This San Francisco Chronicle article piqued my interest, mainly because it raised some interesting observations about former Blue Jay/Met/Indian/Giant/Astro/Dodger Jeff Kent — a somewhat odd figure whom you could never quite figure out, even when you thought you might actually be close to cracking the code.
The one thing we — reporters who covered him, front offices who employed him, ballplayers who played with him — all knew to be true was that Kent didn’t care what people thought of him. He said what was on his mind, political correctness be darned. In an era where pro athletes are increasingly more diplomatic as they choose their words, Kent was having none of that. If he had an opinion, and you asked him about it, he’d unload.
That characteristic alone might help his Hall of Fame chances later this year, when his name appears on the ballot for the first time. More on that later.
Kent had a few different personas. He was well-known for his complete disinterest in getting close to his teammates on any level, treating them, and his profession, in the same manner as the decision makers in the front office. This was a business, the clubhouse was his office, and his teammates were nothing more than coworkers with whom he had one thing in common: they played baseball for a living.
Before one particular road game in California while he was playing for the Astros, Kent was debating with a teammate on a random topic, and the teammate joked, “Careful. We may not be able to be friends anymore.” Kent shot back, “We’re not friends.” The teammate gave one of those half-laughs, the kind you use when you’re not quite sure how to react. Kent said, again, stone-faced, “No. Really. We are not friends.”
That was just how Jeff Kent was. He wasn’t mean-spirited; he was just blunt, and a little strange. What else was he? An amazingly talented baseball player who had an intolerance for losing and stupidity. He fumed after losses. When games were lost because of mental mistakes, he’d sit at his locker after, silently stewing with such intensity you could practically see the steam coming out of his ears.
That’s also what made Kent so respected. His teammates didn’t get him, but they liked him. They didn’t dare invite him to dinner, ever, but they admired him for his work ethic and absolute disdain for losing. Maybe he wasn’t the guy you’d grab a brewskie with after a day game in Chicago, but he be at the top of anyone’s list as a desired teammate on club with a chance to win a championship.
Kent had another side to him as well, but it was one he mainly liked to keep hidden while he was working. A lot of his weird-guy persona, in my opinion, was simply a ploy to keep people guessing, as well as prevent anyone from getting too close. In truth, he’s a nice guy. Bright. Insightful. Even, at times, gracious. (During one particular conversation when he was scowling and purposely being difficult, I threatened to out him as a nice guy. He laughed, briefly, and then put his “I’m so annoyed by you reporters” steely-gazed face back on.)
After two years of covering him, I really grew to appreciate him, even like him, save for the two or three times I wanted to throw things at him.
Anyway, the fact that Kent could not have cared less what anyone thought of him during his career as a ballplayer makes him a somewhat intriguing figure now, for two reasons: he was one of the few players who, while active, railed passionately about his disdain for performance-enhancing drugs, and he’s eligible for election to the Hall of Fame next year.
As cited in the aforementioned San Francisco Chronicle article, Kent lobbied for steroid testing while his union was fighting it and later fought for tests for amphetamines and blood testing for human growth hormone. Kent wasn’t the only one with this stance, but he was certainly one of the few who not only wasn’t afraid to say it out loud, but also invited reporters to ask him about it.
I always wondered why Kent’s outspokenness on the subject didn’t garner more attention. Or Lance Berkman’s, for that matter. Puma also would rail to anyone who wanted to talk about it. He used unique tactics to get his point across, ranging from putting a sign above his locker for reporters at Spring Training that said, “Knee good. Steroids bad” to sticking his arm out and saying, “Here. Take my blood, weekly if you want to.”
Kent’s career stats suggest he will be a Hall candidate worthy of serious consideration. He compiled a .290 batting average with a .356 on-base percentage and 377 home runs over a 17-year career. He was one of a handful of second basemen that in many ways redefined the position that used to be acknowledged more by its defensive importance.
(He’s also the only Major Leaguer in history whose name, if Googled, will appear next to Lisa Welchel in the category of “People also searched for.” So there’s that.)
In a time when Hall of Fame voting has become more controversial than conversational, Kent’s mere presence on the ballot might provide some solace for the voters. While no one can say for sure who did or didn’t use, Kent’s probably as close to a sure thing on the list of players who didn’t. Will that help him? His numbers were great, but maybe not great enough for the voting body to determine he is worthy of the Hall of Fame. Or were they? Will the fact that he presumably played clean in the heart of an era that most feel was anything but help him?
And, as this article states, will the voters have a soft spot, perhaps even an appreciation, for Kent for being on the seemingly “right” side of the PED argument?
While it’s highly unlikely Kent will be voted in his first time on the ballot, it will be interesting to see what kind of percentage he receives. I’m guessing it’ll be significantly higher than a lot of his contemporaries whose stats deem them more worthy candidates for the Hall.
I took a slightly bold approach yesterday after the Hall of Fame announcement revealed that Craig Biggio did not get elected this year, his first on the ballot.
I suggested to Astros fans that Biggio not making the Hall this year is a good thing.
This was risky, obviously, given that I live in Houston, have spent most of my career either covering or working for the Astros and have spent most of the last several years communicating — via email, Twitter, blogs, whatever — with a more passionate segment of the Astros fan base. But hear me out. I really do believe Biggio not making the Hall was the best thing for not only Biggio, but also for Houstonians and Astros fans who have waited this long — precisely 51 years — to see a Houston player elected to the Hall of Fame.
The Hall voting process this year was complicated, controversial and brought out all kinds of emotions from writers and fans, from angst to anger to downright confusion. The conversations began pretty much the day after last year’s induction ceremony and gained steam in the weeks and months leading up when to the voters — 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America — received their ballots and filed their selections.
The debates were atypical from those that usually surround Hall of Fame voting. Most of you followed along through the process. Performance-enhancing drugs and the “Steroid Era” were discussed more than statistics. Writers were conflicted about what to do with the stars from the 1990s and early 2000s who are on the ballot for the first (or second, or third) time.
Their opinions varied, which seemed to irk readers more than if everyone had taken one sweeping stance. Some voted for the best of the best, regardless of if they were presumed “dirty” or not. Some flatly refused to vote for anyone who had been implicated, either by failing a test or admitting to taking PEDs, or anyone who had large upper bodies that didn’t pass the eye test. Others opted not to vote for anyone from the era, yet, even if they were presumed clean — a sort of way to punish the entire generation that belonged to a union that didn’t seem all that interested in implementing stringent testing a decade ago.
The point is, the narrative went on and on. And on. And on. It hasn’t stopped. The debate continues, and probably won’t truly die down until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in about a month and the writers have something else on which to focus.
That brings me to Biggio. Let’s pretend for a moment that he did get elected. Do you honestly think the attention would have immediately switched from scathing articles about the PED era to trumpets and pageantry and celebration, just like that? Do you really, truly believe the writers and networks (other than MLB Network) would have spent an adequate amount of time lauding Biggio’s stellar career and giving it the recognition it deserves?
Mark me down for “no.” I believe Biggio would have had a bit part in a larger, ongoing story that the media has fixated itself on for months. It wouldn’t be so much about who got in, but rather, about who didn’t. Whether we like it or not, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa will continue to come up in conversation more than anyone else, and this is going to drag on for a while.
In his press conference with media on Thursday (photo above), Biggio was asked more about the era he played in and the players he played with and against than what he actually did during his 20-year Major League career. I believe locally, Biggio would have been properly lauded had he been elected to the Hall. But on a grander, national scale, I think we would have witnessed something quite different. And I think the trend would have continued right up until induction day this summer.
Through my years around the Astros, there were many times where I would wonder if they were somehow prone to “hard luck” situations. Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t some melodramatic cry that the team is cursed. It’s nothing close to that. Simply, it seemed like there was just always…something.
Jeff Bagwell, for example, was the greatest hitter in franchise history, but instead of his career ending with proper adulation from the fans and a fitting retirement for a player who never bailed for the greener pastures of free agency, his tenure as an Astro ended with a bum shoulder and messy arguments that involved Bagwell, ownership and insurance companies.
The Astros finally won the pennant — their only pennant — in 2005. And, they were swept in the World Series, mainly because they developed an inexplicable inability to score runs. A couple of years later, before a packed house and frenzied home crowd, Biggio logged hit No. 3,000 — and got thrown out at second trying to stretch it into a double. I remember shaking my head and thinking, “It’s always…something.”
So, when the Hall announcement was looming, and I was trying to gauge if Biggio would make it in or not, my first assumption was, if he makes it, he’ll barely squeak in. He’s either not making it with around 70 percent of the vote or just getting in with 76 or so. Is that truly how you want this to go? Biggio making it in with one of the lowest vote totals in history so that he can always be known as “the Hall of Famer with one of the lowest vote totals in history”?
Then, as the minutes crept toward the 1 p.m. CT announcement, the sentiment through Social Media was that if anyone gets in, it’ll be only one person — Biggio. And my thoughts turned to what the scene would be in Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame folks would make it a spectacular day for Biggio, for his family, the Astros and the fans who traveled to Cooperstown. They do things first rate, always have, always will. But it’s the peripheral stuff — the media, the line of questioning, the storylines in general — that are cause for worry.
Biggio would be stamped as the first true PED-era player to make it to the Hall. He’d be asked about it ad nauseum. He’d have no choice but to talk about Bonds and Clemens and Sosa and others.
And I thought, my goodness. There’s a really good chance Biggio will be a footnote at his own Hall of Fame induction.
So count me as one who’s kind of glad the way things turned out. There is no doubt in my mind that Biggio is getting into the Hall of Fame, and it will probably happen next year. He has 3,060 hits. His 668 doubles are the most ever by a right-handed hitter. He’s the only player in history with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs. It is ludicrous that he was not elected to the Hall of Fame this year. He will get in.
But as absurd as it is that he garnered only 68 percent of the votes this time, I think Biggio dodged a bullet this year by not making it. Next year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas appear on the ballot for the first time. All three will merit first-ballot consideration. It’s entirely possible Biggio will be on the dais in Cooperstown with players who be celebrated for simply being great, and nothing else.
Is that so terrible?