Thursday, January 22, 2009
Kent never, ever backed down
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
Need proof that Jeff Kent is diplomatically impaired? There's no better example than a September diatribe in which he observed that the Los Angeles Dodgers' broadcaster talks too much and is out of touch with events in the clubhouse.
What person, without a public-relations death wish, goes out of his way to take shots at Vin Scully?
This is how things work in Kent's world: Unless a man breaks his wrist popping a wheelie on his motorcycle and concocts a story that he hurt himself washing his truck, he says what he needs to say, moves on and deals with the consequences. Freedom of expression is sort of like hitting: If you cede too much ground, pretty soon pitchers are invading your personal space and messing with your livelihood.
Former teammates have lots of stories about Kent's delivering clutch hits, playing hurt and making an impact on the field in his 17-year major league career. Giants fans will forever reflect fondly on his performance in 2000, when he hit 33 home runs, drove in 125 runs and won the National League MVP award for San Francisco's NL West title club.
But the definitive Jeff Kent story actually revolves around a seemingly innocuous encounter in a Scottsdale, Ariz., parking lot in the spring of 1997, when Kent did his Rosa Parks routine with Barry Bonds.
It was the first day of Cactus League workouts, recalled former Giants first baseman J.T. Snow, and the players were boarding vans that would take them to the spare fields at the minor league complex. Kent, newly arrived by trade from Cleveland, was first out of the clubhouse and staked out a seat in the first row.
All was well and good until Bonds, the king of the hill, boarded the van and sensed that something was amiss.
"Dude, get in the back," Bonds told Kent. "That's my seat."
Most newcomers would have simply rolled over, caved to the pecking order and moved their fanny back a few rows to accommodate the face of the franchise. Not Kent.
"I'm not moving," Kent told Bonds. "I was here first. You came after me. You sit in the back."
The give-and-take went on long enough for the other Giants to take notice. After a brief and animated exchange, they were astonished when Bonds shrugged his shoulders, gave up and moved to the back of the vehicle.
Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds didn't always get along, mostly because Kent wasn't afraid to stand up to Bonds.
"We were in the back going, 'Whoa, Kent's putting Bonds in his place,'" Snow said. "There were probably six other guys in the van, and we were all kind of looking at each other.
"Then we got to the field, and Jeff got out of the van like nothing had happened. We went out and practiced, and that was the start of it. From the very first day. Jeff was old-school. He told Barry, 'I was here first. You get in the back.'"
As Kent formally announces his retirement Thursday at Dodger Stadium, his abrasive personality will take a back seat to the accomplishments that make him plaque-worthy. His 351 home runs as a second baseman are 74 more than Ryne Sandberg hit at the position, and he ranks second all-time in RBIs among second basemen to Nap Lajoie.
There are 12 players in the Hall of Fame who have amassed 375 homers, 500 doubles and 1,500 RBIs. Andre Dawson, who logged 67 percent of the Hall of Fame vote this year, also is moving closer to Cooperstown.
Jeff Kent retires with 377 homers, 560 doubles and 1,518 RBIs.
"If you're leading something all-time as a second baseman, it's a no-brainer, isn't it?" said Morgan Ensberg, who played with Kent in Houston in 2003 and '04.
As Kent fades from the scene, many of the postmortems will focus on his reputation as a guy who put a damper on the clubhouse atmosphere. He was renowned for sitting at his locker with his back turned to his teammates as he read motocross and hunting magazines. Kent's demeanor earned him the label of "loner," which he loathed.
But he was more complex than the knee-jerk characterizations. In 2001, before the aforementioned motorcycle accident put a strain on his relationship with the press, Kent received the Good Guy award from the San Francisco media. And several former teammates insist he was fine once you broke through his initial wall and got to know him.
Ellis Burks lockered next to Kent for two years in San Francisco, and recalls numerous conversations about motorcycles, hunting and, of course, the art of hitting a baseball. During a confrontation with Kent in Los Angeles in 2005, Milton Bradley told reporters that Kent had a problem dealing with African-Americans. But Burks never found that to be true. He said he had a "great relationship" with Kent.
"I liked Jeff as a player and as a person," Burks said. "I thought a lot of times he got a bad rap. There were some players who thought he was a racist or a redneck or a good-old-boy type because he liked to hunt and all that stuff. Maybe he rubbed some guys the wrong way with his demeanor. But when it came to playing on the field and coming prepared every day, you couldn't find another guy who compared with him."
Kent was also more than happy to pass along insights and expertise to younger players, but only after he watched them and determined that he wasn't going to be wasting his time.
"I was shocked at how much he helped the young guys," Ensberg said. "Speaking personally, I think it's real easy to play with Jeff Kent. If you play hard and simply try -- if you give an effort and you're willing to sacrifice for the win -- it's very easy to get along with him."
If Kent was a hard guy to figure, it was only natural given his background. He grew up surfing in Huntington Beach, Calif., and attended college in the ultra-liberal enclave at Cal-Berkeley, but fell in love with Texas and ultimately made it his home. Kent told teammates that he felt comfortable in Texas because people gave you a firm handshake, looked you in the eye and took pride in being true to their word.
The son of a police officer, Kent converted to the Mormon faith and occasionally offered up apologies for his salty language. But he rarely backed down from his blunt observations, and that candor was the source of numerous run-ins with Bonds.
"It was a case of two great players clashing," Burks said. "Barry wanted to be the man all the time, and maybe Jeff ruffled his feathers. Barry was always walking with his chest out, and he had the right to do so because he was the man. But sometimes Barry would say something and Jeff would say, 'Jesus, Barry, shut the [bleep] up.' Barry never had anybody talk to him like that, and I think it surprised him. Jeff didn't take any crap from anybody."
Many in the Giants organization thought the two All-Stars fueled each other to be great and were more alike than they cared to admit. Both took pride in playing through injuries, and they were sticklers in their adherence to fundamentals.
"It was a funny thing," Snow said. "They'd go at it verbally in the clubhouse or have a shouting match or a discussion in the food room, on all kinds of topics. Then you'd see them in the dugout high-fiving because Jeff just hit a home run to knock in Barry and put us ahead, and they'd talk about what pitch it was.
"Rich Aurilia and Bill Mueller and I played with them and we'd sit back and shake our heads. They were like an old married couple. One minute you'd think they hated each other. The next minute they were respectful of each other because they had a job to do, and they both did it better than anybody at their positions."
Now their legacies are open to debate. While Bonds is still dogged by a steroid cloud, Kent wins PR points for his vehement opposition to performance enhancers. While Bonds is no longer playing baseball because of an industry-wide lack of interest in his services, Kent has the luxury of leaving on his own terms at age 40.
And here's the ultimate twist: While Bonds is scheduled to appear first on the Hall of Fame ballot, his former teammate, antagonist and verbal sparring partner might very well beat him to the steps of Cooperstown.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.