ATLANTA — On a late afternoon in June, Matt Kemp settles into the right-handed batter's box at SunTrust Park to take his cuts.
The first few pitches tossed his way during batting practice end up sprinkled in the outfield grass. Then the power from the 6'4" Braves left fielder starts to show. Shots from his bat sail over the outfield wall. One flies over to the right of the 400-foot sign in right-center. Another lands in the Braves bullpen.
His swings, like his demeanor, are relaxed.
He looks comfortable. Happy. Free to be himself and free of distraction.
At 32, Kemp is having his best season since 2011, when he was 26 and playing for the Dodgers. He's hitting .309 with 12 home runs and 37 RBI—numbers that have him in the running for a starting spot in the All-Star Game. He's reminding baseball fans of the player who nearly won the National League triple crown in '11, when he led the league with 39 home runs and 126 RBI, finished third with a .324 average and also stole 40 bases.
Back then, it seemed like he would be a Dodger and a superstar for life.
But life beyond baseball was swirling around him.
There was the tabloid fodder—like dating Rihanna in 2010. There was the expectations-setting eight-year, $160 million contract extension. There were the injuries. And then there was the trade to San Diego. The weight gain. Then a second trade, this time to the Braves, and chatter about his San Diego mansion not selling at auction. He admitted in a post on the Players' Tribune that he had "let a big contract, the Hollywood lifestyle, injuries and bad relationships" get to him, which earned him a "reputation for being selfish, lazy and a bad teammate."
He was trending dangerously toward another label: bust.
But not so fast. Kemp's story wasn't finished. Not yet.
His resurgence in Atlanta—and his jaw-dropping transformation in the offseason—is eliminating any inkling of those perceptions. He's hitting. He's healthy. By all appearances, he's having fun.
And the Braves organization loves him.
"He is one of our leaders," manager Brian Snitker says. "He is a guy in the clubhouse that people respect. … He's just a great guy to have around."
It's simple, Kemp says. He was hurt then. He's not now.
"It was just very frustrating," Kemp says. "It wasn't fun because sometimes I wasn't getting the results that I wanted. I was working hard and doing what I needed to do.
"It's hard to overcome injuries. It takes time, and once you get past those injuries, then you start to become more successful again, and the confidence level comes up, and you get that swag that you once had.
"It'd be tough to hear some of the things that might have been said, like, 'He lost it.' I didn't lose it. With injuries and things like that, it's not easy."
Kemp is in the Braves clubhouse, comfortably settled in a soft black leather chair as some teammates nearby shoot pool. Conversations surrounding him provide a pleasant hum.
He looks laid-back, wearing a black T-shirt that reads "EQUALITY" on the front and "42" on the back, in homage to Jackie Robinson.
The topic of conversation is recent incidents of racism in sports. Seventy years after Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, it remains one of the game's constants. The hate comes in various forms. Trolling on social media. Screaming obscenities from the stands. A fan in May uttered the N-word and threw a bag of peanuts at Orioles outfielder Adam Jones.
Kemp acknowledges fans have spewed hate toward him dating back to his days in the minor leagues. He declines to name the cities where it occurred, "but it definitely happens, for sure," he says.
"That's not new to me or to LeBron or to Adam," Kemp says. "It's something that you've got to deal with all the time. Like LeBron said, it doesn't matter how much people admire you, how much money you have, how famous you are. Racism is still alive. It's sad. It's disappointing. I guess it's something that I guess we have to deal with. It's tough to deal with, but it's sad."
He didn't pay attention to things like that when he was younger. Maybe it didn't exist because all he was doing was playing ball and wasn't yet famous. Maybe he just didn't recognize it. He's not sure.
"But when you get older you start to realize, like, 'Dang. They just really said that,'" Kemp says. "It's kind of crazy."
Growing up in Midwest City, Oklahoma, Kemp and his cousins were "pretty much" the only African-Americans on his teams, he says. A two-sport athlete, his basketball teammates teased him for playing baseball—"What are you doing? Why do you have the cleats and a glove? You play basketball," he recalls them saying—as football and hoops were more popular where he lived.
"[My friends] never came to games," Kemp says. "They didn't know how good I was. They didn't know that the scouts were coming to see me play."
He's shown a photo of himself from his childhood.
He says he's not sure how old he was, but the picture depicts him holding a bat and taking a mighty cut—"I don't know if I was swatting flies. Hopefully I don't swing at pitches like that now," he wisecracks—with a look of determination on his young face, long before the glitz and the glamour ever entered his life.
"You look at a picture like that, and that's like—that's me as a kid dreaming about playing baseball, and now I'm living that dream," Kemp says. "Not a lot of people can say they're living their dream."
Kemp grew up in a single-parent household, with his mom, Judy Henderson, a nurse. Even though Atlanta is more than 800 miles away, it was easy for him and a cousin to get hooked on the Braves, whose games were broadcast on TBS.
"We, like, lived for the Braves," Kemp says. "We'd come home after school, turn on the TV and watch the Braves play baseball games. It was the best thing in the world."
The dream became tangible in 2003, when the Dodgers drafted Kemp in the sixth round out of high school. Three years later, he was playing at Dodger Stadium. The lights seem to shine brighter in Hollywood, and he showed signs of becoming a budding superstar in 2009, when he hit .297 with 26 home runs and 101 RBI and won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
His marquee season was in 2011. He finished second to Ryan Braun in the MVP race, but after Braun's subsequent PED admission, many think Kemp should have received the award. As a consolation prize, he did win his second Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards that year.
Life was fast-paced. He ascended the fashion ladder, seen as one of the best-dressed players in baseball. Paparazzi surrounded him when he dated Rihanna in 2010. His average dipped to .249 that season, but he still hit 28 home runs.
Fast forward to seven years later in Atlanta, with a reporter trying to tiptoe around the Rihanna question with Kemp. It elicits a laugh from him.
"I think that life. That's just part of L.A.," Kemp says. "You're in an industry where you meet famous people. You have famous friends. That's just part of being in L.A. I mean, that took a little getting used to, but the injuries were something I was never used to. That was harder on me that anything."
The injuries. There were many of them. A snapshot:
Kemp had two stints on the disabled list for hamstring injuries in 2012. The first one ended his streak of 399 consecutive games, which at the time was the longest streak by an active player. In late August, he injured his left shoulder after crashing into a wall at Coors Field, but he continued to play. In the offseason, Kemp underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and damage to his rotator cuff. Doctors told him not to swing a bat until January.
Kemp made trips to the DL in 2013 for a right hamstring strain and joint inflammation in the surgically repaired shoulder. His return to the lineup that July lasted for one game, as he suffered a left ankle injury when sliding into home plate, a play in which Kemp later said he wasn't running hard. He headed back to the DL.
Kemp returned in mid-September, but it was a short stay. He missed a game later in the month because of soreness in his left ankle and was ruled was out for the playoffs. Kemp had a minor surgical procedure to clean up his left shoulder and also underwent microfracture surgery on the ankle. He ultimately played just 73 games in 2013, and he would start the 2014 season on the disabled list.
Through it all, the low point was suffering the ankle injury and eventually needing surgery, Kemp says.
"My shoulder was tough, but I think the ankle was the toughest because I was used to being a speed guy, stealing bases," he says. "Now it's not as easy to do that because my ankle doesn't allow me to be as fast as I once was. But I've just got to deal with it."
In 2014, his last season with Los Angeles, then-manager Don Mattingly moved Kemp out of center field, first putting him at left and then later in right. After the season, the Dodgers traded him to San Diego. While he put up solid numbers (.265 with 23 home runs and 100 RBI in 2015, and .268 with 35 HRs and 108 RBI in 2016), he was a guy with a lengthy injury history and a huge paycheck playing for a bad team.
His mammoth 2011 campaign continued to get further away in the rearview mirror.
2011 was also the year when Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who was a rookie, first met Kemp.
"He was on another level," Freeman recalls. "Every time he got up to the plate, I was like, 'Oh no, here it comes.'"
Through a mutual friend, Melvin Upton Jr., who played for both the Braves (2013-14) and the Padres (2015 through part of 2016), Freeman and Kemp hung out a couple of times. Since Kemp arrived in Atlanta, he and Freeman have grown close. Freeman calls Kemp's personality "infectious."
"It's a great personality," Freeman says. "He draws people to him, and you just want to be around him. Every day, obviously when I'm healthy, we would go get our Starbucks together, we go out to the field together, we do pretty much everything together. ...
"He wants to win. He works hard every single day, and that rubs off on other people."
Kemp's intensity is visible. But so is the joy, which he credits to his teammate and friend.
"Honestly, you know who has a lot to do with that is Freddie," Kemp says. "I've played with a lot of guys that like to have fun and joke around, but he's just one guy that—I honestly never see him, like, mad."
The chemistry worked in the lineup, too. In the 56 games he played with the Braves in 2016, Kemp hit .280 with 12 home runs and had an OPS of .855.
"It was great," Snitker says. "You get a guy, a middle-of-the-order lineup guy like that, he was a welcome addition. It lengthened our lineup, kind of broke up all the left-handers we had going."
With Kemp on the team, opponents could no longer "pick and choose" who they pitched to. "He legitimized what we had going on," Snitker says.
But not all was perfect. At the end of the 2016 season, Kemp wasn't always finishing games, playing seven innings before being replaced for defensive reasons in left field.
"Every time that happened to him, he'd come up to me in the dugout and say, 'This is embarrassing. I don't want this to happen anymore,'" Freeman says.
Heading into the offseason, Kemp was healthy, which hadn't happened often in the last few years. He took advantage of it and got to work, saying there were "no limits."
When asked what was the catalyst for change, Kemp all but shrugged it off.
"I haven't really had too many offseasons where I didn't have to rehab anything," Kemp says. "That's a big difference. You know, if you go into an offseason hurt and you have to rehab the whole offseason, that's just very frustrating. I was pretty much able to work out and do whatever it is I wanted to do."
Snitker says Kemp told the team at the end of the 2016 season, "You're going to see a new me when I get here."
"And he did," Snitker says. "Obviously, he was very dedicated to that and worked his tail off. It was real refreshing when you came in and saw the guy's dedication to what we're trying to do, so it was really good to see, and it told you a lot about the person."
Freeman got updates from Kemp during the offseason—sometimes in mid-workout.
"I got FaceTimed every week...usually when he was on the elliptical," Freeman says. "He was doing two-a-days. He would do lifting in the morning, and he would come back and do conditioning later in the day."
When Freeman was with his wife in Bal Harbour, Florida, celebrating their anniversary, he ran into Kemp. The change was already noticeable.
"You could tell after a month-and-a-half, he was already looking different," Freeman says. "People were asking me what was he looking like, and I wouldn't tell them. I said, 'You guys can just find out for yourself,' and he came to spring training obviously so much better. I think he had lost like 25 pounds."
Kemp's work continued through spring training and into the season, and the results are evident in his numbers. He started the season 8-for-16 with four doubles and two home runs in his first four games. He made a brief trip to the 10-day DL for a tight right hamstring in April, and he missed one game in June with left hamstring tightness. Aside from that, he has picked up where he left off. On April 29 at Milwaukee, he became the first Brave to hit three home runs in a game since Mark Teixeira did it in 2008. He hit his 250th career home run on May 31.
Kemp says there's been no change in approach. It's just a byproduct of being healthy and putting in the effort.
"He was first there, last to leave, was very consistent in all his workouts, and he was always out there doing his drills, in the weight room, workout room, practices, everything," Snitker says of Kemp's spring training work. "It was really good to see—and even now. I mean, the guy shows up to play every day. That's the thing. He's signed on to play the games, so he is a guy you can depend on every day. You know he's going to be there for you."
The house in San Diego hasn't sold yet, and Kemp doesn't know if there will be another auction. These days, his home base is in Prosper, Texas, about three hours away from Midwest City.
How long he stays in Atlanta remains to be seen. Despite his production, the Braves are under .500 and are struggling to keep pace with the Nationals in the NL East. Could Kemp get dealt for a third time? Speculation is slowly heating up, with Bob Nightingale of USA Today mentioning him as one of the top 25 players who could switch teams this summer.
But even as the team rebuilds, Kemp is a good fit in Atlanta. He helped protect the Braves' cornerstone, Freeman, in the lineup—before Freeman fractured his wrist in May—and his teammates are thankful he's there.
"It's nice to be able to have a guy like him—and Freddie and some of the other guys—but he's kind of my big brother," shortstop Dansby Swanson says. "I feel like he's always got my back. He kind of, like, protects me. ... He'll take me out to dinner when we're on the road and kind of just gives you that family thing. We've been able to hit it off really well, and I feel like I can go to him and trust him with a lot of things. So he's special to have around, and I am definitely very, very grateful to have him."
Will this get rid of the critics? Even if it doesn't, Freeman doesn't think that factors into Kemp's mindset.
"We play in a game of what-have-you-done-for-me-now, and the thing is last year people said he wasn't very good, but he had 35 home runs and [close to] 110 RBI," Freeman says. "That doesn't happen. He's a superstar. He's been a superstar his whole career.
"After his 2011 year, he had shoulder surgery and he dealt with hamstring problems. It's hard to compete at a high level when you're not feeling good every day. ... I don't think he's trying to put away what people are saying; he was just doing him. And if it comes along the way that it shuts people up in the process…"
Freeman pauses, and then says, "But that's not his ultimate goal.
"He's here trying to win and get back to the playoffs because he hasn't been there in a few years either, just like I haven't. That's his main goal. It's not about shutting people up, and people can say whatever they want about him, me...that just comes with the territory. If we go 0-for-4, then they say we should be benched and stuff like that, but if we get two hits the next day, we're the greatest people ever. That just comes with it.
"But he's not trying to do that. He's just trying to do his job and help win games."
There's another element as well, and it's visible when Kemp's megawatt smile is caught on TV broadcasts. He's having fun, reminiscent to children who are playing simply for the love of the game.
"I've been playing baseball since I was four years old," Kemp says. "It's supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be super-duper serious. I mean, you get serious at times, and of course you get competitive and you want to win, but I think a lot of people forget about having fun."
Jill Martin is a sports news editor for CNN. Follow her on Twitter: @ByJillMartin.