Trying to Live Up to His Promise : Montclair Prep's Dent Vowed at 14 to Make Deceased Father Proud

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the day Darrell Dent signs his name to a lucrative professional baseball contract, whether it happens this summer or after a few years of college baseball, he'll surely remember a promise he made three years ago.

At a funeral.

Months before Dent's days as Montclair Prep's starting center fielder began, his father committed suicide.

"When we were viewing the body at the funeral," Dent said last week, "I walked up to the casket and said, 'I'm going to make you proud of me, Pop. I'm going to the pros.' "

That's how 14-year-olds see things.

Dad and I played catch and talked about sports all the time, so he'd like nothing better than for me to become a professional baseball player.

Actually, Darrell Dent Sr. would likely be proud of his son today even if he wasn't listed among the top high school baseball prospects in the nation.

He'd be proud that his son avoided the pitfalls that have unfortunately doomed too many boys born in South Central Los Angeles.

He'd be proud just to hear former Montclair Prep baseball Coach Walt Steele talk about his son.

"(Dent) is just a nice young man from a good family who has good work ethics and a lot of talent," Steele said.

Oh yes, a lot of talent.

"He's just oozing with athleticism," one area scout said.

At 6 feet 2, 175 pounds, Dent has the prototype athlete's body, long, loose arms and quick legs. You watch him stand in the outfield and you can't stop thinking about Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. Dent even wears No. 24, same as Griffey.

Dent already has major league speed, a strong arm and a quick left-handed swing, all attributes that can't be taught and don't go into slumps. His only weaknesses are hitting technique and a perceived nonchalance on the field.

If he has a successful senior year, he could be a first-round pick in the draft. Even with a horrible senior year, his raw talent alone would probably enough to guarantee that he wouldn't slip past the sixth or seventh round.

Playing professional baseball has been Dent's dream, even before the nightmare of his father's suicide.

Dent's father and uncle were both standout high school baseball players, and it rubbed off early on young Darrell. His mother, Renee, remembers he used to drag a wooden bat around the house as soon as he could walk.

"You could take his bottle but not his bat," she said.

Dent started playing baseball when he was 4 and living in South Central. As he grew, sports became a way for Dent's mother to keep him out of trouble.

"The gangs are everywhere," Renee Dent said. "You can't run from that. I just wanted to keep Darrell in something to make sure he didn't have any free time."

In an effort to build a better life for her son, Renee Dent moved her family to the Valley when Darrell was 6, after she separated from Darrell's father.

Dent and his father still saw each other at least once a week. The elder Dent also showed up to watch Darrell's baseball and football games. Darrell Dent Sr. was sometimes invited to the games by Chris Bailey, who has lived with Dent and his mother since before the family moved to the Valley and has been a stepfather to Dent.

"They did have a good relationship," Bailey said of Dent and his father, "and I also wanted to have a relationship with his father. I let him know, 'This is your son and I'm not here to interfere.' "

Dent, his mother and Bailey tell of a cordial, healthy relationship with Darrell Dent Sr.

Which made the news of his suicide in the winter of 1992 that much more shocking.

"I had no idea that he was even depressed," Renee Dent said. "There were no hints or clues. Us not being together, whenever I saw him, he was himself."

Also a surprise for Renee was the maturity her son showed in the aftermath of the tragedy.

"He handled it very well," she said. "After it happened I often looked for different signs, lack of interest in his homework or sports, different things, and I didn't see that. We've talked a lot just to make sure he wasn't keeping things in. He handled it so well. He was very strong. . . .

"I thank God every day because without (Darrell's) help there wasn't any way I could have done this."

Said Dent: "Basically I'm a focused person. I know what I have to do. That was the attitude that my mom and dad instilled in me. I know what I have to do to make him proud of me."

The immediate way in which Dent is trying to make his father proud is through baseball.

Although he's also played football since he was 7, Dent's first love is baseball. When he's not playing--and there's not a strike--Dent is watching games on TV, holding his bat and swinging at imaginary baseballs.

"I'd follow the pitcher and when he'd go through his motion, I'd go through my motion," he said. "One time I was going through the motion and Bonds was up to bat. I swung the same time he swung and the ball went out of Wrigley Field.

"We hit a homer."

Dent has started since his freshman year at Montclair Prep. Steele, who coached the Mounties during Dent's first three years, said he was impressed with Dent right away, although his skills were raw back then.

"I remember him striking out once against Crespi," Steele said, "and he came back to the dugout and said 'What was that?' I said, 'That's a changeup, Darrell. Welcome to high school.' "

Those moments aside, Dent adjusted quickly to high school. Steele said he rarely seemed overmatched or intimidated by older, more-experienced opponents, guys who had not only seen changeups, but could hit them.

Scouts have had their eyes on Dent since his freshman year. The summer before his junior season, Dent was invited to play in the Area Code Games, a baseball combine of sorts in which scores of the West's top high school players play in front of hundreds of scouts. Dent was one of only a few juniors in the group.

Last summer, he returned to the Area Code Games and also played for 10 days at a prospect-only camp in Ohio.

"It was great because I got to play with a bunch of guys I had been reading about," he said. "I knew they were going to be high draft picks and I got to compare my game to theirs."

With those experiences, Dent is well prepared for the dozens of scouts who will be scrutinizing his every move this season.

And they are scrutinizing.

Although Baseball America named him the 20th-best high school prospect in the nation, area scouts have questions about him.

"I think the question that all of us have is he needs to start making some more contact," a local scout said. "He swings through way too many pitches. In order to use his tools, he has to hit the ball and get on base."

Even first-year Montclair Prep Coach Kelly Paris, a former major leaguer, said Dent "has unbelievable amounts of talent," but he has to work on his approach at the plate.

"He has to stop trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark," Paris said. "He's got to hit the ball in the gap and show his wheels. He runs great. He runs like a gazelle. He's beautiful to watch."

The other knock on Dent is what some perceive as an attitude problem. He sometimes appears to be taking it easy or "hot-dogging" on the field.

"Here's a guy who's perhaps got the ability to play in the big leagues," the scout said, "and his makeup, being his work ethic and attitude, might be his biggest enemy."

Dent responds that such criticism comes from misunderstanding his style.

"They just see me one time and they just put that stereotype on me," he said. "They see me go back on a fly ball, and if there are two outs, maybe I won't get under it, but just run it down. I make the catch, but I don't do the routine things and they see that as cocky."

Said Paris: "People who make it look easy do get tagged with that sometimes. When a player is not looking like he's playing as hard as the other guys, he can get that tag, but I don't think he's a hot dog."

Dent, who freely admits he taunted opponents and did celebratory dances while leading the Montclair Prep football team to a Southern Section title last fall, said baseball is different.

"In baseball you can't do that," he said, "because you can strike out the next time up and it's like 'Who's talking trash now?' "

Although he originally sought a college where he could play football and baseball, it appears now that any scholarship he accepts will be baseball-only.

He said he has an offer to play baseball at Arizona State waiting for him, as soon as he passes the Scholastic Assessment Test. He's taken the test, which he calls "racially biased," twice and has not yet scored the 700 required for NCAA eligibility.

Although most players of his potential are scooped up by professional baseball before they see the inside of a college classroom anyway, Dent said he is preparing to take the SAT again.

He feels that's what his dad would want him to do.

"I know he's with me," Dent said. "Even if I don't make it, I know he'd be proud of me, but it'll be that much more special if I do. It's always been his dream to get to the pros, so if he wasn't able to fulfill that dream, it'll be nice for me to do it for him."

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