It seemed appropriate that Jeff Kent was called off a tractor at his Diamond K Ranch near San Antonio Thursday to learn he had been voted the National League's most valuable player--the ultimate tribute to the blue-collar ethic that has enabled him to mature into one of baseball's leading run producers.
Kent, who batted .334 with 33 home runs and 125 runs batted in, became the first second baseman since Ryne Sandberg in 1984 to win the MVP award, garnering 22 of 32 first-place votes and 392 points from a committee of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America.
The late-season endorsement of his San Francisco Giant manager, Dusty Baker, might have influenced some voters to select him over teammate and three-time MVP Barry Bonds, who was second with six first-place votes and 297 points.
New York Met catcher Mike Piazza was the only other player named on all 32 ballots, getting three first-place votes and 271 points to finish third ahead of St. Louis Cardinal center fielder Jim Edmonds and Colorado Rockie first baseman Todd Helton, fourth and fifth respectively. Dodger left fielder Gary Sheffield finished 10th.
Helton dominated National League statistics, threatening to hit .400 for a time, but the Rockies finished 15 games behind the Giants in the West, and Kent, who consistently dismissed award talk during the season and has long insisted that individual honors are secondary to team success, credited the writers with a "class decision" for selecting the MVP off a winning team.
"It's all about the team winning," he said. "That's where the value of the game is. I mean, the pressure is different, the situations are different, when you're on a team playing to finish first instead of second."
In a conference call with reporters, Kent expressed "overwhelming appreciation" for the award and said he found it difficult to express his emotions, comparing it to a "cloud you try to grab only to have your hand go right through it."
He and Bonds, who batted .306 with 49 homers and 106 RBIs, recently toured Japan with a group of major league players but did not discuss their award prospects--no surprise because they have long had a professional but distant relationship.
"We're just totally different," Kent said after they became the first teammates to finish 1-2 since 1990, when Bobby Bonilla finished second to Bonds, then with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As the Giants' team within a team--Bonds bats third and Kent fourth--they have clearly benefited from each other, with pitchers paying a price for pitching around Bonds--a pattern that might be changing.
Kent has driven in 475 runs in the last four seasons to break Rogers Hornsby's 75-year-old record for second basemen in a four-year span and said he feels that "I've now earned the respect of the opposition even before I go to the plate because instead of pitching around Barry they pitch to him a lot more often."
At 32, respect hasn't always come easy. The understated Kent has traveled a long road from Huntington Beach's Edison High, but every mile has been meaningful he said Thursday.
He insisted he would not have become the player he is--overcoming questions about his defense and power--if it hadn't been for the learning experiences with the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians, who sent him to San Francisco in 1996 as part of a six-player trade that sent Matt Williams to Cleveland and was roundly criticized in the Bay Area.
Kent still hears about the trade--"a guy in Japan even brought it up," he said--but the second baseman has clearly removed the sting, joining the Oakland Athletics' Jason Giambi to give the Bay Area an MVP sweep.
The award provides Kent, who said he was "floored" by the margin of victory and national recognition for the Giants and himself, a $100,000 bonus on top of his $6-million salary. It also widens the spotlight for a player who has long resisted the notoriety and exposure because he felt it didn't fit his personality or the way he needed to prepare and go about his game.
Now, Kent said, he is "ready to live" with that greater exposure because he recognizes the benefit from "promoting the game and the Giants, as well as myself."
In fact, he said, there would be an MVP celebration Thursday night, but only in his "normal and country way."
He would take the family to dinner at McBee's Barbecue, not far from the ranch where he runs 250 head of cattle and entertains about 20 corporate hunting trips a year--with deer, pheasant and javelina among the game.
"Tomorrow," he said, "I'll be back on the tractor. I'll have to finish mowing the lawn."
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NL MVP Voting
Voting for 2000 National League most-valuable-player award, with first-, second- and third-place votes and total points based on a 14-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 system:
Player 1st 2nd 3rd Total Kent, SF 22 5 4 392 Bonds, SF 6 8 8 279 Piazza, NY 3 10 11 271 Edmonds, StL - 6 7 208 Helton, Col 1 3 1 198 Guerrero, Mon - - - 117 Bagwell Hou - - - 102 A. Jones, Atl - - - 95 Sosa, Chi - - - 71 Sheffield, LA - - - 71 C. Jones, Atl - - 1 23 Maddux, Atl - - - 12 Nen, SF - - - 12 Glavine, Atl - - - 8 Burks, SF - - - 6 Alfonzo, NY - - - 6 Johnson, Ari - - - 5 Kile, StL - - - 4 Giles, Pit - - - 3 Alou, Hou - - - 2 Hidalgo, Hou - - - 2 Alfonseca, Fla - - - 1
Numbers for the top three finishers in National League MVP voting, with league rank in parentheses:
Player HR (R) RBI (R) BA (R) Jeff Kent 33 (16) 125 (4) .334 (15) Barry Bonds 49 (2) 106 (18) .306 (21) Mike Piazza 38 (9) 905 (T35) .324 (T10
Top five vote getters with total points (complete voting on D13):