Jeff Kent Set to Retire, Leaving Complex Legacy in His Wake

Jeff Kent, one of the best hitting second basemen in major league history, is set to announce his retirement from baseball Thursday after 17 years in the big leagues.

Kent was still productive last year, at seasonal age 40, but injured his knee and played only a small role in the Dodgers' final push toward the NL West title. Could he have been productive again this year? Sure, but given the way the market is treating players his age and with his skillset, Kent probably would have had to take a dramatic paycut to continue his career. It's hard to blame someone who's already set for life for deciding not to spend another year away from his family, especially at a discount rate.

And with that, the discussion about Kent's legacy -- to be more specific his Hall of Fame case -- can begin.

Kent's statistical credentials are impressive. His 377 career home runs are far and away the most by any second baseman in baseball history. Ryne Sandberg is second on the list with 282 for his career. The great Rogers Hornsby is the only second baseman in the Hall of Fame with a higher slugging average than Kent's .500. Kent even has an MVP Award to his name to go along with five All-Star nods and four Silver Sluggers.

His case isn't open and shut, though. His .356 career on-base percentage is middling next to the other second baseman in the Hall of Fame as is his career 123 OPS+.

Throw in a poor defensive reputation and the lack of a signature milestone -- like say the 3,000 career hits on contemporary Craig Biggio's resume -- and Kent doesn't seem like a first-ballot lock. He'll get in to Cooperstown, but you get the feeling it might take a few tries.

There's one other knock on Kent that I've purposely omitted up until now. He is, to put it bluntly, kind of a jerk, or at the very least that's been his reputation for years.

He famously feuded with Barry Bonds when the two were in San Francisco, even coming to blows with the surly home run king in the dugout back in 2002. No one rushed to the defense of Kent then, despite Bonds' status as a media pariah. That incident came months after Kent broke his wrist "washing his truck." (There were reports that Kent actually suffered the injury while riding his motorcycle, a direct violation of contract).

Milton Bradley accused him of being racist during his first season with the Dodgers in 2005. He publicly ripped venerable broadcasting legendVin Scully last season and even waded into the heated Proposition 8 debate last November.

Like it or not, character matters to the folks who ultimately decide the fate of each Cooperstown candidate.

In Kent, we have a guy who came to blows with his teammates, who was a disruptive force in the clubhouse, who might have violated a legal contract with his team and then lied about it, who has been accused of being a bigot and who teed off on one of the most likable people in baseball history. He might be punished for those things in the short-term, but ultimately the voters are going to put him in Cooperstown because the Hall, in the end, is usually about on-field excellence.

My question is how much does character truly matter in the process?

Mark McGwire is, by most accounts, a better human being than Kent. He was certainly held in higher regard by his teammates and coaches. Yes, he might have done steroids, but is that worse than (maybe) violating a legal contract and then lying about it? I'm asking because I don't know the answer.

The Hall voters have answered it definitively the last few years. McGwire is, in all likelihood, never going to get into Cooperstown, but it's not because he lied or because he cheated the game of baseball or because he was a jerk to his teammates. If that was the case, Kent, who was great in his own right, would face a daunting uphill struggle to get in just like McGwire.

It's because he duped the guys who followed him around during the magical summer of 1998 and wrote lyrical odes about Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy. And that's a shame, because the Hall of Fame should always be about greatness on the field, not who got their feelings hurt off of it.

Jeff Kent Set to Retire, Leaving Complex Legacy in His Wake originally appeared on MLB FanHouse on Wed, 21 Jan 2009 16:45:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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