August 2009

Jeff Kent Returns

Jeff Kent stepped into the Giants’ dugout this afternoon looking pretty much the same way he did when he left the club almost seven years ago. Except it was the first time in his life he had been in a major-league dugout wearing anything other than a baseball uniform. (He did, however, choose his clothes carefully: An orange golf shirt and black slacks.)

That wasn’t the only thing that was different from his playing days, however.

This street-clothes version of Jeff Kent was light-hearted and contemplative, a thoroughly easy-going guy who smiled and chatted with the media as if that second-baseman with the fiery eyes had been another person.

“First and foremost, I was a player,” Kent said in explaining the unrelenting intensity with which he approached his career both on and off the field. “Trying to be this pleasant guy (to the media) and still maintain my style of play – trying to mix the two is pretty difficult. My priority was playing.

“I think the fans judged me by how I played. They were spending their money on my play not my words. I got blood, sweat and tears left on that field, more than any other place I played, and I think these fans get that.”

Still, he’s a little nervous about the reception he’ll receive when he’s introduced to the fans to receive his Wall of Fame honor tomorrow.

“I’m nervous because of the love I have for the fans and the respect I have for them,” he said. “If they still hate me for being a Dodger, then it shows that they’re good Giants fans. But I heard they booed Manny even louder than they booed me (when I was with the Dodgers), so maybe I have a leg up.”

He said he was “kind of in awe” that the Giants invited him to return and receive a Wall of Fame plaque so soon after his retirement.

“This is the greatest place I ever played and the most emotional place,” he said. “Now I’ll have my ugly mug up on the wall.”

He said his famous competitiveness has softened since he left baseball. “Even my wife and my mom and dad see a change,” Kent said. He said he owns several motorcycle shops and “I’m enjoying the shops not trying to compete against other shops.”

He’s also involved in a golf course in Texas, where he lives with his wife and four children. On the days he’s not working, he’s driving car pool. His family is with him in San Francisco this weekend. They walked today from the park to Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. They planned to have dinner tonight with some of their former neighbors from Foster City.

If he had advice for young players, it would be something he learned from Dusty Baker. “You have to allow your opponent to have his successes, too,” Kent said. “You have to understand you can’t have four hits every game. So you have to learn to adjust to the failure in the game. I think the media and the fans expect you to win every day, but you can’t have that expectation yourself. You have to learn that you’re going to lose 30 percent and you’re going win 30 percent – the question is what do you do with the rest? It’s that middle third or so that you have to focus on. What Dusty taught me was that you got to jump on pitchers early in the season when they’re getting in form and then late in the season when they might be wearing down.”

The Wall of Fame ceremony outside the ballpark starts at 3 p.m. Saturday.

A Whole Lotta Love

The rest of the world is recognizing what you have known since spring training: There’s something special about this Giants team.

If haven’t already seen the stories, click on these links:

A lot of media attention has gone to Pablo Sandoval, and for good reason. He is so different from any professional athlete I’ve known. He is, for want of a better word, authentic. He is so himself. There is not a whiff of artifice. And he hasn’t changed a bit since his ascension as a media darling. He’s friendly to everyone, and he takes nothing for granted. He carries himself as if he still can’t quite believe he’s in the major leagues.

When I chatted with him in the Giants parking lot before the team left for Houston on Sunday, his wife and mother were there, and his daughter was asleep in her grandmother’s arms. I have to tell you – she is Kung Fu Panda Mini-Me. She looks so much like Pablo – the chubby cheeks, the curly hair, the mocha skin. Pablo lights up when he looks at her – as if, like his baseball life, he can’t quite believe how lucky he is.

I’ve been away from the ballpark for most of the month, but I’ve spent some time in Norwich, CT, where the Giants’ Double-A team, the Defenders, play. That team is loaded with prospects, as you know. I talked at length to Madison Bumgarner, who not only is a phenomenal pitcher but a character right out of a movie. He’s tall and lean and speaks with a gorgeous Southern drawl. He hunts bear and ropes cattle and lives in a town so small “you wave at everybody you see pretty much.”

He’s also fiercely competitive. Earlier this season, when Boston’s top draft pick was taking a little too long to get settled in the batter’s box, Bumgarner fired a pitch high and up, dropping the kid to his knees.

Not sure when he’ll make the big club, but he’ll fit right in when he does.

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