LOS ANGELES – Jeff Kent never could abide the fools, what would have been a minor irritation but for the rather amazing number of them.
He stayed 17 years anyway. He showed up every day, held down second base and hit like a corner man. He skipped the steroids, he always said convincingly, and mainlined cranky.
"I'm tired," he said, his eyes red and swollen. "I'm tired."
On a warm and overcast Thursday morning at Dodger Stadium, his four children staring up at him from his left, Duke Snider gazing from a wheelchair on his right, Kent retired after 377 home runs, 1,518 RBIs and nearly 2,500 hits. He was an MVP and a semi-regular in October and about the only man in baseball who wouldn't pretend the game hadn't become something it wasn't.
And wouldn't all those former teammates who did not attend his farewell be surprised to see this Jeff Kent, the one who was all weepy and sloppy and shaky, who wiped his face and disdainfully flicked the tears from his fingertips.
Wouldn't they be shocked to know he thought they had big hearts to go with their massive talent. You know, some of them, anyway. And that he valued their work, and maybe their willingness to put up with him, not that he'd apologize for any of it.
After all those afternoons when they couldn't get so much as a hello out of him, all those nights when he skipped the team beer without a goodbye to get home and get some sleep, wouldn't this be a sight for them, Jeff Kent sorry to have it all gone, as if he might have enjoyed it.
"I'll miss it," he said. "But, my time's over. Thank you."
At a time when it meant something, Kent was a ballplayer, all day, every day, February to October. Plenty of people didn't like it. He had his scraps, memorably with Barry Bonds, but he promises there were others out of view. He had his enemies, memorably Milton Bradley, but so many others rolled their eyes and shook their heads and wondered just who was this guy.
More than a few found reasons to disapprove.
Often enough, they didn't like him because they were soft. They didn't like him because they didn't want to play so hard. They didn't like him because the game wasn't as important to them. They couldn't be as committed. They gave away at-bats. They looked the other way. The game owed them.
And, often enough, he told them so.
Considering how much of it disgusted him, and how rarely the game or its players lived up to his expectations, and that he never developed the ability to let anything slide, it's a wonder he had the time for batting practice. It was pregame hugs around the batting cage. It was the cut corners. It was the steroids and the men who took them.
"The integrity of the game was jeopardized for so many years," Kent said. "And I'm just completely embarrassed … about the steroids."
His wife, Dana, nodded and smiled gently. Her youngest was curled on her lap, worn out. She admitted the episode with Bradley, where Kent was accused of picking his fights based on skin color, "rattled me, because that was about character." But, generally, she said, "I'm just so proud of him, especially at this time, when everybody wants to be so politically correct. He just says what's in his heart, what he feels is right."
It came off as self-righteous, or petty, or worse. He took himself a little too seriously. But, from the first days in the big leagues, he was told this was all very serious.
He was sitting on a bench in Toronto in 1992. An injured Blue Jays teammate was struggling. Dave Winfield, one of many veterans on that club, stormed the length of the bench until arriving in the face of the fresh rookie.
"Take his job!" Winfield screamed. "Take his [expletive] job! He doesn't want it, you take it!"
That cold. In or out. Kent was always in.
"He played a long time and played it right," Winfield said. "You hear things about his personality, but he played the game hard all the time. … One day, we'll see him in the Hall of Fame."
Kent shrugged at that topic, but it has to be important to him. It should be. As the votes come due on so many of the best hitters of his generation – Bonds will have hit the ballot the year before – Kent should be one of the easy ones. He was a child of the steroid era, presumably resisted, and measured up anyway. He hit their fastballs. He propped up their batting orders. He looked them in the eye.
"You just adjust," he said. "I made the adjustment without cheating the game or myself."
Oh, but it wasn't nearly so simple.
"I remember him feeling frustrated," Dana said, "like, 'How do I compete against this?' "
By showing up. By playing hard. By caring not about the thoughts and actions of the fools.
Damn, he'll miss 'em.
- Jeff Kent