Matt Kemp, Bryce Harper and the Beauty of Major League Baseball
I hate Matt Kemp.
As a diehard San Francisco Giants fan, I'm contractually obligated to hate the best player on the Los Angeles Dodgers and that is, most definitely, Kemp. Right now, the 27-year-old is the best player in Major League Baseball and the competition ain't particularly close. So, with all due respect to Clayton Kershaw, Kemp is the finest specimen the Bums have to offer and has been for several years now.
For most of those years, it was easy to despise Rihanna's ex.
But as the man said, no good thing lasts forever.
The Dark Ages
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As a slightly younger player, Kemp was more flash and look-at-me attitude than he was substance. He still posted good numbers, but he also did a lot of stupid, selfish, counterproductive things on the diamond.
A surprisingly fast man considering his size, Kemp should've been a good baserunner from the get-go and quickly evolved into an excellent one. But a lack of concentration and/or attention to detail made him terrible on the bases at first.
Then, in 2010, a series of especially humiliating misadventures caused general manager Ned Colletti to publicly chastise the now-superstar (via LA Times).
Throw in the starlet-dating, mental lapses in the field and a slew of other arrogant mannerisms, and you had plenty of reasons for a Giants fan to find extreme fault with Kemp.
Yes, the Dodgers laundry probably would've been enough, but we're thorough up here in the Bay Area.
Unfortunately for the Giants and the rest of baseball, somewhere between the 2010 season and the onset of the 2011 campaign, it all clicked.
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The game finally got to Kemp and he dedicated himself to the small things. His baserunning improved along with everything else, and only a coprophagous owner could keep him from the National League MVP trophy—if Los Angeles had fielded a better team and won a few more games, the Dodger outfielder would have won the hardware in a romp.
Incidentally, Frank McCourt is a hero in a lot of Orange and Black Bay Area circles, which tells you all you need to know about how effective he was as a SoCal owner.
But back to Kemp's rebirth—it's made him a much better ballplayer and it's also made him much harder to dislike.
He's still quite confident in himself, but he's no longer hamstringing his team every other time he gets on base. He's no longer prone to sloppy stretches in center field and he's matured into a leader. Oh yeah, Kemp's also playing out of his freakin' mind—he's got an incomprehensible slash line of .417/.490/.893 with 12 home runs, 24 runs scored and 25 runs batted in.
Those are all major league-leading numbers except for the .490 on-base percentage (second to David Wright's .494).
The Beautiful Game
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As a Giants fan, it's been an unpleasant development, but as a baseball fan, it's been reassuring because it proves that nobody is above the humbling influence of the game. Some guys fight it and it destroys them. Others, like Kemp, embrace it and you can see the results.
That influence is something that no other sport can offer.
You must be a better athlete to play in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association, but there is simply nothing more difficult than hitting a baseball—period. Centering a round ball on a round bat is hard enough, but doing so while the ball is traveling 90-plus mph or bobbing and weaving like Lenny Dykstra on a bender?
Good luck. And if that's all you've got, you'll need a lot of it.
Hitting a baseball at The Show is so hard that failing three of five times over 162 games is considered superhuman. Coming up empty in seven out of 10 at-bats over the course of a career makes you a Hall of Famer.
Complete 30 to 40 percent of your throws as a quarterback, catch 30 to 40 percent of your passes as a wide receiver or make 30 to 40 percent of your field goals in the Association—and you'll be cut. Quickly.
Consequently, baseball teaches humility because it requires humility.
It forces the trait on even its finest practitioners with ground balls that stay down and shoot through the Gold Glover's legs for no other reason than the winning run was on third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Or with 0-for-40 slumps in the dog days of August when the hometown fans would boo their own grandmothers for not leaning into a fastball.
Or with the ultimate attitude adjustment: a 95 mph heater to the ribs.
The Trump Card
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Ah, the inside fastball.
An individual player might be able to shake off all of the above, but opposing pitchers aren't discriminating. If the ol' brushback-turned-beanball isn't convincing to one target, they'll move on down the line until they find a target or two who will have a more persuasive effect on their wayward teammate.
Compare that to the NBA, where Metta World Peace's cowardly elbow drew minimal condemnation from even the opposition. Ditto Rajon Rondo's unfortunate decision to bump the referee during the first round of the playoffs, where even his coach tried to help the point guard wriggle off the hook (via ESPN).
And let's not even discuss the NFL, where the circle-the-wagons-it's-us-against-them-no-matter-what mentality perfected by the players is threatening to unravel the fabric of the game.
Maybe the criticism and self-policing goes on behind closed doors, but count me among the skeptics.
On the other hand, there's no room for interpretation or inference on the baseball field—Player X steps out of line, Player Y plants a No. 1 between Player X's shoulder blades and problem solved. If not, rinse and repeat or bring his teammates into the discussion until the problem is solved.
Call it barbaric. Call it an antiquated product of simple minds. Call it whatever you want.
But to remain objective, you must also call it effective.
Nothing promotes decorum or encourages humility like a horsehide bruise.
Which Brings Me to Bryce Harper
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So what does any of this have to do with Bryce Harper?
Harper has Matt Kemp's kind of talent, which is to say transcendent. That's not hyperbole—the youngster will not be 20 until October of this year and yet he's already earned a promotion to the big leagues. What's more, he's already collected his first two hits (including a double), drawn a walk and pushed home a run in only eight major league plate appearances.
He's also flashed that arm we've heard so much about and looked comfortable in the outfield.
Kid could go hitless until he gets demoted for the duration of 2012 and I'd still be impressed. That's how crazy it is to be able to handle Major League Baseball, to any degree, at 19.
Which also explains why...
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Bryce Harper has Matt Kemp's kind of attitude.
This isn't about who's to blame for it, whether it's understandable given the sort of attention Harper's been given or whether he's a bad person because of it; this is about how impressed Bryce is with himself, and most signs point to "very."
For one thing, there's the whole eye-black infatuation—leave the face painting on the gridiron or battlefield, superstar—and the hairdos. Experience has shown that you don't put that much time and effort into how you look on a playing field unless you also spend a lot of time and effort looking at yourself on said playing field.
There's also this little gem (at about the 60-second mark) where he blatantly knocks his own helmet off en route to second base on his first major league hit so, presumably, we can all get a good look at the aforementioned locks.
Or maybe he really thinks he's so fast that the helmet actually does slow him down.
In that case, we can add that to the list of myths about himself that Mr. Harper must unlearn.
The Beauty of Major League Baseball
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But that's the good news: Bryce Harper will learn.
He must learn the lesson if he is to have the sort of long, illustrious career we all expect—just like Matt Kemp had to learn it and just like countless others had to learn it since the first pitch hit leather.
One error, one slump and one inside fastball at a time.
That is the beauty of Major League Baseball.