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Kent cries way out of L.A., but who weeps for writer?

January 25, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

First of all, what a hypocrite.

Hey, I've enjoyed covering the confounding grouch for the most part, but if there's anyone upon retirement who should have heard and appreciated the words, "don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out," it's Jeff Kent.

In a perfect world, if only Vin Scully had been at the news conference and said just that, while adding, "That guy cries too much."

Come on, if Tom Hanks doesn't make it famous in a movie, Kent is probably credited for snapping at some rookie: "There's no crying in baseball."

But what do we get, some lip-biting, mustache-soaked sob sister who wants to make it defiantly clear he never liked the game of baseball, but here he stands an emotional wreck because he's leaving it.

The cold shoulder lives his entire baseball life, every other macho sentence beginning, "I don't care what anyone thinks," and so now we're supposed to care what Kent has to say?

The whole thing is out of whack, sports at its lost perspective worst, the wrong guy blubbering at the microphone and the line extending from here to New York now with folks more deserving than Kent of such attention.

Where's the spotlight and appreciative crowd for Steve Dilbeck, the Los Angeles Daily News sports columnist, who like so many others in recent weeks has been told they will no longer be paid to do what they do so well?

Kent is 40, and although he maximized his God-given talent to play baseball, the Dodgers paid him $9 million last season on top of millions already earned. Now he will oversee the golf country club and three motorcycle shops he owns until he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame.

And he's trying not to cry.

Dilbeck, as upbeat and engaging as Kent is sour and aloof, is married, father of three, including a son requiring shots for diabetes every day, and now at age 56 looking for work in an industry hellbent on becoming extinct.

Kent controls his fate to the end, while an unseen bottom line changes the course of Dilbeck's life. But, oh, how we care about our athletes, what they are feeling and what might be next for them.

The second baseman earns $55,555 for each Dodgers game, which means two games into the year he's probably earned more than Dilbeck. And some might argue Dilbeck was more on top of his game than Kent last year.

Kent was good on Page 2 for dozens of columns a year, the result of many a grueling interview. But then there were just as many wonderful and illuminating discussions with almost a chummy feel to them, although such a suggestion would probably have him spitting on the floor in disgust.

There were days when I enjoyed Kent more than any other athlete in a 37-year career, and then there were those days.

No question Kent was as bright as they come, a wonderful departure from Gary Matthews Jr. and Kevin Brown, the stern demeanor a mask to hide the beating heart, but in the end not enough to disguise the brooding contempt he had for folks who did not look, act or think like him.

It became apparent that Kent really did go to the same old school as Archie Bunker, and while just as full of bluster and appealing, inexplicably too often just a Meathead.

He finished in a pout with the Dodgers, jealous of Manny Ramirez, while enhancing his reputation as a loner. Friends and colleagues, meanwhile, are describing Dilbeck, who finishes before he's really finished, as the consummate team player -- the L.A. sports scene now poorer because it won't have Dilbeck and others like him.

As pointed as it might read, this is no indictment of Kent as much as a frustrating rant about overlooked good guys like Dilbeck, because so many place such a high human value on those who can hit, shoot and throw a ball.

Why, I asked Kent four years running, would you want to leave this game, the first thing everyone going to say, "what a jerk," rather than "what a great player who gave it his all"? the answer always the same: "I don't care what people think."

Then we would argue, Kent only waiting for the day to win a ring or disappear, as if the guy sitting in the corner of the clubhouse reading motorcycle magazines was ever here beyond his place in the lineup.

Dilbeck waits too, but at home like so many others released from work, out of sight and out of mind, all those phone calls initially wishing him well, but only two calling back to check on him again.

Kent wants to be alone, but Dilbeck really is "scared at times," he admits, "pissed off and down," while always thinking, "what next, what next?"

So many others in this newsroom and this country, thinking, "will I be next, will I be next?"

Dilbeck works 26 years for the same newspaper group, wearing shirts no one else would and writing about the Dodgers and Lakers -- the writing good enough to get past those shirts and get a column. "And loving what I got to do," he says.

But he never gets the chance to thank those who helped while learning his craft, never gets to point to his admiring wife and kids at a news conference, never gets to feel the love from those who appreciate his work.

"Had to fire the mother," he says with usual good humor, "couldn't afford her anymore. So from 2 o'clock on, I'm the one picking up the kids, taking them to practices and everywhere. Life's a blur after 2, but that's fine."

It's all those hours before 2, the unemployed left only to think, worry and wonder -- yet the crowd surrounds Kent, reporters and columnists eager to tell everyone now about the soft side of Kent and what a swell guy he might be after all.

As if Kent really cares what any of them had to write.

I know this -- I would've been interested in what Dilbeck had to write.

--

t.j. simers@latimes.com

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