Kemp underscores Dodgers' drafting philosophy

Kemp underscores Dodgers' drafting philosophy

LOS ANGELES -- The team that had Major League Baseball's first African-American ballplayer has, since Logan White took over the Dodgers' Draft in 2002, drafted, signed and sent to the Major Leagues 11 African-American players -- more than any other MLB organization.

Matt Kemp, James Loney and Dee Gordon give the Dodgers three home-grown African-Americans among their current starting eight position players. The game now also embraces an influx of international stars, the Dodgers having been trailblazers in that regard until recent years when funds for signing bonuses dried up.

"Our philosophy of taking the best available player, regardless of position, with the highest ceiling, is how we got Kemp in the sixth round," White said. "We never adhered to the draft-out-of-college mindset, because if you do that, there aren't as many African-Americans playing college baseball, unless you go to predominantly African-American colleges.

"So, I think it's about the scouting. And I don't think we have any more or less black scouts than other teams. I don't think the color of the scout has any bearing on this, nor should it. Black scouts shouldn't prefer black players and white scouts shouldn't prefer white players. It just so happens we're very active in the high school market.

"But Kemp was not playing baseball, so it goes deeper than that. You can't have cultural bias. You need to have educated scouts. I remember one scout talked about a tattoo Kemp had, like that somehow made him a bad guy. That's stereotyping and bias, and I try to stay away from that. That's like scouts tell you redheads can't make the Major Leagues. Biases are bad, no matter what they are. If you have a bias to draft only college kids, you're walking away from high school players like Matt Kemp."

Kemp hit the radar of then Dodgers scout Mike Leuzinger on a tip from Kemp's American Legion coach, Doug Weese. White watched one of Kemp's less memorable games with Leuzinger, but he also worked Kemp out with extra batting practice. Crosscheckers Gib Bodet and Tim Hallgren saw Kemp slug a pair of home runs, and that "raised the conviction," Leuzinger said.

"You could see his enormous power, especially to the opposite field, but he had a long way to go," said Leuzinger, who also drafted and signed reliever Javy Guerra before leaving to scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "It wasn't always pretty. There was rawness, sometimes crudeness. There were days you'd see three strikeouts. But you also might see balls fly into the parking lot.

"Logan told me to keep going back if I really liked him. I needed to know if Matt was all-in. One day I stuck around school late to see if he was really working out like he said. There he was, by himself, hitting balls off a tee. He was raw, but if he was all-in, so was I. What always kept me going back was his family, the whole support system he had. He wasn't running the streets. My gut feel was, I really liked the kid, but I'd be lying if I said I thought he'd be this good. I told him in his house that he could be a Joe Carter or a Dave Winfield. That probably wasn't the right thing to say, comparing him to a Hall of Famer. But he's a phenomenal young man."

Kemp said he thought he'd be drafted by the Marlins. Leuzinger was worried about a club a little closer to Dodgers headquarters.

"I think it would have been Anaheim," he said. "If it went another round, we'd be watching Matt Kemp on the other side of town."

Today White is in the intense, final three weeks leading up to his 11th Draft for the Dodgers (they pick 18th in the first round). He can only hope to come away with another Kemp, better known as an Oklahoma high school basketball star when White took him in the 2003 Draft and signed him for $130,000.

"To be honest, I was a little naive, but I did some research and figured he could play Division I basketball, but he wasn't going to play in the NBA," said White. "His size was mid-range -- not tall enough to be a big man and not small enough to be a ball-handler. We drafted him and went to his home, met his mom and he signed quickly.

"But the first year, I would get a lot of voice messages -- 'Don't know about this Matt Kemp kid. Very long swing.' He hit .240 that first year, hit one home run in the last game of the season, stole two bases. That first year, he was homesick, miserable. No matter how he tries to act with the big city and glamor, he's really a small-town country kid from the Midwest. The next year in the Sally League, he started to come on and show he had a chance to be special."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.