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By Bill Francis
Of the 26 former big league players who participated in Sunday’s inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame Classic, only two were in the big leagues as recently as last season. One says he’s retired for good; the other is willing to listen to offers.
Jeff Kent was a slugging second baseman who captured the 2000 National League MVP Award, while Mike Timlin a stalwart relief pitcher who helped four teams win World Series titles. Between the pair of baseball veterans are 35 seasons and almost 3,400 games of major league action.
According to Kent, who ended last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers with 377 career home runs, including his record-setting 351 as a second baseman, he’s ready for the next phase of his life.
“I’m 41 now and my desire to compete is going out a little bit,” Kent said before the Classic. “I’ll probably always think I could compete, but at what level I don’t know. It’s time for the younger kids to start taking on the game.
“I think the last 10 years of my career I played the game a lot better in my mind than I did with my body.”
For Timlin, 43, while he sees the writing on the wall, he’s unwillingly to completely concede his playing career has come to an end.
“Nothing’s totally official,” said Timlin, who played the last six seasons with the Boston Red Sox. “I had my name out there in spring training, so something could happen this summer. If someone gives me a call that I would deem worthy to walk away from the family for a little while, it could happen.”
Both players have been generous over the years about donating artifacts from their careers to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“They’re probably collecting dust in the basement,” joked Kent, who donated, among other things, the bat he used to hit his 278th homer as a second baseman, breaking Ryne Sandberg‘s former career mark. “It’s neat that I was a part of history for the 17 years that I played.”
Among the Timlin artifacts in the Museum – which like all artifacts are kept in climate-controlled environments – are the spikes he wore when he made his 1,000th appearance as a pitcher.
“It’s an honor just to be asked to have something in there,” Timlin said. “I know my career numbers are not going to put me in there with a plaque on the wall, so it’s nice to actually have something in there that is part of me.”
Timlin’s last visit to Cooperstown was with the Red Sox as a participant in the 2005 Hall of Fame Game.
“My mom passed away from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), so I took a picture with Lou Gehrig‘s first baseman mitt,” Timlin said. “That was pretty neat.”
This was Kent’s first visit to Cooperstown, but with the career he’s had he could one day find himself with a Hall of Fame plaque of his own.
“I’ve never been a baseball historian, so because of that I’ve never really been able to compare myself to anybody else. I never got caught up in the history of the game because I felt like that might erase some of my competitive nature,” Kent said. “I always competed for the moment rather than competing for the past or competing for the future. When you know that history about me, for me to think about where I stand within baseball history, I have no idea.”
But Kent did admit to some curiosity after being around some of the Hall of Famers as part of the Hall of Fame Classic.
“I’m learning more about the intrigue, the specialness, the mystery of the Hall of Fame and the classiness of these players that are in the Hall. And to say that I can be a part of that in the future I appreciate,” Kent said. “I’ve always tried to separate myself from things I can’t control. I played the game and I played it right and hopefully that’ll stand up for itself. We’ll see.
“Being able to say that I was one of the better players is an honor in itself whether somebody votes for me or not.”
And with his long career possibly having come to an end, Timlin can look back with a certain wide-eyed awe.
“God’s blessed me tremendously just to do what I’ve done,” he said. “It has been awesome.”
Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.