An Island Unto Himself

On Jeff Kent on Survivor
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Jeff from Huntington, California; ballplayer

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Survivor is about to begin its 25th season. Pause for a moment and consider just how absurd this is. Twenty-four times, audiences large enough to make the show worth renewing have tuned in to watch a mix of people chosen for their physical prowess and/or irrational, catty temper go head-to-head in physical challenges, ally with and betray one another like subjects in a Stanley Milgram experiment, and get picked off by the group, one at a time. I am one of those who has tuned in—not nearly for all 25 seasons, but for at least eight—and have taken the consequent shit from friends for being into “reality TV.” But I don’t watch any other reality TV, and don’t consider Survivor reality TV. I watch it because it’s essentially a sport.

Scoff at the idea of a CBS cash cow being a sport, but some legitimate athletes agree: this season, Jeff Kent will be one of the contestants. Yes, Jeff Kent, he of (among others) the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, the 2000 National League Most Valuable Player, holder of the record for home runs by a second baseman, and one half of a storied partnership with Barry Bonds, which consisted of Kent driving in the juiced slugger time and time again even as the two continually got into repeated dugout scraps.

You’ll have fun watching Kent’s preseason interview clip on YouTube. Sandwiched amongst the overly-boobed women, the psychotic hick, and the inspiring middle-aged man (“I’m a shell of what I used to be, I used to be 6’8… I had a 20-inch neck,” claims Artis) is good ol’ Jeff, twangin’ away: “Ah played baseball fur seventeen yeers, professional baseball…”

Pro athletes have gone on Survivor before, certainly. Ethan Zohn, who played soccer for Highlander FC in Zimbabwe, won the show in its third season. The program has also had athlete wives: Last season, for example, featured Monica Culpepper, better half of longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Brad. Most famously, former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson joined the cast of Survivor: Nicaragua at 67, and was voted out third overall. No surprise there: Johnson is a balls-out, showy type that everyone knows all too well, and could never have gotten far on the show. Kent is different. He may, in fact, be the quintessential Survivor archetype.

Jeff Kent has been playing a part for his entire career and beyond. He has portrayed himself as a likable, jes’ folks Texan, and says as much in the video: “I’m hopin’ to play on my second life, and people won’t recognize me as a, you know, baseball player and celebrity… I’m a normal guy like everybody else.”

He isn’t a celebrity, so he needn’t worry. (Argue if you’d like, but is he really anywhere near as recognizable as someone like Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki or Johnny Damon?) He’s also, though, no normal guy. That’s shtick. Kent grew up in Huntington Beach, California, surfing waves with his two brothers. Exceptionally bright, he got into Stanford but chose UC Berkeley, where he was not recruited for baseball, but made the team as a walk-on.

Kent, then, seems to have the ability not just to rebrand himself to others, which anyone can attempt, but apparently to convince even himself of the ploy. Just look at him in the video. It’s hard not to laugh—he looks like a character on Reno: 911—and yet he seems to buy what he’s selling, that he really is a cop-mustached Texas rancher out here to have a good time and show erruhbody what he’s made of, durnit!

We know that Kent can get heated, which is helpful on Survivor. When he was active, Kent was known to be ornery and frequently combative, and not just with Bonds: At the very end of his career in 2008, he repeatedly complained about the common media line that he was batting well because he had Manny Ramirez behind him.

We also know that Kent can be crafty: It’s been rumored that when Kent grabbed his surprising $22 million, two-year contract extension with L.A. in 2006, it was because he had been friendly with Frank McCourt’s wife and had put in a good word for Ned Colletti, who repaid the favor to Kent once he became general manager.

Perhaps most important, he’s already got his Survivor clichés down pat: “People don’t understand my competitive nature; they underestimate it,” he says, apparently in seriousness.

Kent playfully acknowledges the stigma of going on Survivor. “I’m going to get calls and texts, emails,” he says, that will ask him, “‘What the hell are you thinkin’? You kiddin’ me? Your fat gut, your fat white gut out there runnin’ around a beach with these twenty-year-old, good-lookin’ girls, what are you doin’? You don’t need the money!’” But he obviously doesn’t care, and relishes the skepticism more than he lets on, just as he relishes being on TV. (Kent has already appeared on another competition show, ABC’s Superstars, paired up with Ali Landry, she of the storied Doritos Super Bowl ads.)

With his shtick clearly ready to go, the question is whether it will work. History suggests that Kent’s run could go one of two ways: someone outs him immediately, the tribe sees him as a threat, and they remove him early on; or he fares well in challenges, works the nice-guy angle (especially with those “20-year-old, good-lookin’ girls”), and makes it to the final few. The third option you’re thinking of is that middle road where he skates through to the halfway point or further and then gets removed once the rest of them get around to it, once they’ve picked off all the old, dumb, or out-of-shape people, but Kent is just too big a personality for that to seem plausible. It’s going to be (nearly) all or nothing, given a play style that hearkens back to a host of other likable liars and self-deceiving everymen.

There was “Coach” Ben Wade, for one, who christened himself The Dragonslayer and went on Survivor three times, still never able to win. Kent isn’t quite at Coach level, but he isn’t far. There was, last season, the similarly delusional Troy Robertson, a swimsuit photographer who demanded he be called Troyzan and was dominant in challenges but nevertheless fell prey to a strong band of women, spazzing out at them more than once on his road to exile. And two seasons ago, Albert Estrada, playing the strong, silent black man, flew under the radar long enough to make the final three, but not before lying to his last remaining male allies so cruelly he earned zero votes (the votes you do want to get) at the final council.

Oftentimes those who do gobble up the good votes at the end, and walk away with the million dollars, do so because they’ve approached the game as sport. A young woman that was two years below me at our college, Sophie Clarke, a smart, self-respecting med school student, went on the show two seasons ago and won. She was crafty, but not breathtakingly so; she was simply dominant in challenges. Kim Spradlin, who won last season, was also strong, but mostly won by establishing herself early on as a team captain of sorts for the women, systematically removing all the men and then winnowing the women down to her two besties and bringing them along to the final council, where she got all but two votes.

Survivor has distanced itself from other competition shows like The Amazing Race et al. It’s simply better than those. Survivor isn’t just about the physical challenges—psychology matters and personal interactions matter—but really, with a few very rare exceptions, the people that are physically strong and compete well in challenges stick around at least until half of the contestants are gone. There are always one or two losers that fly under the radar for long enough that, once they are discovered as a threat, it’s too late. But in the past two seasons, and in most of them, the victors have been the fit, fighting Goliaths, not the conniving Davids. Of course, the best competitors have embodied both. Which will Kent be?

If you like baseball, and like TV, you need to watch Jeff Kent on Survivor this season. Here’s something to try: Last season, my friends and I made it into a fantasy league; we each draft our six-person team purely based on promotional photos and videos that come out before the season starts, then we earn or lose points when our survivors win a challenge, or get an injury, or start crying. As you can imagine, this also works well as a drinking game. Ole Jeff, by the way, went fifth overall in our draft. See you out there on the field in the jungle.

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