The Houston Astros, left for dead earlier this summer, have scratched back into the wild-card chase. But that's not why these last couple of weeks are historically significant. This could be the last time baseball fans see 36-year-old Jeff Kent play in anger.
While his bat is as lively as ever—only Mark Loretta is having a better season among N.L. second basemen—Kent's mind is on the great beyond. "I've got friends now that are going in for surgeries for cancer at 50, 60 years old, and that's not too far away from me," the morbid second baseman recently told the Houston Chronicle. "I don't want to live in a locker room my whole life. There's other things I enjoy besides baseball." As connoisseurs of the nut-case athlete know well, what Kent enjoys even more than baseball is acting like a loon. With Albert Belle retired and John Rocker a washout, the flecks of gray in Jeff Kent's push-broom mustache are a warning to us all: The loose cannon ballplayer is a dying breed.
The national pastime used to overflow with borderline psychotics like Ty Cobb, Cap Anson, and Billy Martin—players who beat up handicapped fans and their own teammates for laughs. Remember, these were the game's superstars, not fly-by-night pitchers whose lone career highlight is throwing a lawn chair. When utility infielders and middle relievers have to provide the frisson of violence beneath baseball's genteel exterior, you know something is wrong with the grand old game—the stars are getting a little too fat and happy.
But in his 13-year career, nobody has ever accused Jeff Kent of backing down from a fight. My favorite moment of the 2004 season came when Kent, incensed by a called strike, made like Baretta and grabbed umpire Jeff Kellogg by the lapels—if they had been in the outfield, there would have been a Kellogg-shaped impression in the left-field wall. The talent scouts in the MLB commissioner's office gave Kent credit for the innovative lapel grab, suspending him for three games. That bettered the piddling two-game rap he got for merely bumping an ump the year before.
Huffing and puffing with the men in blue is good for a laugh, but it's not exactly inspired—everybody goes after the umps. What really sets Kent apart is attacking the greatest player of all time. When they were Giants teammates, Kent and Barry Bonds were like Martin and Lewis. Exhibit A is the 2001 Sports Illustrated column by Rick Reilly that portrayed the G-men as an Army of One—Bonds had his own PR man, masseuse, nutritionist, and big-screen television while the rest of the team was left to muddle through with a posh clubhouse, free food, and seven-figure contracts. When Reilly came calling, the usually tight-lipped Kent got downright loquacious. "That's Barry. ... I've learned not to worry about it or think about it or analyze it," he moaned. "I was raised to be a team guy, and I am, but Barry's Barry. It took me two years to learn to live with it, but I learned."
Fortunately for us, he wasn't as understanding in 2002. In a game against the San Diego Padres, Bonds and Kent were captured by dugout cameras as they screamed in each other's faces before moving on to some heavy-duty chest shoving. Even more delightful than the sight of multimillionaire All-Stars rumbling like kids on the playground was Kent's admission after the game: "Just add that to the half dozen times we've done it before. It's no big deal."
No big deal?!? For all the times Shaq and Kobe (and Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia and every other pair of feuding teammates in recent years) whined about each other via rap lyrics and handpicked interviews, those cowards never had as much as a pillow fight. But here was an MVP admitting that he duked it out with another MVP on a semiregular basis. When reporters surrounded Kent's locker the next day to learn more about this Bay Area death match, the second baseman turned around and pulled down his pants. His bare ass had no comment.
The Giants made the World Series in 2002, losing to the Angels in seven games. But fighting Barry Bonds, mooning the media, and winning the pennant didn't come close to Kent's greatest moment of the year. One spring day, he strolled into the clubhouse with a cast on his left wrist. For veteran Kent-watchers, the possible causes were endless. Had he brawled with the pitching machine after getting buzzed during batting practice? Injured a tendon from excessive bird flipping?
The answer, Kent said, was that he had simply slipped and fallen while washing his truck. But witnesses soon came forward who claimed to have seen Kent fall off his motorcycle while popping wheelies on the day in question. Despite the fact that it's hard to confuse washing a truck with riding a motorcycle, Kent stuck by his story. "People are having fun with it, but it's not funny to me," he scolded. "I can't play a game I love to play, and am paid to play. When you make fun of someone washing his truck, that's sad."
In 2004, Kent continued to follow George Costanza's advice on rhetoric—it's not a lie if you believe it to be true. With his former teammate Bonds under suspicion for steroid abuse, Kent sought to add some historical perspective to the BALCO controversy. "Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth—how do you know those guys didn't do steroids?" he asked. With pointed insights like that, it's a shame that Kent wasn't around to make Ken Burns' Baseball watchable. Perhaps he would have been brave enough to point out that baseball would have integrated in the 1930s, but for the Negro League's unfortunate reliance on the aluminum bat.
So, why is Kent such an angry middle-aged man? Though he grew up in Southern California and went to Berkeley, Kent would probably punch anyone who called him laid-back or a free spirit. As a kid, he embraced his ultra-intense old man, a demanding motorcycle cop who was never satisfied with 3-for-4 at the plate when a perfect day was in reach.
He might have been a sourpuss since Little League, but cocktail party shrinks would probably point to Kent's first season as the moment when he transformed into baseball's Bruce Banner. Before one late-season game, some Mets teammates stole his civvies and replaced them with a Superfly-style get-up. Kent didn't get the practical joke. "I felt I was being taken advantage of," he pouted. "They wanted to go overboard. I stuck up for myself." According to the New York Times, his fellow Mets then "savagely ridiculed" the uptight rookie. Maybe if Kent had taken to the outfit, his teammates would have loved him, and he would have grown up to be just another even-tempered ballplayer. Thank God he liked to dress himself.