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Cleaning Up
Franz Lidz
February 15, 1999
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
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February 15, 1999

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

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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 bestat-bat-to-RBI ratio in a season (minimum 100 RBIs). In the last of those categories, here are the 10 best years.
David Sabino

PLAYER, TEAM

YEAR

AB

RBIs

AB/RBI

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

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.

"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 down."

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."

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