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Bill Plaschke

Kent doesn't make issue in uneasy role

October 04, 2008|Bill Plaschke

It is a day off, but the lights are on, the cramped Dodgers clubhouse filled with players, reporters, destiny, sweep, Manny, Manny, Manny.

In one corner, Derek Lowe is preaching about pressure. In another, Matt Kemp is explaining excitement. In yet another, Casey Blake is smiling about winning.

I approach the fourth corner. It is the Hall of Fame corner. It is the honesty corner. For four years, during every big Dodgers moment, it has been the busiest corner.

I approach it alone. Its tenant stands alone. No buzz here. Nothing to see here.

This is no longer a corner, it is an island, one so quiet, you can almost hear a career drop.

Jeff Kent grins, or maybe winces, it's hard to tell.

"There's been a wrinkle in my perfect ending," he says.

That ending would have been Kent, in the final season of a 17-year career, finally leading his team to a world championship.

The Dodgers may get there, but Kent will probably only be watching.

Watching while wearing a uniform. Sitting while ready to play. Cheering while fighting it.

The guy often repelled teammates with a gruff clubhouse persona, he was never a leader in the room, but don't dare say he deserves this.

Kent was never about the clubhouse. Kent was always about the field.

And for four years, no Dodger has taken that field with more integrity and honor, playing hurt, playing hard, playing until the end.

Except, now that it really is the end, they won't let him play.

He underwent knee surgery at the end of August, fought to be ready at the end of September, played in four late games, collected four hits, a home run, a run batted in, and a private meeting with Manager Joe Torre.

Who told Kent he was benching him for the postseason.

"He could go out there," Torre says. "But I think he'd be better off the bench."

Torre doesn't hide the fact that it's not only about the knee, it's about the range.

At second base, rookie Blake DeWitt covers more ground. In the postseason, Torre wants to back his ground-ball pitchers with a glove, not a bat.

So Kent is here, but he's not.

He's on the roster, but so far as only a pinch-hitter, a role that fits him as comfortably as a big hearty hug.

Of his 8,498 regular-season career at-bats, only 37 of them have come as a pinch-hitter, with only five hits for a .135 average

"Pinch-hitting? I don't even know what that is," Kent says. "I can't change who I am and what I've done for the last few weeks of a season."

He's in uniform, but he's not, as he spends these confusing days running back and forth from the bench to the clubhouse, doing in-game exercises he's never tried to fulfill a role he doesn't understand.

"It's different," he says. "It's hard."

His knee is fixed, but it's not; it's still a bit swollen and still not strong enough to allow him to always easily run the bases.

"I'm just a 40-year-old man who just had semi-major knee surgery," he says. "If I get a pinch-hit the other night in Chicago, they may have to send out a runner for me, so I understand Joe's thinking."

He didn't get a pinch-hit in Game 1 of the National League division series, he grounded into a double play, just another hard bit of fading twilight.

"You can never predict your perfect ending," he says. "You just have to live it."

That's exactly what Kent is doing, and, funny thing, he's doing it as well as he's ever done anything here.

In his moment of greatest humility, Kent is showing his greatest pride.

You know why Kent's locker corner is empty? Because he refuses to cause a stir.

You know why Kent's corner is quiet? Because he refuses to do anything but play his supporting role with complete support.

There is no buzz here, because Kent refuses to start one.

There is nothing to see here, because the guy with the most homers by any second baseman in history refuses to stand out.

"As much suffering as I've done the last four years, I'm going to be miserable because we're winning in the playoffs?" he says. "That doesn't make any sense."

He looks down at DeWitt, who has the adjacent locker, which should be uncomfortable, but isn't.

"I'm not bigger than the team, I'm not bigger than these playoff games," he says. "And this kid is doing a great job, he's not a superstar, he's a worker, just like me."

Kent says that even if he never gets back on the field, he knows exactly how to use that fixed knee.

"If I'm in the clubhouse getting ready to pinch-hit and we win the World Series, you will see me sprinting back into the dugout and on the field," he says with a smile. "That will be enough for me."

Jeff Kent, the great teammate?

Talk about a wrinkle-free perfect ending.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read other columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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