Is It Kent's Farewell Tour?

Fans seem to puzzle major league players and well they should because even if you were wearing the uniform of his favorite team, you might be loudly (and often unfairly) criticized. Fans want to identify with winners and seem betrayed when their club loses, thus voicing their displeasure.

However, some, like Paul Lo Duca and Russell Martin can do no wrong.

Then again fans never really warmup to other fine players. J.D. Drew is one example; many disliked the way he took pitches just off the plate, hearing the same criticism Ted Williams heard while with the Red Sox.

Although Drew had good power and a solid average, he was probably a number two hitter -- with his on-base percentages near the .400 level -- and was the perfect hitter to set the table. One cannot score if one cannot get on base.

Gary Sheffield was another who the fans didn't identify with. A wonderously talented hitter, the numbers he put up never quite satisfied the great majority of Dodger fans. A rare blend of power, average and plate control, he set a single season home run record (43 in 2000), set an L.A. record .643 slugging average and tied the club mark with a .438 on-base percentage. His OPS mark of 1.081 is one of the best in club history.

That brings us to Jeff Kent, the point of this essay. He will never win the Mr. Congeniality award in the clubhouse or on the field, a fact that bothers him not a little.

He is quiet in the clubhouse, does his work and goes home. The perception is that he is saying, "I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to play ball." That also convinces some that he is in the game only for the money.

But it doesn't account for the fact that he didn't sign his option of $9 million until he was satisfied that the club would add enough power/pitching to make them contenders in 2008. Otherwise, he said, he would hang up his bat and glove.

Some look only at his numbers -- which are top flight for a 39-year-old -- but he convinced one skeptic who watched a seminal moment in Colorado on the final day of a July road trip in 2007.

On what was scheduled to be a four game series, the Dodgers won 5-4 to give Brad Penny his 13th win in 14 decisions. But then after a rainout, Colorado won the second game and led Los Angeles 9-5 into the final game.

With two out in the ninth and no one on base, Kent came up for the fifth time. He punched a ball into the gap between short and third and it looked like the game was over.

But Kent, running like a man half his age, beat the throw to first base with a headlong dive. Luis Gonzalez and Nomar Garciaparra followed with singles, scoring one run and James Loney singled to load the bases.

Andre Ethier hit a shot down the left field line that looked like a game-tying double but it hooked foul and moments later he struck out to end the game.

A dispassionate player, particularly one of his advanced age, does not run hard on the sort of routine ball Kent hit with two out. And he certainly doesn't dive into first base if winning the game wasn't important.

Kent did both, demonstrating for those who observed the remarkable effort, his Hall of Fame credentials.

His performance, completely overlooked by even the Dodger fans in attendance, did two things. It gave him his fourth hit of the game, boosting his average to .305, and it strained his hamstring badly enough to put him out of action for a week.

It also ended a month during which he hit .447 (34-for-76), third highest in L.A. history behind Pedro Guerrero's .460 in July of 1985 and Willie Davis' .459 in August of 1969.

He missed the entire six-game homestand against the Giants and Diamondbacks and the Kent-less Dodgers lost five of the six games, dropping them from a first place tie to four games behind in the blink of an eye. The team would never again be closer than three games out of first place the rest of the season.

After Kent returned to the lineup, he hit .267 the rest of the month of August, then hit racheted it up to .348 in September but the club never really challenged again.

Is there any wonder his frustration boiled over in the final weeks of the season, complaining about the younger players who didn't know how to win?

Those in the dugout the final day of July and saw Kent demonstrate just what it really takes to win should have quickly learned.

Those involved in the shouting match between the veterans and the rookies that never should have left the clubhouse agree that the occurance was overblown and settled almost imediately.

But those fans who fancy Kent before, shook their heads knowingly and those who were ambivelant tended to agree with them.

This season fans will have a chance to see this remarkable second baseman in action, perhaps for the final season and almost certainly for the last time in a Dodger uniform, given the youthful revolution that has remade the Dodger roster and will continue to do so in 2008.

Kent has been Kent, which is to say his own man, throughout his 16-year major league career, a career that included stops with the Mets, Indians, Giants and Astros before he landed in Los Angeles.

His statistics are staggering.

He finished 2007 with 537 doubles, 27th all time, passing during the season such icons as Good Goslin, Andre Dawson, Roberto Alomar, Tony Perez, Mark Grace, Ed Delahanty, Willie Mays, Dave Parker, Cap Anson and Lou Gehrig on the list.

The 20 home runs he hit in 2007 boosts his total to 365, the most home runs by a second baseman in major league history (60 of them for the Dodgers, the third most by a second baseman), boosting him past Dick Allen, Lee May, Greg Vaughn, Yogi Berra,, Johnny Mize, Gary Gaetti, Joe DiMaggio and tying him for 65th on the all-time charts.

The numbers go on and on: 1,459 runs batted in (52nd all-time), one of only 16 who have 350 homers and 500 doubles; 10 or more homers for the 16th consecutive season.

Roger Kahn, in Games We Used to Play, noted "Disturbing paradoxes surround an aging baseball player. He is old but not gray; tired but not short of breath; slow but not fat as he drives himself down the first base line. Long after the game, when the old ball player thinks seriously, he realizes that he has become obsolete at an age when most men are still moving toward their prime. It is a melancholy thing, geriatrics for a fourty-year-old."

Fans of all kinds, and particularly Dodger fans, should avoid pre-conceived notions about this remarkable man, who in the twilight of his career is slow afoot and in the field, still burns with a fire that drive him to win one more pennant and perhaps transplant that drive into a talented group of young Dodgers.

Love him or hate him or something in between, enjoy him while you can, his kind doesn't come along all that often.

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