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Oft-Traded Jeff Kent Has Become a Big Man in the Land of the Giants

July 12, 1997|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — Maybe it's the winning. With the San Francisco Giants atop the National League West Division, one can hardly question Jeff Kent's hunky-dory outlook.

Maybe it's the success. By the All-Star break, Kent was only one home run and one run batted in from tying San Francisco club records for a second baseman. His 18 home runs and 64 RBIs are--dare we say--in Matt Williams' territory.

Maybe it's maturity. At 29, Kent isn't a kid anymore and tries not to act like one, which is bad news for those who manufacture batting helmets.

Or maybe the answer is geography. Kent, who went to high school at Edison and spent his college days in Berkeley, might just be a left coast kind of guy. It's as good a reason as any for his success and attitude.

One blockbuster deal after another took him from Toronto to New York--where he was labeled a problem child with the Mets--to Cleveland during his six-year major league career. San Francisco felt almost like a homecoming.

"I knew the fans," Kent said. "I really understood that they would appreciate my style of play--the hustle, the blue collar-type attitude, the ready to play every day, the never settling for second best and wanting to win.

"I knew what the fans expected."

What most Giant fans expected was to have Williams, the team's all-star third baseman, for life. What they got instead was a four-for-Williams deal that brought Kent, shortstop Jose Vizcaino and pitchers Julian Tavarez and Joe Roa, plus $1 million.

The reaction was swift and predictable. General Manager Brian Sabean called a press conference two days after the trade to say, "I'm not an idiot."

Fans, at this point, may be willing to pardon Sabean. Vizcaino has been solid, Tavarez and Roa have deepened the bullpen. The linchpin, though, has been Kent, who has Williams-like numbers.

And don't think a relieved Sabean isn't grateful. "Jeff has certainly carried us through the rough spots," Sabean said. "He has been the MVP for our team."

High praise, considering the Giants have a guy named Barry Bonds. Still, Sabean does have a point. When Bonds slumbered earlier this season, Kent lumbered.

Kent has three grand slams, tying the franchise single-season record last set by Willie McCovey in 1967. Two came after intentional walks to Bonds.

The clutch hits are almost too numerous to list, including a run-scoring single in the eighth inning that broke a 1-1 tie with the Colorado Rockies on July 5.

"Jeff is at that age where you tend to get it together," Giant Manager Dusty Baker said. "You're older than most and younger than some. It's time to get it together if you're going to be a star or even remain an every-day player."

Kent is certainly one, and possibly on the way to the other.

Among everything else, Kent is in the ballpark power-wise with Williams, who has 20 home runs and 54 RBIs this season with Cleveland, although Kent refuses to indulge in such comparisons.

Kent was included in the David Cone-to-Toronto trade in 1992 and Carlos Baerga-to-the Mets package last July. So he is familiar with the territory.

"If it were the only trade or move Brian Sabean made, then I could say there would be a lot of pressure," Kent said. "But soon after that trade, Mark Lewis showed up, then J.T. Snow showed up, then Darryl Hamilton showed up. We were all in the same boat."

That the Giants started fast kept it from being a ship of fools. Kent's two-run home run against the Mets on April 15 put the Giants in first place for the first time since June 7, 1995. They have been there almost every day since.

Letters to Bay Area newspapers, some of which had ranked the deal among the worst in Giant history (Orlando Cepeda for Ray Sadecki, George Foster for Frank Duffy), have dried up. In fact, Kent has not been called "scrubbeenie" in months.

He has softened those opinions by simply being himself, or at least the reworked version.

The hitting is improved, but not new. Kent had 21, 14 and 20 home runs in his three full seasons with the Mets. His attitude, or at least the perception of it, has changed.

"I think Jeff is a little different now," said Vizcaino, who has been packaged with Kent twice in trades. "I think he's more happy."

Happy? Kent? The same guy was more or less pegged a clubhouse cancer in New York.

"People never forgot about the Cone deal," Kent said. "I think I was the best offensive second baseman the Mets ever had, but I was continually reminded of the trade. People in New York, both the media and the fans, sometimes have a hard time forgetting."

Kent found that out in early April, when he returned to Shea Stadium for the first time. "It was very comfortable for me," Kent said. "The fans were all over my case. They get all over Bobby Bonilla's case when he goes back too. Bobby told me, 'If they don't boo you, then you're no good. If they don't boo you, they don't know you.' "

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