January 22, 2009
The consensus on Jeff Kent seems to be, "That jerk sure could hit!" and maybe the powers that be will find space for such sentiment on Kent's Cooperstown tablet.
Even the teammates who seemed to like Kent — such as Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell on the Astros — admit that he was a jackass. They do so with kindness, because Kent also seemed to be a strong teammate in that he produced year after year despite a pile of chronic injuries.
Kent, who is expected to announce his retirement today, was in many ways a throwback, not at all flashy, who claimed to despise some of the social tics the modern game developed. "Don't fraternize with the opponent; Don't talk to me, teammate" — you know, that sort of thing.
But Kent wasn't the sort who just quietly went about his business, either, arguing with the young (James Loney), the old (Barry Bonds) and the very old (Vin Scully). Kent was, by most accounts, a cantankerous oddball who played hurt and got along by not getting along with many. All along, he flashed what Giants beat writer Henry Schulman called "a serial-killer smile" below what others dubbed a classic porn mustache.
Kent's play improved in his 30s, which is rare, even if his behavior didn't always mature. Kent leaves the game with Hall-of-Fame credentials, including more homers for a second baseman than any other in history. He also leaves the way he preferred — with few friends.
• After Randy Johnson destroys a dove with a fastball in spring training of '01, Kent picks up the dead bird and offers it to the Big Unit, who laughs not. Kent, for morbid reasons known only to himself, later fishes the bagged remains out of the trash. Cuckoo.
• During spring training in 2002, Kent breaks a bone in his left wrist, he says, after slipping from his pickup truck at a do-it-yourself car wash. Schulman later reports that Kent, in all likelihood, conjured a cover story after doing wheelies on his beloved motorcycle, hitting the curb and falling off the bike. Despite the injury, Kent plays in 152 games, hitting a career-high 37 homers and helping the Giants reach the World Series. But not before ...
• ...Kent and Bonds were caught on TV fighting in the dugout during a game in June; the upper-left photo in the collage above shows Bonds wringing Kent's neck. Kent leaves for the Astros after the season.
• In '04, Kent tells Bonds via the media to "own up" and confront BALCO revelations, adding that MLB's drug-testing system is "half-ass" while wondering which players throughout history (including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig) haven't cheated. With the Dodgers in '05, Kent softens his tone and asks the media "cut some slack" for Bonds as he pursues Hank Aaron's career home run record.
• Later in '05, friction develops in L.A. between Kent and Milton Bradley (not Milton!), who says his white teammate can't relate to African-Americans. Kent defends himself with a variant on the "some of my best friends are..." defense by counting Dave Winfield and Joe Carter among those who respect him.
• Addressing performance-enhancing drugs with L.A. Times columnist T.J. Simers in '07, Kent offers to pee and/or spit blood into a cup (to test for HGH). Kent also acknowledges, seemingly without argument, as being viewed as "one of the unfriendliest players in the game."
• Later that season after Kent rips the Dodgers' young players, Loney wonders who decided that Kent was a clubhouse leader.
• Kent makes the mistake of calling out Scully ("He talks too much"), after the Dodgers icon implies that Kent's second-half surge was due to Manny Ramirez's presence in the lineup.
• In what he hints will be his final season, Kent — despite mounting chronic injuries — sporadically helps the Dodgers reach the playoffs but pouts along the way because Joe Torre benches him for the younger, less-injured and more-effective Blake DeWitt.
• It also is discovered that Kent, who is Mormon and makes his off-season home in Texas, donated $15,000 to backers of California's ban on gay marriage, a referendum called Prop. 8, which the state's voters pass.