Kent has permanent place in SF history
Retired slugger leaves behind esteemed Giants legacy
SAN FRANCISCO -- You can debate whether Jeff Kent ranked among the best players in Giants history. But you can't argue that he was among the most important performers they've had.The Giants were the dregs of the National League immediately preceding Kent's arrival. Despite possessing Barry Bonds and Matt Williams, two of the league's most feared hitters, the Giants struggled from 1994-96, not only finishing below .500 each year, but also posting declining winning percentages of .478, .465 and .420. Then Kent joined the Giants in a six-player trade involving Williams from the Cleveland Indians before the 1997 season. That launched a six-year stretch in which the Giants became one of the league's most formidable teams and Kent evolved into a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. Kent hit 377 home runs in his 17-year career, including a Major League-record 351 as a second baseman. "That trade changed the direction of the franchise for the good," said Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, an assistant GM with the Giants at the time. Although Kent will end his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who said on Wednesday that the 40-year-old will officially announce his retirement on Thursday, many will remember that he began building his reputation as an offensive force with the Giants. That prompts another debate. Would Kent, who hit well but not overwhelmingly (.274) in five Major League seasons before arriving in San Francisco, have thrived as he did without hitting one spot ahead of or behind Bonds in the batting order, as was the case throughout their years together? Then again, would Bonds, the all-time home run leader, have prospered as much without Kent to complement him? They homered 40 times in the same game -- 27th on the all-time list, according to The SABR Baseball List & Record Book. Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews are the career leaders with 75. But Bonds and Kent played only six seasons together. Many believe that Bonds and Kent, who sparred in a San Diego dugout in 2002 and were known for their abrasive personalities, spurred each other to excel. "I think they fed off of each other," said Rich Aurilia, Kent's double-play partner at shortstop with the Giants. "They provided each other energy," said Brian Johnson, a Giants catcher from 1997-98. "In a normal situation, everybody would ignore them. But they couldn't ignore each other. There was always that one-upmanship." Colletti pointed out that the year after Kent edged Bonds to capture the 2000 NL Most Valuable Award, the latter set a single-season record with 73 homers. "Having that combination, I thought, would push Barry to greater heights," Colletti said. "I thought they competed every day against each other, and the organization and fans benefited from it." One more argument: Is Kent a Hall of Famer?
Some believe that his record home run total, backed by his respectable .290 career batting average and overall production, qualify him for enshrinement."That, right there, speaks for itself," former Giants first baseman J.T. Snow said, referring to Kent's homers. "I would guess the next stop for him somewhere down the road will be Cooperstown," Aurilia said. Kent's critics claim that he was a third baseman, a position he played 157 times, masquerading as a second baseman. But Aurilia defended him: "Everybody always knocked his defense, but he always did a better-than-average job. He turned the double play well. He wasn't going to make a boneheaded mistake." Kent finished with 74 more homers as a second baseman than Ryne Sandberg, a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee. Colletti, who worked in media relations and baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs when Sandberg starred for them, believes that Kent compares favorably. "We know where Sandberg's resume got him," Colletti said. "While I see differences in the two players, [Kent's] body of work is way above where it needs to be [for the Hall]." Kent's credentials multiplied as he played by the Bay. In six years with the Giants, he compiled a .297 batting average, 175 home runs and 689 RBIs. Those figures rank fifth, eighth and seventh, respectively, on the franchise's San Francisco-era list. By comparison, Kent batted .284 as a non-Giant. Kent topped 100 RBIs eight times and hit 20 or more homers in 12 seasons -- and went 6-for-6 in both categories as a Giant. Besides winning MVP, he finished among the top 10 in MVP voting in three other years with San Francisco, represented the club in three of his five All-Star Game appearances and collected three of his four Silver Sluggers as a Giant. His career-high 128 RBIs in 1998 broke Rogers Hornsby's 71-year-old franchise record for second basemen. Kent contributed heavily to one of the most successful stretches in team history. The Giants averaged 91 victories per season during his tenure with them. They reached the postseason three times, not counting a loss at Chicago in the 1998 Wild Card playoff. The Giants' only comparable period since they moved to San Francisco in 1958 was 1962-67, when they averaged 93 wins per year but captured just one pennant. The dual ascent of the Giants and Kent occurred because Brian Sabean, making his first trade less than two months after becoming general manager, was willing to part with Williams, one of the team's most popular players. Williams, the third baseman who accumulated 247 homers from 1987-96 with the Giants, went to the Indians with outfielder Trenidad Hubbard for Kent, right-handers Julian Tavarez and Joe Roa, shortstop Jose Vizcaino and $1 million. Fans criticized Sabean so scathingly that he was forced to defend himself by saying, "I'm not an idiot." He wasn't, because the Giants had done their homework on Kent. Colletti asked Dallas Green, one of his Cubs cohorts who managed Kent with the New York Mets, for some background. "He said, 'If you're looking for somebody who's going to have a great time with everybody and be happy-go-lucky, you've got the wrong guy. If you're looking for somebody who's going to fight you every day to win, that's who he is.'"
And the public stopped howling as Kent collected 29 homers and 121 RBIs to help the Giants win the NL West in '97.Kent's drive to win might be his most enduring legacy, eclipsing his Giants heroics, lifetime statistics, or his Hall of Fame chances. Snow, whose baseball life parallels Kent's -- they played against each other in high school, summer leagues, college, the Alaska and Cape Cod leagues, the Minor and Major Leagues -- essentially confirmed this. Calling it "ironic" that Kent's career had generated such discussion, Snow said, "He's not a guy who got into the history of the game or the numbers. If you talked to him, he'd rather be out racing motorcycles or motocross. But I knew when 7 o'clock rolled around, he was going to be out there either playing hard or playing hurt. ... If I'm starting a team and he's [available], I'd want him on my team."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.