NO ONE CONNECTED to the Dodgers dares admit that he ghost of Pete Reiser looms somewhere in the distant outfield, and the lament that he could have been one of the greatest.
For if there was a field of dreams, Pete Reiser seemed to play on the field of nightmares.
How good was he?
Years after Reiser had left the game, Leo Durocher — who was his manager with the Dodgers — said he had seen only one baseball player who was as good.
That player was Willie Mays, who may only have been the greatest all-round player in the game. And in Durocher’s eyes Reiser might have one day had people using that Bernard Malamud line from “The Natural” – that he was the best there ever was.
What happened to centerfielder Pete Reiser, who as a rookie in 1941 helped the Brooklyn Dodgers capture the pennant while he won the National League batting title and led the league in almost every offensive category?
Reiser played the outfield recklessly, almost foolishly some said.
And the following season, while he was hitting .383 in August, Reiser chased down a fly ball with such reckless disregard for his body that he ran full speed into an outfield wall.
He was never the same player again.
If you’re a student of baseball – all of it, not just the fantasy-era age of the game — you can’t help but be reminded of Reiser when you see a player suffer some similar mishap from playing so recklessly.
And, of course, the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp comes to mind.
Late in August 2012, the same month Reiser was hurt 70 years earlier, Kemp ran into the centerfield wall at Coors Field at full speed, chasing a booming drive off the bat of the Rockies’ Josh Rutledge in the first inning of a game.
Kemp, who had missed time with two separate disabled-list stints last season related to hamstring problems, has not been the same since that game.
The initial report was that Kemp had suffered a right knee contusion. But then in early September his shoulder began bothering him.
Finally, in October 2012, Kemp underwent shoulder surgery, an arthroscopic procedure on his left shoulder on a torn labrum and a frayed rotator cuff.
Afterward, doctors admitted the damage was more extensive than originally believed.
“Matty was very open to me about how he felt, and right from the time he got hurt, he was never comfortable,” said Kemp’s agent, Dave Stewart. “There were periods when it wasn’t as painful, but he was never comfortable swinging the bat after he ran into the wall.
“But he kept playing because he wanted to be there for the team. With a possible playoff spot, he didn’t want to sit. Nothing anybody could say or do could make him take time off.”
But the impact of Kemp crashing into that wall is still being felt today.
After another injury shortened 2013, Kemp ha been off to a better start at the plate this season, and the standard line this spring from him and manager Don Mattingly had been that there was no concern.
But it’s obvious he’s not the old Matt Kemp. He is hitting .221 with four homers and only eight runs batted in.
He has been in the news more for being involved in the Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling situation than for his baseball. Kemp is one of the black athletes mentioned in the tape recording of Sterling’s racist rants to his girlfriend that led to him being banned for life from the Clippers and the NBA.
Kemp’s response to the incident was to cleverly change the music played for him as he goes to bat each time to Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.”
The former All-Star outfielder wants the focus on his baseball, and the Dodgers — including the hierarchy — have long insisted that Kemp is healthy, even thought today he has not returned to every day playing status.
“I would tell you, internally, that we’re all assured that he isn’t [hurt], you know? So, he’s not,” says Dodgers president Stan Kasten. “We can’t really put our finger on it. We certainly can’t blame it on that, because he assures us he’s not hurt. The doctors, the trainers have all assured me that he’s not hurt, that it’s just something he’s working through.”
Kemp is in the third year of an eight-year, $160 million deal. It’s been more than three weeks since he had a game like the old Kemp, slugging a pair of homers in a 6-2 win over the Giants, his first first homers he’d hit at Dodger Stadium since Sept. 30, 2012..
“That’s when I know I’m seeing the ball good, when I drive the ball to right field like that,” Kemp said. “That’s my swing right there. I just feel great. I don’t want to continue talking about injuries.”
Mattingly has said the Dodgers will still be taking it slow with Kemp, trying to show patience as he works his way back into form.
“I still got to do the same things in terms of kind of breaking him in, not just throwing him out there and letting something else happen to him,” says Mattingly. “But we’ve never really put our full club out there on a consistent basis.”
Kemp wants to see the return of his old self, as does everyone else.
No one wants to even contemplate the ghost of Pete Reiser.
“Pete had more power than Willie — left-handed and right-handed both,” Durocher once said. “He had everything but luck.”