It’s kind of ironic how things have worked out for Toronto Blue Jays infielder Jeff Kent.
Six years ago, Kent was kicked off the Edison High School baseball team by then-Charger Coach Ron La Ruffa after their personality clash came to a head when La Ruffa tried to move Kent from shortstop to second base, a switch Kent perceived as a deliberate attempt to embarrass him.
These days, Kent is more than happy to play a utility role for the Blue Jays, filling in at third, second and even first when needed.
Three years ago, Kent was in the middle of his junior season at California when he broke his wrist, an injury that forced him to miss the remainder of the season and scared off numerous scouts--Kent wasn’t drafted until the 21st round in 1989.
But if not for another broken wrist, Kent might have spent this season at triple-A Syracuse instead of Toronto, where he has made significant contributions for the first-place Blue Jays.
Kent, who hit .256 with 34 doubles, 12 homers and 61 runs batted in at double-A Knoxville in 1991, was set to begin the 1992 season with Syracuse. He practiced in Moosic, Pa., the day before the Chiefs’ opening game there but was called up to the major leagues that night after Blue Jay outfielder Derek Bell broke a bone in his wrist in Toronto’s second game.
Kent, 24, has never played a game in triple-A, and the way things are going, he might never set foot in the International League.
Bell returned from his injury, but with designated hitter and reserve infielder Rance Mulliniks on the disabled list all season because of a bad back and starting third baseman Kelly Gruber suffering from numerous injuries, Kent remained in Toronto and has proved a valuable asset.
Kent, 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds, has started the past 20 games at third in place of Gruber. He has started 32 games at third, eight at second and has spent some time at first this season.
Through Tuesday night’s game against the Angels, Kent has a .240 average (35 for 146), five home runs, 11 doubles and 24 RBIs. Seventeen of his 35 hits have been for extra bases, including a three-run home run Tuesday in Anaheim Stadium, and Kent has not gone more than two consecutive games without a hit.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him,” said Larry Hisle, Toronto’s batting coach. “He’s made the defensive plays and contributed so much offensively it’s mind-boggling. He has a lot of key hits--a couple to win games and some to put us in position to win.”
Kent, whose three-run home run broke a 2-2 tie and led Toronto to a 7-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners Thursday, said he knew he’d be in the big leagues, but didn’t think it would be this soon.
His initial reaction when he heard Bell had broken his wrist was that it was a joke.
“I said, ‘C’mon, it’s only the second day of the season,’ ” Kent said.
Within hours, though, Toronto called and said, “C’mon down.” Kent flew to Detroit to join the Blue Jays.
“I breathed a sigh of relief, pleasure and fear,” Kent recalled of his arrival in the major leagues. “There was a fear of failure. You’ve worked so hard for so long to get to one place, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘OK, am I ready for this?’ That goes through your mind, but I think I’ve proven I can play.”
Several talented players have had careers that stalled in the Blue Jays’ organization, which has been rated one of baseball’s best over the past few years, but Kent shot through the minor leagues like a liner up the middle.
He hit .224 but led the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League in homers with 13 for St. Catherines, Ont., where he split the 1989 season between shortstop and third base.
Kent batted .277 at Dunedin, Fla., in 1990 and ranked second in the Class-A Florida State League in doubles (32), home runs (16) and total bases (208). The converted second baseman had 60 RBIs, 17 stolen bases and was rated the league’s sixth-best prospect by Baseball America.
Kent led the Southern League in doubles last season and was named Knoxville’s most valuable player, and now, after only three minor league seasons, he’s in the big leagues.
“No one knew who I was as a 21st-round pick out of Cal, and that helped,” Kent said. “It didn’t put me in the spotlight, and there was no added pressure. It doesn’t mean squat where you’re picked or how much you signed for, because once you reach the pros, you have to work. I didn’t have the God-given natural ability, but I’m a pure example of hard work paying off.”
Along with hard work has come some hard times, though. Kent was a Times second-team, All-Orange County selection as a junior at Edison, but his relationship with La Ruffa deteriorated during his senior season.
As the Chargers’ star player on what was supposed to be an outstanding team in 1986, Kent found himself in an awkward position, a middle man between the coach and the players.
Kent said La Ruffa wanted him to be an emotional leader. But several players, unhappy with the coach for various reasons, wanted Kent, as the team’s high-ranking player, to voice their gripes.
Kent tried to do both, and it got him in trouble. His teammates were in no mood to get fired up. And his coach was in no mood to listen to Kent’s complaints. A 2-5 start in league play only compounded matters, which hit the boiling point on a Friday in April.
La Ruffa moved Kent, a three-year starter at shortstop, to second base the day of a game, and Kent was visibly upset about the move during infield practice. That got him benched for the game.
“He wanted to take me off my pedestal,” Kent said. “He didn’t even tell me I was going to play second, he just moved me. He didn’t think I had a positive attitude.”
The following Monday, La Ruffa, who now coaches at Fountain Valley, asked Kent to turn in his uniform. Kent drove home, got the uniform and gave it to the coach.
“It was tough because in a way, I felt I was quitting, because I thought that might be my last year,” Kent said. “But I was just quitting that style. I was 18 and needed to take a stand.”
At the time, La Ruffa said Kent had an attitude problem. “It was a bad case of senioritis,” he said. “We just couldn’t come to an agreement on what was expected of him and what he expected.”
La Ruffa said he and Kent have since “buried the hatchet,” but it’s not as if La Ruffa is on Kent’s pass list when the Blue Jays come to Anaheim.
“We don’t play golf together or shoot the (breeze), but we’re not enemies,” Kent said. “I feel I was right in that situation, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Kent wasn’t drafted out of high school, and he hadn’t signed with Cal when he got kicked off the team, but he played American Legion and Connie Mack League baseball that summer and earned a college scholarship.
He said he never had any problems with the coaching staff at Cal and has fit in well in Toronto’s clubhouse.
“Playing with Dave Winfield, Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Kelly Gruber. . . . To be part of this team and have them accept me is a bigger thrill than going out on the field,” Kent said. “They help me, pat me on the back, answer my stupid questions. I really feel like I’m part of this team.”
He wasn’t part of Edison’s team for his entire senior season, but Kent’s problems that year didn’t stunt his progress. Or La Ruffa’s, for that matter.
“He’s having a great career, and so am I,” Kent said. “We’re both smiling, so what can you say?”