Kent puts charge into Mets, but won't put smile on his face

POSITIVELY NEGATIVE

April 25, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Los Angeles--New York Mets second baseman Jeff Kent has put an interesting spin on the best three weeks of his professional baseball career. Instead of basking in the glow of sudden stardom . . . or framing the leader sheet that shows him atop the major leagues in several offensive categories, he is turning away from the light.

His philosophy: Accentuate the negative.

This might seem like the perfect spot for a '93 Mets joke, but Kent is making people forget how abysmal the club was a year ago. He just won't let himself forget that failure is seven-tenths of the game. It is the fear of failure rather than the desire for success that pushes him forward.

"I think that drives a lot of athletes -- the embarrassment of failure and the disappointment of not being able to succeed 100 percent of the time," he said. "There's always room for improvement."

That would appear to be self-evident, but it is difficult to conceive of anyone performing any better than Kent has performed during the early weeks of his third major-league season. His eight home runs and 23 RBIs have put his name in lights and -- at least temporarily -- pulled the Mets out of baseball purgatory.

So why isn't this man smiling?

"I'm a negative guy," he said recently. "I thrive on failure."

The proof is in his perfectionism . . . and the pressure he willingly puts on himself. The night that Kent hit his eighth home run of the year, he spent the post-game interview session tearing himself up over a less successful at-bat earlier in the game.

There is room to wonder whether this is all some kind of put-on, but he couldn't seem more serious. Maybe too serious for his own good, though manager Dallas Green insists that he'd like to have 24 other guys with the same kind of drive and intensity.

"What I'm alluding to is the intensity that he takes into each at-bat," Green said. "Every at-bat is like the seventh game of the World Series. That's a great way to approach your work. If you want to improve, that's one of the ways you can do it.

"There are other guys around with that intensity. Pete Rose was a great one that had that kind of determination."

It's a little early for Hall of Fame comparisons, but you wouldn't know it by Kent's '94 statistics. He ranks sixth in the league with a .380 batting average, and he is on pace to challenge the major-league record for home runs in April. In one stretch that ended last week, he had seven home runs and 16 RBIs in seven games. Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, he tied a Mets record for RBIs in consecutive games (eight). If only he could enjoy it.

"I'm not a guy who thinks about stats," he said. "I'm a guy who wants to think about playing 150 games. When you're done, you can look at what you've done and what your team has done and, hopefully, you can be proud of yourself.

"That's the way I try to keep it. I don't like the Hollywood way of going about things."

Strange talk from a guy who grew up so close to Tinseltown. Kent played high school baseball in Huntington Beach and college ball at California, but he has given up the hectic Southern California lifestyle for a home in Austin, Texas.

"I just got tired of the overcrowdedness," he said. "I'm not really a people person. I know that sounds funny because I enjoy playing in New York, but I'm a shy guy -- a quiet guy."

He did not exactly come out of nowhere. Kent recovered from a slow start last year to hit 16 home runs in his last 82 games and finish the season with 21 homers and 80 RBIs. It was an outstanding performance, especially in light of the horror show going on around him, but it went largely unnoticed outside New York.

Something clicked about mid-June, when Kent was struggling to keep his place in the starting lineup. Since then, he has 24 home runs and 78 RBIs in 100 games.

"He just settled in," said Mets hitting coach Tom McCraw. "I think he just found himself. He knew he was going to be a good hitter. Now, he's looking for the pitches he wants to hit. He has always had confidence. He just locked in, and he hasn't stopped."

The Mets can't get over their good fortune. The front office took a lot of heat for the 1992 trade that sent right-hander David Cone to the Toronto Blue Jays, but the two players the club got in return both have had a major offensive impact on the rebuilt Mets lineup.

The Blue Jays gave up Kent and outfielder Ryan Thompson to rent Cone for the final weeks of the 1992 season. Kent has gotten all of the early season publicity, but Thompson has been the team's second-most productive hitter, with a .321 average, five home runs and 16 RBIs.

Kent's success was not entirely unexpected. The Blue Jays considered him a solid prospect at either second base or third, but nobody was going to displace Roberto Alomar at second, and few people questioned the decision to go with Ed Sprague at third.

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