JEFF KENT perpetually wore the kind of grave face that made you expect the next thing out of his mouth would be, "License and registration, please." He was, in fact, the son of a cop. "Hence," he said upon his retirement last week, "the mustache." Hence, too, a baseball career born of somber earnestness, a trait not typically associated with a standing as glamorous as the Hall of Fame. Kent, however, belongs there, his workaday skills adding up to a kind of accidental Hall of Famer.
Baseball, the game and its fraternal culture, never came easy for Kent. As late as his 29th birthday, he was an unremarkable .274 career hitter with 78 home runs and was about to play for his fourth team. But in San Francisco, with Giants manager Dusty Baker as his mentor, Kent developed into one of the top slugging second basemen in history. He drove in 100 runs for six consecutive seasons and eight times in all, both unprecedented at his position. He hit not just more home runs as a second baseman than anybody else (351), but way more—27% more. (A distant second is Ryne Sandberg, who was enshrined with numbers that fall short of Kent's across the board.) Kent is one of only four players to drive in 1,500 runs while predominantly playing the middle infield. His company is extraordinary: Rogers Hornsby, Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez.
Kent played second base with the same ramrod-straight style he used as a hitter, his athleticism paling next to that of fellow Hall-bound contemporaries Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio. He always looked a couple quarts low on oil. But such rigidity made his final numbers all the more impressive, a testament to his unyielding—and sometimes unpopular—sense of purpose. Kent loathed the inter-club fraternization of modern ballplayers, was known more for battling teammates ( Barry Bonds and Milton Bradley, most infamously) than befriending them, and spoke strongly against the performance-enhancing drugs of his era (although not until the culture of silence was broken by others and by drug testing).
"I'm just completely embarrassed by the steroid era," he said at his retirement news conference, an event marked by a few uncharacteristic emotional, weepy jags. Who knew? Only when the job was done, when baseball's highway patrolman hung up his aviators, did Kent let down his guard. Sandberg needed three ballots to gain enshrinement. Likewise, as happened in his playing days, it may take a few years to rightly appreciate Kent.