To a cynical world, one rendered dizzy by never-ending political and celebrity spin, one that assumes sincerity to be as obsolete as the quill pen, Matt Kemp and his people have a message.
About that open letter the outfielder filed with the Players Tribune on Monday professing his long-time love of the Braves and rather remarkably addressing a reputation “for being selfish, lazy and a bad teammate”? That was all Kemp’s, they insist.
“Those are my own words. It’s how I felt and what I felt I needed to do,” Kemp said shortly after arriving in town following his trade to the Braves from San Diego.
Really, you wrote it? C’mon, nobody in your position does his own press, not in this is the era of the carefully sculpted apology. Other than a little editing for style and grammar, that long, well-worded piece was pure, uncut Kemp?
“Hey, I’m a pretty smart guy, man,” he said.
“Matt took that on his own. We had nothing to do with it,” said Larry Reynolds, Kemp’s agent. “This was straight from Matt. It’s coming from the heart.”
Over the past month, two players of strikingly similar standing — once among the very best in their games, now on the other side of 30 and confronting diminishing returns and the impression that they were agents of discontent on their former teams — have been welcomed to Atlanta.
The Hawks’ new acquisition, center Dwight Howard, could have penned many of the same words as Kemp. Instead, his reputational rehab included taking out a full-page newspaper ad thanking the fans of his last team, Houston, and holding the introductory news conference for his new team at a south Atlanta community gym, filled with adoring children. What better way to create a message of coming home and of fresh, new beginnings?
“Hearing all the negativity and what people have said (about him), it has made me upset and it has put me in a place where I want to come back with a new me, a new Dwight, and really dominate,” Howard told his audience.
Great swings in the public’s perception of an athlete can happen. Two years ago Michael Phelps was suspended by USA Swimming for a second time following a DUI charge. Now, Phelps is leading the U.S. team into the Olympics as the flag-bearer.
It has happened right here, in Kemp’s latest clubhouse. When catcher A.J. Pierzynski arrived in town in 2015, he was the guy voted the most disliked player in the game in various polls, one who anonymous former teammates in Boston branded as aloof and abrasive. Now he is considered the shepherd of the Braves’ young pitching staff, an important stabilizing factor in unstable times, even as his bat speed may decline.
Both Kemp and Howard have one thing going for them that Pierzynski has found invaluable: aging.
“As you get older, you obviously get more mature and different things take over in your life,” he said. “I’m still as competitive as I’ve always been, I still want to win the game as badly as I ever have. But at the end of the day when I go home I have two kids there, asking why did you do this, why did you do that? You have to be able to answer certain questions.” (He’d prefer that none of those questions go, “Why did you act like that, dad?”)
Will Howard and Kemp — neither of whom face the serious image issues of those athletes who have crossed the law or been muddied by scandal — be able to similarly repair the dents in their reputation while in Atlanta?
They are off to a good start, said an expert in the field.
Granted, not everyone loved Kemp’s Players Tribune letter. Especially the part that went, “I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I had begun to lose some of my love for the game. … I let a big contract, the Hollywood lifestyle, injuries and bad relationships tarnish the reputation I had worked so hard to establish. … While I may not agree with all the criticism I received in the past few years I take full responsibility for my shortcomings. And I promise you Atlanta: Those days are gone.”
Reacted San Diego’s executive chairman Ron Fowler, thinking it reflected on a lack of effort on Kemp’s part while a Padre: “Talk about a bunch of b.s.”
But it also reflected a cornerstone strategy in fixing a reputation.
As Illinois State professor Joseph Blaney, author of the book, “Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration,” put it: “We know this, expressions of mortification generally work, especially if they are taken as sincere: I’ve done this wrong. I know I can do better. I have failed in these ways. I am going to do better and promise on top of that corrective action.”
So, Kemp promises to once again be the guy who is the first to ballpark and the last to leave, the one completely smitten by baseball. Just as Howard tells of working out this preseason like seldom before and of his barely contained anger when called a cancer in the Orlando, L.A. and Houston locker rooms of his past.
Even if that means maintaining enthusiasm after being traded to the team with the worst record in baseball, Kemp sounded able. This did not sound like the same player who showed some of the worst body language in the league while in San Diego, according to one ESPN columnist. “If you finish strong, make that mark in the second half, maybe ruin some of those chances of other teams going to the playoffs, show them you can compete, I think that carries over into the next year and you can feed off that,” he said.
But, of course, there is more work to do.
They’d do well to follow Pierzynski’s example. “Since I’ve been with the Braves, it has been kind of a different role. I’ve just tried to help these kids, especially the pitching staff, try to get them to get the best out of their ability. When people realize you do care, it helps any relationship,” he said.
And this from Blaney, who wrote the book on reputational repair: “They have to be very public and consistent in demonstrations of wanting to be a good teammate. Encouragement of the younger players. Interaction with fans. They need to be seen doing that.”
“And,” he added, “are they genuinely good, likable fellows? Because people can sometimes see through a phony.”
Above all those suggestions, there is but one certain way the world will look upon Kemp and Howard differently than it does today. And that is to play as they did yesterday, back when Kemp was an almost MVP and when Howard won his third consecutive defensive player of the year award (both in 2011).
Leave it to the pragmatist, the agent, to point out that obvious remedy.
“The best way to brand yourself is to play well, No. 1,” Reynolds said.
“No. 2, is how you handle yourself on and off the field. With Matt, you’re going to see all these things come to fruition while in Atlanta.”
For two players in the same city it is their last best chance to write their own narrative.
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