Young Outfielder Displayed Unusual Power

<b>VERO BEACH, Florida</b>-- You ask Matt Kemp if he felt like a basketball player masquerading in a baseball uniform in his first days as a professional and he answers candidly, "I really didn't like baseball when I started. " He then adds hastily, "But I've learned to like it since."

"Understand that back home in Oklahoma, hoops was the game for Matt. After all, he was a star on Midwest City's state champs, playing with a touring AAU team when his high school season ended. The recruits from big name schools scurried around. He saw his buddies go on to play for Duke and Kentucky among other schools.

But in his senior year he learned the hard way that he wouldn't be part of that for his grades weren't sufficient enough to get him into a top program., No, in this game it was either an NAIA school or maybe junior college to jack the GPA up. It was then that he began considering alternatives.

"I was a 6-4 guard and the NBA doesn't have room for that too much, " he allows. Thus, late in his last year of high school he began considering baseball seriously as a career move. Until then, although he played the diamond sport well enough, it had merely been a pastime.

Some scouts still were skeptical but the Dodgers felt his athleticism was well worth a chance. In the sixth round of the 2003 draft, they grabbed him. He signed and went to the Gulf Coast League to start a life without basketball.

He hit okay-.270- but with only one home run. The games that were played in the afternoon searing heat of a Florida summer weren't all that much fun. He complained that, " I wish we played at night. I hit the ball a lot farther at night. "

This past summer he pushed forward to Columbus where things began to come together. Oh, there wasn't a sudden burst of "out of nowhere" rise to glory. Just a steady improvement as he got more comfortable and applying his skills. Maybe playing games at night helped, too, but whatever, he was hitting .288 after 112 games. The power was arriving as well as he sent 17 out of the yard.

When Vero Beach needed outfield help in its quest for the Florida State League playoffs late in the season, it was Matt who was selected. He answered well, hitting .351 in 11 games while adding another home run. That's 18 dingers in his first full season. Rather impressive.

What's more, in the off-season, he didn't go home to play in some basketball league. Instead, he joined with some other Dodger farmhands in traveling to Oklahoma where he worked on building strength and honing skills. "Oklahoma's too cold," he explained. "We get snow there, you know."

The extra work has paid off for this spring, he's been one of the talks of the camp. The other day, playing in a AAA game, he drove a ball into the wind at Dodgertown's Field 5 with such force that it cleared the fence over 400 feet away. That caused Nick Theodoreau, the on-deck man, to exclaim, "Oh, to be 19 and hit a ball that well!"

Actually, Matt's 20 now but Nick was right for he was viewing a young player just coming into his own. That the Dodgers recognize this is illustrated by the fact that he was given an opportunity to play in a big league exhibition game.

Also possessed of a strong arm, Matt plays right field but it won't be at AAA. Nor is AA probable -- at least, for now. When all the final shaking down of lineups occur, he'll probably start the year at Vero in line with the Dodger policy of having to play your way upward.

Which is okay with Matt. You see, he's thinking long balls not round balls these days.