where even amateur writers can post up-to-the-second information about teams, standings, statistics, opinions, when a player gets a haircut, or where the same player may indulge in a post-game beverage. All this information is at our fingertips.
I remember back in the late 80s, one needed to make a trip to the local newsstand and gather the courage to purchase a copy of Penthouse magazine to get the dirty lowdown on a big league player, if one trusted the testimony of an alleged mistress. Furthermore, Baseball Digest was a must-read for any fan, and the pages of USA Today’s Baseball Weekly was the primary tool for analyzing player statistics—by hand.
All that said, it’s very difficult for today’s professional sports journalists to stay on top of their respective games. In their own minds, reporting the same old monotonous daily beat just isn’t enough. They still have that itch inside them to try and set themselves apart from other writers—to compose that one story that’s going to turn the entire sports world upside down.
I remember a reporter named Larry LaRue—may he rest in peace—who was a beat writer for the Seattle Mariners for more than 25 years. He was definitely old school, but like many of his kind, he adapted by covering his club through blogging and online resources. Back in 2010, he happened to stroll into the Seattle clubhouse during the middle of a game, and he caught the great Ken Griffey, Jr. napping in his favorite chair. The entire ordeal, at the time, was commonly referred to as “Napgate.”
Not long after the contest, LaRue published a story, opining that Junior Griffey was finished, saying that the outfielder “could lose his job as the left-handed designated hitter within the week. He might lose his position on the 25-man roster nearly as soon.” Adding, “If you want to see Griffey in a Seattle uniform again, watch him on television this week.”
The first-ballot hall-of-famer was 40 years of age at the time, and although his skills were certainly diminishing, fans had no idea that the end was near. But LaRue knew. He was a beat writer—he was aware of things about the team which many fans didn’t know. And, as it turned out, he was correct in his assumption that Junior’s days were numbered. The legendary outfielder ultimately retired within a month’s time that Larue’s report was published. Although his coverage was absolutely outstanding, very seldom do reporters uncover the dirt of a legend, conceivably becoming a catalyst for the end of an illustrious baseball career. Bold, indeed.
The reason I recall this story is that it reminds me of a recent article by David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealing some buzz about outfielder Matt Kemp. In the article, O’Brien states that “the Braves needed to trade him now, not just because he had degenerated into arguably the worst defensive left fielder in baseball, but also because he gave off a lot of bad signs that you simply don’t want in any clubhouse.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pointing any fingers at O’Brien. It was definitely quality reporting, and it wasn’t the first time these things were said about Kemp. I just thought it took a bit of moxie to express himself the way he did, potentially harming the future of a perennial fan favorite.
Let it be said that I’ve always been a huge Matt Kemp fan. In his heyday, he was a pioneer, fitting the true definition of a five-tool player. His contributions to the Dodgers were priceless, especially before the big contract. Yes, I was briefly saddened when he was traded to the Padres for Yasmani Grandal and Joe Wieland. Even today, I still have autographed 8×10 photos of Kemp hanging in my home.
Not that he didn’t necessarily deserve it, but Kemp has been thrown under the bus before. Years ago, during an ESPN Sports Nation chat session back in May of 2010, Tony Jackson, a long-time beat writer for the Dodgers, conveyed: “This kid is really full of himself, to the point that it is an issue in the clubhouse.”
Later on in the same program, Jackson went on to say: “Kemp has been somewhat difficult with the media almost from the time he came to the big leagues. What I’m hearing now is that he is difficult for some of the coaches to deal with, that he gets his dander up when they try to offer him advice on certain things. I do know that one coach, I can’t say who, has gone so far as to recommend to the front office that they trade him.”
Later in June of 2010, in a column for Fox Sports, Ken Rosenthal also came out and stated bluntly that GM Ned Colletti “needs to trade center fielder Matt Kemp.”
Rosenthal added: “Colletti was correct, if impolitic, when he said in late April that Kemp’s defense and baserunning were below-average. Kemp’s offense this season isn’t so hot, either, and his attitude, for some in the Dodgers’ organization, remains an issue.”
Rosenthal recommended that Ned call Atlanta and offer up Kemp to the Braves. I kid you not. We always appreciate Ken’s insight, yet we had no idea at the time he was prophetic.
Needless to say, like many fans, I was steamed. I was just getting started in the baseball blogosphere at the time, and although I don’t recall exactly how many stories I wrote defending Kemp, I know there were plenty.
When Andrew Friedman and his crew shipped Kemp off to San Diego, there was even more displeasure among the majority of the fan base and myself, especially after that phenomenal 2011 campaign. But, by the time the Friars sent him packing to Atlanta, things became a bit more clear, at least to me.
I have a close friend who is a good friend of a former Padres player. He was also a big Kemp fan back in the day. Not your typical “friend-of-a-friend”/potentially untruthful type of story, but I can say with 99.9% certainty that Matt was ostracized from the Padres’ clubhouse.
“He was telling me how everyone in the clubhouse cheered when Kemp was traded,” my friend told me. “Said he made fun of one of the players wives for being sick or something. He was really hated by everyone.”
That really hit home. It’s stuff like that which you usually don’t hear—not even from LaRue, Jackson or Rosenthal. And apparently, according to O’Brien, the scenario in Atlanta was similar.
So, here we are today, with the whole saga coming full circle. Kemp is once again a Dodger, for who knows how long. Through all of the years, we never heard Kemp’s side of the story behind all of the disdain. Maybe there’s indeed some kind of explanation.
I admit, I was intrigued when I first heard about Kemp coming back to the Dodgers. I instantly thought back to that epic 2011 season. And, I recalled his very productive career-splits against southpaw pitching. Wait, the Dodgers could use a power-hitting outfielder that mashes lefty pitching, right? He’s gotta be a better option than Franklin Gutierrez was last season, correct? And he can definitely play a better left field than Manny (Ramirez) did back in 2008-09. Gone are the Scott Van Slykes and the Brett Eibners of the organization. Could there be room for Kemp?
But, alas—the game is changing. The Dodgers are changing. In the sabermetric world, good outfielders these days are built for speed and range. More times than not, an outstanding defender trumps a player who is horrible with the glove but hits 20-25 long balls. The chances of Los Angeles hanging on to Kemp are very, very slim at best.
Still, even with those realizations in the backs of our minds, all of us Kemp fans are hoping. We’re wondering if there’s a way he can change his attitude, and perhaps rejuvenate his battered, 33-year-old body to be productive in even a part-time role, and somehow help the Dodgers capture their first World Championship since 1988. It would only be fitting.
If he’s given a chance.
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