Kent never, ever backed down
Originally Published: January 22, 2009By 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.
"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.
Tom Hauck /AllsportJeff Kent and Barry Bonds didn't always get along, mostly because Kent wasn't afraid to stand up to Bonds.
Los Angeles Dodgers
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