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."