Cleaning Up Batting fourth and playing second, well-traveled Jeff Kent has found a home in San Francisco, where in two seasons he's become one of the most productive players ever at his position

Feb. 15, 1999
Feb. 15, 1999

Table of Contents
Feb. 15, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Cleaning Up Batting fourth and playing second, well-traveled Jeff Kent has found a home in San Francisco, where in two seasons he's become one of the most productive players ever at his position

The severe vertical lines shooting up Jeff Kent's forehead make
it look as if the sides of his skull are being squeezed together
by a pair of pliers. The San Francisco Giants second baseman is
standing between the kitchen and the living room of his home in
Spicewood, Texas, rocking back and forth, back and forth. Every
time he rocks, the red-oak floorboards squeak. Every time they
squeak, he roils. Rock, squeak, roil. Rock, squeak, roil. Kent's
wife, Dana, says he rocks and roils on this spot at least twice
a day.

This is an article from the Feb. 15, 1999 issue

"I can't stand this squeak!" Kent mutters with sharpening
disgust. "Dana, doesn't it annoy you, too?"

"Not really, Jeff," says Dana. "Every house has a squeak."

"Not my house!"

"You're just too much of a perfectionist."

"You're right, but this squeak still makes me hot. All this
floor required was a little extra effort. Instead, it's a
half-assed job. It's the details that count."

That intensity has helped Kent become one of the top offensive
second basemen in baseball. Despite missing 26 games last season
(mostly because of a sprained right knee), he hit 31 homers and
knocked in 128 runs, the most RBIs by a second baseman since
Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby's 149 for the Chicago Cubs in 1929
(chart, page 60). Coupled with the 121 runs he drove home in
1997, that '98 mark made Kent the first player at his position
since Hornsby to amass more than 120 RBIs in more than one
season. (Hornsby did it five times.) Which is not to imply that
Kent is Cooperstown bound. "I know I'm no Hall of Famer," he
says, "but I'll never [be satisfied with] anything less."

When the Kent family traveled from Spicewood to their in-season
home in Foster City, Calif., last month, Dana and the two
kids--Lauren, 3, and Hunter, 15 months--flew. Kent insisted on
driving a U-Haul the 1,800 miles. "I'm a negative guy," he says.
"I believe to do things right, you have to do them yourself.
Negatives motivate me. On the diamond I'm driven by the fear and
embarrassment of failure. I'm terrified I'll let my teammates

Before being acquired by the Giants in November 1996, the 6'2",
200-pound Kent was viewed around the majors as a tightly coiled
spring--intense, huffy, unapproachable. Yet everyone in San
Francisco, from teammates to front-office staffers, describes
him as personable and surprisingly self-deprecating. "In uniform
Jeff can be brutally hard on himself," says Giants senior vice
president-general manager Brian Sabean. "In civilian clothes
he's totally relaxed, a gentlemanly, soft-spoken cowboy." A
Southern California cowboy. Growing up in Huntington Beach, Kent
got John Wayne's autograph but no ballplayer's. "I never watched
baseball on TV," he says. He still doesn't. "It's slow and
boring. I'm not a fan. Never was."

Motocross was young Jeff's game. He followed in the skid marks
of his father, Alan, a former motorcycle cop (now a police
lieutenant) who at 49 still competes in motocross events all
over California. When Jeff was growing up, Alan was a demanding
parent who didn't take kindly to foolishness. Nor was he given
to carefree chat. He tended to stick to blunt words of command
whenever he and his eldest son played catch on Midbury Drive. If
one of Jeff's throws sailed over his old man's head, he'd have
to fetch it. "Whether I was racing or wiping down Dad's cycle
with a T-shirt, he always kept an eye on me," Kent says. "I'd go
3 for 4, and he'd chastise me for the out. I'd throw a
one-hitter, and he'd tell me I could have gotten the hitter on a
curve. If something went wrong, I'd keep it from Dad. I wanted
him to think I was perfect."

Kent's early pro career was anything but. In 1989, after his
junior year at Cal, he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in
the 20th round. He needed only three minor league seasons before
making the big club, where he hit instantly, belting a double
off the wall in left center in his first at bat and drawing a
standing ovation. He went on to whack eight homers in 65 games,
though he batted only .240. "The '92 Jays meshed perfectly,"
Kent says. "Not a hint of divisiveness." Though Toronto won the
World Series that year, Kent keeps his championship ring
entombed within a sock in his bedroom bureau. "I'm proud of the
World Series ring," he says, "but I don't wear it proudly. I
wasn't there." In late August the Jays, needing pitching for
their pennant drive, traded him to the New York Mets for
righthander David Cone.

"I thought, Oh, great! I just got traded for the strikeout
leader," Kent recalls. "They're going to love me in New York."
They didn't. "I got ragged on even before I reached the
airport," he says. On his way to hitting .239 in the last five
weeks of the season, Kent was booed at Shea Stadium. "I went
from getting a standing O in Toronto to getting pelted with
tomatoes in the Big Apple," he says. In the off-season Kent
tried to warm up the Mets faithful through regular visits to
family shelters in Brooklyn, hospitals in Manhattan and the
elementary school on Long Island.

In his first full season with New York, Kent changed some of
those catcalls to cheers by setting club records for homers (21)
and RBIs (80) by a second baseman. Then he began the '94 season
with a hit parade that drew national attention: .375, eight
homers and 26 RBIs in the opening month. But Kent hit .269 with
six dingers and 42 RBIs over the rest of the strike-interrupted
campaign. "I'd felt like I was riding the fast train," says
Kent, "and suddenly people asked me how I ever got aboard.
That's what knocked me off. I started thinking, Well, how am I
doing this? When you're on that fast train, you're not supposed
to think. You're supposed to ride."

Over the next couple of seasons, it got worse. His up-and-down
year at the plate in '96 was further complicated by a shift to
third base, a position he had played occasionally in the majors
but never full time until that season. "I hated third," he says.
It showed. Once, after a Shea Stadium ball girl backhanded a
foul ball, a fan shouted, "Hey, Kent. You should trade positions
with her." When errors--21 in 89 games--began mounting faster
than the national debt, Kent became defensive about his defense.
"Bobbling a ball would so humiliate me that I couldn't speak,"
he says.

Kent recalls one New York scribe writing that Kent misplayed
more grounders during infield practice than any other player. He
reacted to the endless caviling personally. "I didn't hate New
York," says Dana. "I just hated what it turned Jeff into. It got
to a point where anger was consuming him. A very unhealthy point."

Still, Kent was upset when the Mets traded him to the Cleveland
Indians in July '96. Jeff the perfectionist told Dana, "I really
wanted to win a pennant in New York."

Dana the pragmatist told Jeff, "Get over it. We're leaving."

After finishing the season in Cleveland--where he variously
played first, second, third and served as the designated hitter,
batting .265--Kent was shipped to San Francisco in a six-player
trade for, among others, popular power-hitting third baseman
Matt Williams. Giants manager Dusty Baker wasn't all that crazy
about the trade. "I figured Jeff was either going to play his
way in or play his way out of here," he says. "On the Mets, I'd
seen him strike out, storm the dugout and tear stuff up. Boom!
Bam! Bang! It sounded like Batman. To Jeff, every at bat was
life or death."

Baker helped Kent get comfortable again, batting him cleanup
behind All-Star leftfielder Barry Bonds, which boosted Kent's
confidence and ensured that he'd get good pitches to hit. Baker
also returned Kent to second base, which made him feel more
secure, so much so that he is now considered a solid second
baseman. "His range isn't as great as some," concedes first
baseman J.T. Snow. "But nobody's better at hanging in there on
the DP." He may hang in too well. Last season, while Kent was
turning two in a June 9 game with Seattle, Mariners shortstop
Alex Rodriguez did a barrel roll into Kent, whose right knee
became hyperextended. When he went on the disabled list, the
Giants were in first place in the National League West, a game
ahead of the San Diego Padres. When he came back on July 10, San
Francisco trailed the Padres (the eventual division winners) by
five. On the strength of his stretch drive--11 homers and 42
RBIs in his last 35 games--the team forced a playoff with the
Chicago Cubs for the wild card (which the Cubs won 5-3).

Until last year, when his average was a career-high .297, Kent
was a schizoid slugger: He either hit for power or average,
never both. "How I hit usually depended on where I was in the
lineup and what the team needed of me," he says. "Plus, I was
greedy and stubborn at the plate. I wouldn't give in to a pitch.
If I wanted to pull the ball, I'd pull it--no matter if it was
outside or inside. With maturity I've become adaptable. If a
pitch is outside, I'll go outside. If it's in, I'll go in. I'm
willing to make adjustments."

The biggest adjustment has been altering his stance. After
getting jettisoned by the Indians, he had an epiphany in his
garage. "I was lifting weights and wondering why I was having so
much trouble driving the ball," he says. "I thought of the way
[Seattle's] Edgar Martinez holds his bat, and it dawned on me--I'm
holding mine too low! If I held my hands higher, I would swing
directly down on the ball." Instead of almost resting on his
shoulder, Kent's bat now fairly hovers over his head.

Coming off last year's success, Kent has eased up on
himself--some. "Jeff has learned to live with imperfections a
little," says Dana, who was Jeff's high school sweetheart and
who is expecting the couple's third child next month. "Maybe it
has to do with turning 30. Or maybe having two toddlers has
mellowed him. When Lauren wets her diaper, Jeff understands
there's nothing he can do about it."

However, he can have an influence in other ways. For every run
he drives in, Kent donates $500 to a scholarship fund he set up
for women athletes at Cal. Last season he and four corporate
sponsors raised almost $114,000 for Women Driven. Kent attended
Cal on a two-thirds scholarship and remembers what it was like
to struggle financially. (When he left, he was a little more
than a year's worth of credits short of a degree.) Last spring
he signed a three-year, $18 million contract extension, but he
owns just one car: the 1986 Toyota pickup his dad bought him in
high school.

"I accepted the [responsibility] of being wealthy, and I wanted
to create a program for people who have been traditionally
underserved," Kent says. "I want women to use sports to [get a
college education and] become professionals. They might not all
be professional athletes, but they'll be professional
somebodies: teachers, doctors, businesswomen. They'll make a
difference somehow. That's what I want to do: make a difference."

He says this while seated in the bleachers at a south Texas
cattle auction. Beside him sits Lenn Crider, his foreman. Crider
evaluates each Hereford, Charolais and Brahma, front, back and
profile, as if he were an art critic sizing up a newly found
masterpiece. Greenhorn Kent listens closely to the critiques,
which are rigorous but almost kindly. "I just bought a
3,600-acre spread around here that I hope to turn into a game
management ranch," Kent tells one cowpoke.

The ranch owned by baseball's foremost perfectionist is about a
half hour from Nolan Ryan's. Kent calls the Hall of Fame
fireballer about once a month for tips on raising cattle. "Maybe
I can get Nolan to sell me a calf autographed with his branding
iron," Kent says. "That's my idea of perfection."

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Happy trails Kent's ranch is down the road a piece from Nolan Ryan's.COLOR PHOTO: MARTHA JANE STANTON/S.F. GIANTSCOLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Boo York A streaky hitter and uncomfortable third baseman as a Met, the tightly wound Kent suffered when the fans at Shea came down hard on him.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Pop up While dad U-Hauled it solo, Hunter, Lauren and Dana (from left) flew to California.

Second to One

Despite missing 26 games last season with a knee injury, Jeff
Kent (scoring, below) drove in 128 runs, a number that put him
in a class with Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. Among second
basemen in major league history, Kent trails only the Rajah for
most RBIs in a season (Hornsby had years of 152, 149 and 143),
most RBIs in consecutive seasons (Hornsby had 278 in 1921-22,
Kent 249 in 1997-98) and best at-bat-to-RBI ratio in a season
(minimum 100 RBIs). In the last of those categories, here are
the 10 best years. --David Sabino


Rogers Hornsby, Cardinals 1925 504 143 3.52
Rogers Hornsby, Cubs 1929 602 149 4.04
Rogers Hornsby, Cardinals 1922 623 152 4.10
Jeff Kent, Giants 1998 526 128 4.11
Joe Morgan, Reds 1976 472 111 4.25
Nap Lajoie, Phil. Athletics 1901 544 125 4.35
Joe Gordon, Indians 1948 550 124 4.44
Tony Lazzeri, Yankees 1932 510 113 4.51
Rogers Hornsby, N.Y. Giants 1927 568 125 4.54
Rogers Hornsby, Cardinals 1921 592 126 4.70

"I'd seen him strike out, storm the dugout and tear stuff up,"
says Baker. "To Jeff, every at bat was life or death."