JOE BIDDLE: He may be small, but Kemp can't be overlooked
By Joe Biddle, Sports Columnist
It may be tempting for Vanderbilt opponents to overlook leadoff hitter Tony Kemp.
After all, he is only 5-foot-6, but they will be making a big mistake if that’s all they see when they size up Kemp.
The Vanderbilt junior is one of the most versatile, explosive and exciting players to ever wear the Commodores’ cloth.
More often than not, Kemp has been the spark that starts the offensive fireworks for Vanderbilt’s baseball team.
He got his team on the scoreboard first against Georgia Tech in an NCAA Regional Final Monday night. He singled up the middle, was caught stealing for only the 13th time this season, but teammates picked him up with a fielder’s choice RBI by Xavier Turner and the Commodores advance to next week’s Super Regional at home against Louisville.
Kemp finished the regular season with a league-leading .408 batting average. He also led the SEC in on-base percentage (.490), runs scored (58) and stolen bases (27). That earned him SEC Player of the Year honors.
A starter in left field as a freshman, Kemp was named the SEC Freshman of the Year. He suffered a sophomore slump at the plate, dropping to .269. He worked some kinks out of his swing in summer ball and came back with a purpose. He wanted his team to get back to Omaha for the College World Series, where they played during his freshman season.
Kemp admits he pressed after the Commodores lost a lot of offensive talent from the first team to make the CWS. He was trying to put the team on his shoulders, but the harder he tried, the more messed up he became at the plate.
A four-year letterman in both football and baseball at Centennial High School, Kemp wanted to put his sophomore season in his rear-view mirror.
As they faced elimination from the postseason Monday night, it was do-or-die for the Commodores.
Whether Kemp returns to Vanderbilt next season will weigh on where he is drafted in this month’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Yes, he is undersized, but asked to move from the outfield to second base after his freshman year should prove to be beneficial if he pursues a professional career.
Kemp gives his team a leadoff player who can hit for average and steal bases. He exudes excitement and enthusiasm when he plays and it becomes infectious among his teammates.
His older brother Corey, who is six years older than Tony and played college and minor league baseball, has been a model big brother.
It was Corey who discovered his little brother could not make contact at the plate. Corey would toss him slower pitches, but to no avail. At that age, Tony had zero hand-eye coordination.
Frustrated, Corey turned Tony around at the plate one day and the hand-eye coordination suddenly appeared. Even though he is right-handed in every other phase in athletics, Tony swatted the ball all over the yard from the left side. A star was born.
He is the total package, one that was obviously overlooked by most colleges. Tim Corbin saw something he liked in Kemp. Even though he came in a small package, he has proven to be one of the most productive players in Vanderbilt history.
Kemp’s love of the game is written all over his face. His smile shines bright and keeps his teammates pumped.
After all, baseball is a game and if you don’t have fun playing games, why play?
Sports Columnist Joe Biddle is a four-time sports writer of the year in Tennessee and a 2013 inductee to the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted on: 6/6/2013