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Matt Kemp and his ultimate question

February 15, 2011 | 10:27 pm

Dare to be great.

It’s what you tell your children. It’s the drive you try to instill. That whatever the endeavor, give it your best and do not fear attempting to be great.

Then there are those times when extraordinary talent merges with extraordinary effort. When the desire to excel pushes rarified ability, until something truly special is created.

Does Matt Kemp hunger to be great?

That’s what it’s really about with Kemp. The one thing everyone agrees about when it comes to Kemp is, he oozes ability. He is blessed with exceptional athletic talent.

Last season, however, too often he betrayed his gifts. His defense lagged, his batting average dropped almost 50 points, his baserunning mystified. His hustle and fundamentals were questioned. There were run-ins with coaches. His strikeouts shattered his club record.

"I didn’t really have that much fun last year,’’ Kemp said.  "It was a disappointing season. Things didn’t go the way we wanted them to go.’’

If Kemp does not make excuses, neither does he particularly wish to dwell on last season’s shortcomings.

"It was a learning experience,’’ he said. "That was a hard year. Nobody wants to lose and not make the playoffs. We had a good team, we just didn’t put it together right.’’

Tuesday on the Dodgers’ community caravan, Kemp was upbeat as he led a group of fans along the Santa Monica beach to pick up trash. They followed him like the Pied Piper. They called out questions as he joked with a 7-year-old boy.

How do you feel?

"Like 200 million dollars,’’ Kemp said.

"Gonna hit 40-40?" asked one, referring to his September promise of 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases for next season.

"Eighty-eighty,’’ Kemp said.

Kemp was laughing, being playful, enjoying himself like he did too seldom last season.

Of course, it’s a tribute to his athletic ability that even in what was considered a disappointing season, he still finished with a career-high 28 home runs and team-high 89 RBIs.

But the results of those with exceptional ability are not measured against those of more modest talents.

There is more in Kemp, and like everyone else, he knows it. More on the field and in the clubhouse.

"I need to be more of a leader on this team,’’ he said. "I need to step up. When something needs to be said, be that guy to say it. I’m usually been one of those guys who pretty much keeps to himself. I think some things need to change. What we did last year didn’t work, so we need to change it up and do some different things.’’

It’s hard to step up in the clubhouse when you’re struggling on the field. Hard to find your voice, when you can’t locate your swing.

Kemp talks now like he cannot wait to begin his turnaround. Several excuses, real or otherwise, have been eliminated. Gone are the coaches he struggled with last season, Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer. Over is the high-profile relationship with pop star Rhianna. General Manager Ned Colletti and Kemp are back on good terms.

Kemp, 26, normally says the right things. It’s the follow up that has often disappointed.

If Kemp can find the fire to match his ability, if he can master that focus … just how good could he be?

Does Matt Kemp hunger to be great?

"Of course,’’ he said. "You don’t want to be all right. You want to be really good.’’

-- Steve Dilbeck

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