I Want This Frikkin’ Million Dollars In This Game!

Back to Survivor Island with Jeff Kent, motorcycle dealer
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Well, that was a lot of fun.

Seriously, if you’re a baseball fan and you missed 2000 NL MVP Jeff Kent trying his luck on Survivor this season, your fall television experience has been the lesser for it.

But now he’s gone—I keep thinking of The Awl’s And Now He’s Dead article tag—which is too bad for those of us who were enjoying his ride. By now you’ve probably seen Kent’s instant-classic exit rant, re-posted by every sports or entertainment blog, including many sites that didn’t cover his run prior to the rant, but we’ll include it again here anyway, for posterity:

You know what pisses me off? I think I’ve made about sixty million dollars playin’ baseball, and I want this frikkin’ million dollars in this game. And it’s not even a million bucks, it’s $600 grand by the time Obama takes it! I’m a Game Seven World Series loser. You know, I’ve played in the biggest games in the world and the worst games in the world, but this just sucks.

Although that little speech sounds exactly like what you’d expect from the Jeff Kent that MLB fans know, it actually represented a reversion back to what is either his real self or simply the self he portrayed his entire career: We’ll never know. On the island, up until that point, he was a rather different person. He was likable, genuine and scrappy. Guy looked good out there! (His wife, or some well-meaning female, should alert Kent that he looks far better in full facial scruff than with the stripper ‘stache he now dons in his life as a Texas motorcycle dealer.)

It was a good run, better than you’d expect for a celebrity. (Then again, this season’s other mildly famous person, Lisa Whelchel, who was a main character on the show The Facts of Life, is still around). Kent ended up the ninth person gone and the eighth voted out  from an original group of eighteen (with the extra  contestant leaving the show due to illness). He made it to the merge of the game’s original three tribes and also onto the jury, two accomplishments that people on this show always cite as goals. Of course, what he wanted was to win, and I had started to believe he really might do that.

Let’s begin our paean to Kent with some brief background on the way this season started, so that those of you who haven’t been watching can still follow along. CBS began this season with three tribes, one of which—not Kent’s—proceeded to lose the immunity challenge four times in a row, thus having to pick off four members before anyone from the other two tribes left. What this meant for our boy was that he didn’t even have to go to a tribal council until the fifth episode, lucky duck.

Not so lucky was the fact that Calamity Jeff managed to slip from a raft on day one and tear his MCL, though he, and we, did not learn that he had indeed torn it until he saw the doctor after being voted off. This makes his run all the more impressive, even though the injury was embarrassing. (At least he can’t say he did it washing his car, as he once tried to claim of a wrist break that resulted from popping wheelies on his motorcycle.) He played through the pain, took one for the team, choose whatever sports phrase you like there.

Meanwhile, he lived in fear that someone might out him as a pro baseball player, assuming correctly that if they realized how famous (and rich!) he was, they’d want to vote him off quickly. But he calmed down pretty early, after floating the story to his teammates that he was jes’ a reglar Texan who runs a motorcycle dealership, and they bought it. The one person on his tribe that knew who he was, Sarah Dawson, never even approached him about it, though in camera confessionals she claimed she was going to use it against him. All she did was begin taunting him by randomly insulting baseball in his presence. He got wise to it but didn’t have to sweat long; they voted Dawson out that same episode. Once the tribes merged, Kent still went unrecognized. And that wasn’t a huge surprise; I posited in my pre-season post about Kent that he wasn’t much of a celebrity and thus had a good shot at not being recognized. A reader commented, “I don’t think Kent is nearly as unknown as you make him out to be. At least one of the other idiots on the show has to be a baseball fan and therefore would at the very least recognize Kent’s name.” But no, and contestants don’t necessarily learn each other’s last names.

A fun, perhaps debate-prompting tangent: In my mind, there are three tiers of baseball fame. There are mega-stars that basically everyone has heard of even if they’ve never watched a baseball game: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Nomar Garciaparra, Ichiro, to name a few. These are names that my mom (who has never watched a pro baseball game in her life) knows belong to baseball players, even though she can’t tell you what team they played for. Just below that are players who you know if you have even a passive interest in baseball each season. I’d include Pujols, Matt Kemp, Jose Reyes, and CC Sabathia in that group, just as examples. Then, in a third tier, are players who you, I, or any real sports fan assume to be world famous but really, outside of baseball, aren’t as recognizable as you’d think. This is by no means the bottom tier—there are legions of players far below who you only know if you follow the MLB closely—but they are famous only in their sport (and perhaps in the towns where they’d play). That’s where I’d place Kent. To throw one other example in there, how about Dustin Pedroia? Sure, he’s hugely famous in Boston, but can I picture him going on Survivorpost-retirement and no one in a group of 17 picking him out? Easily. Dude is more likely to be mistaken for a Russell Hantz relative—short, stocky, bald.

Anyway, Kent lasted and lasted, his core alliance being with two guys: Jonathan Penner, a returning player who was removed due to medical emergency the last time he did Survivor, and Carter, a young kid who, apart from being the first to win individual immunity, has spoken and done nearly nothing this season. Kent was also tight with Dana, a likable, butch Southern girl, but she got sick and left the show.

Late in the first episode, Kent immediately began sowing seeds of discord against Penner by telling everyone on his tribe, Kalabaw, that he didn’t want to see a returning player win. They all concurred, and so we, the viewers, saw Penner as being “on the outs” right away. (The show had two other returning players this season: Russell Swan, who was on the loser tribe and is gone, and Mike Skupin of Tandang, the other strong tribe, who is still around.) Yet something changed in the third or fourth episode: Kent and Penner made an alliance. And not just that, they seemed to also hit it off on a personal level. (Penner, an actor and writer, would be an unlikely bro for Kent, but they really seemed to gel.) Out in a boat one day, the two of them shored it up with Carter, and we watched a strong trio emerge. But Kent still had it out for Penner, repeatedly telling the camera that he’d ally with him for now but vote him out as soon as he could.

In interviews, Kent’s line this past week has been that the reason he had it out for Penner so single-mindedly was admiration; Kent saw him as the other big man who was playing a great game, and he measured himself against the guy. But it’s still confusing, as was, similarly, the hatred the entire Tandang tribe had for R.C. Saint-Amour, a likeable (and hot) banker who Kent helped them vote out. Penner himself, after last week’s episode, tweeted: “Wondering, as are u all, just what bug jeff kent had up his ass about me.” (By the way, Twitter has added an entire new level to watching a show like Survivor; the contestants obviously can’t give away spoilers, and they don’t know who won the show yet anyway, but their commentary, and often their tweets back and forth amongst each other, can be fascinating. Kent, meanwhile, does not appear to use Twitter.)

The scrambling and deal-mongering that happened right before Kent’s tribal council was among the best Survivor-watching I’ve seen in the eight seasons I’ve watched. And the subsequent tribal council makes my all-time top three.

What happened beforehand should have been a case of the Tandang alliance versus the Kalabaw alliance, with Malcolm and Denise (the two remaining members of the original loser tribe, still allied strongly with each other) providing the potential swings to one or the other. Instead a number of people became wild cards, including Kent, who, now that Penner had won immunity, could either vote with the Tandang people (which he did the week before) for Skupin or vote with Penner, and against the Tandang, to take out Pete, the weaselly leader of a weaselly trio with Tandang members Artis and Abi.

The Tandang people, meanwhile, were telling Kent that they were with him in a group plan to vote for Skupin, but in actuality had decided to vote out Kent. “He’s a nice guy, he’s played a great game, but he’s a threat and I want him gone,” Pete told the camera, in a moment that further gave Kent some credibility. They voted him out because he was physically competitive and likable. Good on you, Jeff!

Viewers rooting for Kent, and likely any and all other viewers, too, were hoping to see Pete go. And that became the plan at the last minute, or so it appeared. “Cut the head of the snake off right now,” Kent told Malcolm, who agreed. Denise and Carter were game, too. That left Penner and Skupin to recruit, which would give them the majority of six. Kent told the plan to Penner, who said, “Yeah, I hear you,” and nodded his head yes, and Malcolm told Skupin, who looked reluctant but also nodded his head. In the end, neither of the returning players would join the Pete vote, thereby sealing Kent’s fate.

At the tribal council, all of it came to a head. Lisa (the Facts of Life gal) and Abi started arguing as Kent looked on, smiling, having a good time. (He eventually told host Jeff Probst, in genuine and almost charming, childlike wonder, “This is—this is pretty fun, Jeff.”) What he didn’t know was that Lisa had engineered, and was eager to pull off, the vote-out-Jeff-Kent movement, which she mysteriously called “Plan B” when she urged the Tandang to do it, though she later told the camera, addressing Kent, “Well I said you were Plan B, but I think this was actually Plan D or E.”

Toward the end of tribal council Penner made a pitch to the supposed six to keep around Skupin, just in case Skupin was in jeopardy (he wasn’t anymore), and suggested they “make a move,” which would seem to mean voting out Pete. Even at this late point Kent was still cagey, telling him, “We’ve discussed those options and many more, I think, you already know about that.” Kent was reluctant to just say yes, and maybe it was this that either irked Penner enough, or at least made him nervous enough, to vote for Abi.

When they arrived at the reading of the votes and there were three for Kent, three for Pete, and one for Abi, with one left, Malcolm was already looking around angrily, likely realizing that the Tandangs went for Kent and that there were four of them voting together, which meant another Jeff vote was coming. With Skupin voting Kent and Penner voting Abi, our man got the axe. His face registered the shock, and he went on to give his famous rant.

But this whole thing was a PR win for Kent, who could now easily do another season of Survivor—I’m positive CBS would love that shit—or at the very least could do a different reality show, since he clearly misses the spotlight.

He played well, was competitive physically, made friendships, and was well liked. A preview photo from tonight’s upcoming episode made me feel legitimately sad. This season has been a surprisingly fabulous one and I’ll continue to watch, but the cast doesn’t look the same without Kent among it.

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