PHOENIX — Many interviews early in spring training start the same way: How was your winter? "Unbelievable,” the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, a Midwest City native, said.
Casey Blake interrupted. "Are you kidding?” he said. "Did you check out the magazines? You know he had a great off-season.” Kemp doubled over in a half-smile, half-grimace and whispered something to Blake, who laughed. In an off-season in which owner Frank McCourt’s divorce proceedings dominated the Dodgers-related headlines, Kemp was the one player who managed to remain in the spotlight. Actually, if anything, the spotlight on Kemp intensified. And it was because of something that had nothing to do with baseball: He was photographed at a Mexican resort with Rihanna. His relationship with his "friend,” as he calls the Grammy-winning R&B singer — his "girlfriend,” according to the tabloids — has turned Kemp into a minor Hollywood celebrity. His image appeared in gossip magazines. He was featured on TMZ. "It was,” he said, "a little overwhelming.” The newfound notoriety not only armed teammates like Blake with fresh material for good-natured teasing but also led to some unusual media requests. The Source magazine, the self-proclaimed "Bible of Hip-Hop,” wants to interview him. GQ has scheduled a photo shoot with him. He seems puzzled by the attention. "I’ve never seen a baseball preview in the Source magazine,” he said, laughing. "I don’t consider myself a model of no type.” But Kemp said the extra attention hasn’t diminished the drive that transformed him over the last few years from a talented but clueless prospect to a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner. "I guess you get used to it,” he said of his new fame. "I don’t worry about it now. It’s not affecting my work.” Thursday was the day by which position players had to report for camp, but Kemp has been here since Monday. While most of the returning Dodgers said it took them anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks to emotionally recover from failing to beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series, Kemp said the pain stayed with him through the winter. "The last two years, it hurt,” Kemp said. "It hurt me. I wanted to win. It’s not fun to get eliminated. I don’t think I’m going to get over it until the first time we win it.” Kemp said he spent the winter working out in Los Angeles and, against the advice of his agent, former All-Star pitcher Dave Stewart, took less than two weeks off after the season before beginning his training program. "It’s hard to just sit around and do nothing, man,” Kemp said. "I don’t like sitting around. I have to get up and do stuff.” He spent the two weeks leading up to spring training working out in Dallas with Torii Hunter and Gary Sheffield. He slept at Hunter’s house and saw the Los Angeles Angels center fielder’s trophy case, which included nine Gold Gloves. Kemp won his first Gold Glove last season, his first as the Dodgers’ everyday center fielder. "I’m going to try to get mine,” Kemp said.