Every great slugger needs a battery mate. Tremendous duos such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have often enraptured America in their herculean exploits at the plate In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent were the one-two punch that San Francisco needed to contend for a long-sought World Series. But while Bonds shattered records, Kent quietly played second fiddle, making three All-Star Games and thrice slamming more than 30 home runs in a season. Like Bonds, he too carried the burden of never winning the Big One. This is Jeff Kent's story.
Jeff Kent was born on March 7, 1968 in Bellflower, California. While living in the heart of a region fully devoted to the Dodgers, a dream began to form in his young, impressionable mind that would drive him for the next two decades: he would become a ballplayer and win the World Series.
So he worked and worked, eventually earning the starting shortstop spot at Edison High School. By his senior year, things were looking good, but beneath the surface loomed impending change. After a disagreement with his coach over a position change, Jeff Kent was kicked off the team. If it hadn't been for his work ethic before the incident, his dream would have been dashed. But the coaches at Cal Berkeley had noticed his play in the years leading up to that fateful argument and offered him a scholarship.
Kent quickly set out to prove his worth up north and earned the starting shortstop spot at the beginning of his 1987 freshman year. In just his first year, he set a school record with 25 doubles that would stand for 11 years.
He was even better the following year, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors and helping the Golden Bears win the NCAA Central Regional, stamping their ticket to the College World Series. Although they lost to Arizona State (4-2) in the first round, their appearance was viewed as a major accomplishment. Despite missing the CWS in 1989, Kent's hard work paid off when he was drafted in the 20th round of the 1989 MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. Three years later, he made his major league debut.
In those days, Toronto was the toast of the major leagues, boasting a deep roster that would go on to win two World Series, including 1992, Jeff Kemp's rookie year. However, after 65 games and eight home runs, he was traded to the Mets before the season ended and could only watch as his former teammates beat the Braves for their first championship. He didn't know it at the time but this would begin a troubling trend that would haunt him throughout his playing career.
Seething at the lost opportunity, he began to make a name for himself as one of the better sluggers in the majors, hitting 21 homers in 1993, 14 in the strike-shortened 1994 and 20 in 1995. After hitting 20 home runs halfway through 1996, he was traded to Cleveland, a team that had just lost the World Series.
For a time, it looked like he could provide the Indians with the firepower necessary to win it all. Alas, they failed to return to the Fall Classic that year, losing to the Orioles in the ALDS. As their hearts sunk to the floor and despite slamming seven home runs in 39 games, Kent was traded to San Francisco that offseason.
When Jeff Kent stepped on the field at Candlestick Park, he felt like an outsider. After all the Giants were led by a local legend, Barry Bonds. Since his arrival in 1992, he had been to multiple All-Star Games, earned the National MVP in 1992 and was becoming well known for his exploits at the plate, having never hit less than 33 home runs since becoming a Giant.
While Bond's star potential certainly helped the Giants at the box office, they needed extra firepower to compete with the other championship contenders in baseball. With the advent of steroids and modern weightlifting programs, the game was changing. Gone were the days when a good pick-off play at second base brought the audience to its feet. Gone were the days when the subtle trickery of a fastball and the strategy between the pitcher and catcher were just as captivating as the one homer in the contest. It's as old as the game itself. Once the fans witnessed their first home run, they wanted more. If home runs were few and far between, why show up at all?
In 1997, Kent and Bonds began a trend that would last through the new millennium. That year, while Bonds slammed 40 homers and collected the Silver Slugger award, Kent collected 29 dingers. The following year, while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated the nation with their shared pursuit of Roger Maris's single-season home run record, Bonds hit 37 and Kent hit 31 homers to again lead the team.
In 1999, Jeff Kent earned his first All-Star invitation by hitting 23 home runs, driving in 101 runs and averaging .290. Ironically, that was the first year that he wasn't the second-leading home run leader on the Giants.
The next year was one for the history books. The Giants had moved out of Candlestick Park and moved into a sparkling new ballpark on the waterfront, PacBell Park. Candlestick had never felt comfortable with the strong winds often holding up potential home runs just long enough for opposing outfielders to catch them in their mitts, thus, nullifying them into outs.
PacBell felt different. For one, it wasn't enclosed as Candlestick had been for the 30 years after the 49ers moved in. But what made their new home unique was the shorter right field that overlooked the picturesque San Francisco Bay. While the Giants' brass would never admit it, they had that part of the park built specifically for Barry Bonds. The left-handed slugger would enjoy year after year of record-breaking performances. Meanwhile, despite being right-handed, Jeff Kent would enjoy some of his best years at the plate while in San Francisco.
While Barry would blast 49 little white balls into orbit and earn another Silver Slugger Award, it was Jeff Kent who was the National League's MVP that year. Not only did he hit 33 home runs, but he drove in 125 runs, was walked 90 times and averaged .334.
2001 was one to remember. From the very beginning, it felt like Barry Bonds' bat ruled the skies, ultimately bashing a record 73 home runs. Meanwhile, Jeff Kent merely hit 22, but he did drive in 106 runs and averaged .298 while earning his third straight All-Star invitation.
At the beginning of the 2002 Spring Training, Kent broke a bone in his hand. The major league rumor mill was soon abuzz with gossip about how he really hurt his wrist. While some said that he broke it in a motorcycle accident, it was widely reported that it was against his contract. Eventually, the public settled on the more outlandish story that he broke his wrist while washing his truck, falling off the hood and landing awkwardly. However the case may be, the injury kept him out of most of Spring Training. Would it affect his swing?
Although he wasn't invited to the All-Star Game, statistically, Kent's 2002 campaign was surprisingly better than expected. He bashed 37 homers, drove in 108 runs and batted .313 and to top it all off, his team made it to the World Series. Finally, after suffering through years of missed opportunities, Jeff Kent was going to the Fall Classic.
While he didn't have any hits in Game 1, he made up for his lack of effectiveness in the third inning of Game 2, hitting a home run off of Kevin Appier. From there, he took off, collecting two hits in Game 3, an RBI sacrifice fly in Game 4 and three hits and an RBI in a 16-4 Game 5 route, putting the Giants up 3-2. They were one win away from becoming World Series champions.
The Giants controlled much of Game 6 and by the 6th inning began to pull away, with Jeff Kent hitting a home run in that inning to put San Francisco up 3-0. After he hit another home run in the 7th to stretch the lead to 5-0, sportswriters from across America began to write their pieces reliving the Giants' triumph.
But something happened after Kent blasted his second homer of the night. All season long, the Angels had regaled hyped up their fans with "the Rally Monkey", a video on their jumbotron that depicted a monkey performing in some fashion. The fans ate it up even more when the video screen showed the Rally Monkey in the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 6, down 5-0 and looking at elimination square in the face.
The Angels players fed off their fan's frenzy and promptly began knocking balls all over the outfield. Once Scott Spiezio hit a three-run homer in the 7th, the Angels began to see a light at the end of the tunnel. At that moment, the fortunes of the two franchises flipped. The Angels would go on to score three more runs in the eight, improbably pulling away from the Giants for a 6-5 win, forcing an all-or-nothing Game 7.
Even though the Giants would strike first the next night to take an early lead, it would be their only run of the night. The series was effectively lost the night before with that gut-wrenching comeback and the Angels won the game 4-1, breaking hearts all over San Francisco.
Few were more heartbroken than Jeff Kent. With four home runs to his name, he had tried his hardest to help the Giants win it all. But in the end, he went hitless in a do-or-die Game 78. He became a free agent that winter and signed with the Astros.
After enjoying such a lucrative career in San Francisco, Jeff Kent arrived in Houston with high expectations. He hit 22 home runs and averaged .297 in his first season as an Astro but didn't make the All-Star Game. However, he did make the All-Star Game the next year after hitting 27 home runs, driving in 107 runs and batting .289.
He became a free agent after that season and signed with his hometown Dodgers, the team he grew up dreaming of playing for one day. Indeed, it must have felt like a dream as he was invited to the All-Star Game wearing his beloved Dodger Blue in 2005 while hitting 29 homers and driving in 105 runs. While he only hit 14 home runs in 2006, his bat woke up in the playoffs, collecting eight hits and a home run in a three-game sweep against the Mets.
The 2007 season was his last hurrah as he hit 20 home runs and averaged .302. In 2008, he went hitless in eight plate appearances in the playoffs as the Dodgers ultimately lost to the Phillies in the NLCS. Jeff Kent retired that offseason, having never felt the indescribable joy of winning the World Series.