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Nothing distracts Kemp from leading LA

Nothing distracts Kemp from leading LA

LOS ANGELES -- He's young and newly rich, and as if that weren't enough to go to his head, there's that Mexican vacation with the gorgeous Grammy winner that made Matt Kemp TMZ's new favorite hunk jock.

But the Dodgers center fielder says don't be taken in by the tabloids. He's focused, ready for Spring Training and determined to help the Dodgers get over the Philadelphia hump and into the World Series.

"I can't get distracted by that," Kemp said about the buzz over his Baja trip. "My job is to get my work in, which I've been doing. Nothing distracts me from my job, not the contract, or my personal life. When it's time to play baseball, that's my job. No distractions."

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Of course, privately, the Dodgers cringed when the Kemp and Rihanna embraces became a paparazzi payday. Not that a baseball figure involved with an entertainer broke new ground.

That linkage dates to Brooklyn with manager Leo Durocher and actress Lorraine Day. In the 1960s it was Angels left-hander Bo Belinsky and Hollywood bombshell Mamie Van Doren. In the '80s, Dodgers outfielder Mike Marshall dated Go-Gos lead singer Belinda Carlisle and Angels pitcher Chuck Finley eventually married actress Tawny Kitaen. Most recently, former Dodgers pitcher Brad Penny dated actresses Alyssa Milano and Eliza Dushku. Kemp's teammate Russell Martin has been dating Canadian model-actress Marikym Hervieux.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre, having managed Derek Jeter during some of his high-profile relationships, said he won't intrude on a player's personal life unless it negatively impacts the player's professional performance.

"They have to live their lives," Torre said. "When I see or sense it's become a distraction, that's when I'll say something. I don't like to anticipate problems. I keep an eye on the player to make sure it's the same player I know."

Kemp said Rihanna is "just a friend," that he wasn't expecting the international fallout triggered by the Cabo road trip, but accepts it.

"That wasn't the plan," Kemp said. "She's just a friend, a good friend of mine and we went down to Mexico and had fun together.

"I didn't think all that would come out of it, it just happened. I'm not used to that much attention to my personal life. It's really not that big a deal. But in L.A., doing things here, you're under a microscope, they're examining everything you're doing. It's L.A., man, the city we live in. It is what it is. Can't control what happens."

While some might view the Oklahoma kid growing up in the Hollywood fast lane as a big red flag, on the field it's all green lights for Kemp.

Considering his significant tools and the impact he's already made at age 25, Kemp just might be the highest-ceiling, most-talented position player the Dodgers have developed since Roberto Clemente. The Dodgers' last home-grown Hall of Fame position player was Duke Snider, although Mike Piazza will likely end the drought in 2012.

The Dodgers have rewarded Kemp with a two-year, $10.95 million contract after he won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards that stamped Kemp as the best all-around center fielder in the league. Of course, Martin pulled off a similar double, only to tail off significantly the next two years.


"I try to get better and better every year. That's what I've been doing and what I plan to keep doing."
-- Dodgers center fielder
Matt Kemp

So, while Kemp knows the contract is no guarantee of continued success, he does consider it a vote of confidence in him and the youth movement.

"It's a blessing, definitely a blessing," Kemp said of the contract. "I've been working hard a long time. It's definitely not the reason I play baseball, but it helps let me know I'll be financially secure and can do things for my family. For sure, [the team] didn't have to do that. They could have gone year to year. Now I've got two more years here and hopefully a lot longer. They have a lot of confidence in me and 'Dre [Andre Ethier] and [Jonathan] Broxton [both also signing two-year deals]. I hope they keep us together a long time."

That's the plan, at least a long time by baseball standards. The breakthrough season elevates Kemp with Ethier as the cornerstones of the youth movement.

Kemp's offensive credentials included career highs with 26 homers, 101 RBIs, 97 runs scored, 52 walks in 159 games. He was third in the National League with 34 steals and became the first Dodger with at least 25 homers, 100 RBIs and 30 steals in the same season.

Kemp also slugged three grand slams and homered in four consecutive games. He hit .297 on the season and his .362 average against left-handed pitching ranked sixth in the league. His 10 RBIs in extra innings were the most in the Major Leagues since Juan Gonzalez had 11 in 1991 and the most in the National League since Tim Wallach had 11 for Montreal in 1982.

He also trimmed 14 strikeouts off his franchise-record 2008 total of 153, while adding six walks.

"I was a lot better being consistent last year but you can always get better," Kemp said. "You can always hit for higher average, more home runs, get more stolen bases, more RBIs. I try to get better and better every year. That's what I've been doing and what I plan to keep doing."

But can the Dodgers get better? Can they get past the Phillies and into the World Series, having made very few upgrades during the winter?

"People can say what they want to say about us not getting any better," Kemp said. "Maybe we didn't spend money like some teams, but we find ways to win. If the front office feels we need a player, they go get them. We had everything we needed last year, we just didn't get it done.

"They [the Phillies] were just better than us. On paper, we match up with them better than anybody. We had the players and the pitchers, we just didn't play right at the right time. They had our number the last two years at the playoffs. Hopefully, we get back to the playoffs and play them, we'll definitely be ready. I guess the third time's the charm."

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

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