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Astros Have Nothing Bad to Say About Kent

Times Staff Writer

A coach for the Houston Astros took a long, slow read of Milton Bradley’s observations on Jeff Kent on Tuesday night, folded the paper deliberately and placed it on a table before him.

“Jeff Kent,” he said finally, “is not a racist.”

In a clubhouse stocked with Kent’s former teammates, a few of them, perhaps, friends, Kent is still regarded as a committed gamer whose off-field detachment and occasional pointed criticisms helped drive the organization to the brink of its first World Series.

Kent played two seasons for the Astros, hit 49 home runs and drove in 200 runs, and generally chose not to lead or follow. Just as he has in Los Angeles, Kent stayed to himself before the game, played nearly every day, and once in a while set aside his dispassionate side.

Lance Berkman said he more than once felt a tug on his sleeve and turned to see Kent, his lips pulled tight, his eyes narrow, Berkman fully expecting a withering assessment of his game or a particular part of it.

“He’s not afraid to let you know about it,” Berkman said. “He’s not shy in expressing his displeasure.”

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How Kent went about it, Berkman said, “Depended on the situation. He might pull a guy to the side. Or, he might get mad and yell at you, either right there on the field or in the dugout.

“He just wants to win baseball games. He’s not a guy who’s going to win a popularity contest as far as being extroverted and pumping guys up. He plays hard all the time and he expects his teammates to do the same.”

Kent’s target this weekend was Bradley, who then declared Kent unable to relate to African American players, which most interpreted as a charge of racism. The Astros do not have an African American player on their roster.

Dodger players privately dismissed Bradley’s assessment of Kent’s character. The organization temporarily was spared a decision on Bradley when he was diagnosed with a knee injury that is expected to require surgery and therefore will require an extended stay away from the team.

General Manager Paul DePodesta said he “hoped” Bradley would play for the Dodgers next season. Such an outcome could cost him the productive Kent, who has told teammates he would consider requesting a trade -- even retiring -- if Bradley were asked back.

Despite Bradley’s skills, which include middle-of-the-order power and top-of-the-order speed, he again had driven the Dodger management to late-season distraction, again requiring the attention of the owner, general manager and manager. At this time last year, Kent was leading the Astros into the playoffs, one chewed-upon ear at a time.

“As much as anybody,” Jeff Bagwell said, “he plays to win the game. He gets mad at himself when he doesn’t do things well and he expects everybody else to be the same way. This is a guy who has been around, through different situations, and he’s not afraid to give his input on what you have to do, which a lot of veterans do.”

Bagwell said he “never” believed Kent to be a player driven by statistics, another of Bradley’s charges, or a racist.

“You’re not going to find me saying anything at all bad about JK,” he said.

Though he has had little protection in the Dodger lineup, Kent leads the team with 22 home runs and 83 RBIs, and batted better than .300 until recently. Suffering through the free-agency departures of Kent and Carlos Beltran, along with injuries to Berkman and Bagwell, the Astros rank near the bottom of the league in batting, runs, hits and total bases.

They knew when to stay away from Kent when he was grumpy, and knew that anything less than maximum effort would bring a visit. And they knew they probably deserved it.

“Everybody here loves him,” Berkman said. “We’d love to have him back.”


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