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Nostalgic Kent part of park's celebration

Kent makes emotional return to park

HOUSTON -- Jeff Bagwell warmly greeted Jeff Kent in the Astros dugout on Tuesday and said, "Why are you smiling?"

"Because I don't have to do this anymore," Kent shot back.

The two former teammates, now fellow retirees, had a hearty chuckle together during a reunion of the best and brightest in Minute Maid Park history, most of whom gathered on the field prior to the featured game between the Astros and Cubs. Bagwell, known also to be quite stoic on the field, kidded with Kent, whose Mr. Surly demeanor was one of his most well-known traits -- along with being one of the best second basemen in Major League history, of course.

Kent is newly retired, having hung up his cleats just a few months ago. His reaction to his visit back to the ballpark, where he made his mark on the Astros in historic fashion over just a two-year period, was a combination of nostalgia, wistfulness and a heaping dose of pride.

"Walking through the gates, going up to the suite ... the emotions the first time I walked through the stands, seeing people," he said. "A couple people recognized me on the street. I miss the game."

And he misses Houston, too. He was here only two years in 2003 and '04, but Kent said "it was probably close to my favorite. I really loved it here. I miss that. I miss the fans."

And, he misses some of his former teammates, many who swarmed him as they emerged from the clubhouse to the dugout.

"You see them growing up," Kent said. "I looked at Lance Berkman -- he doesn't look so much like a little kid anymore. He looks like more of a man. It's impressive."

Kent was invited back to Houston on Tuesday to help commemorate the Astros' 10th season in their downtown stadium. During a pregame ceremony, the club offered a tip of the cap to one player or manager who best represented the club each year.

Among the honorees: pitcher Shane Reynolds, an All-Star in 2000; current first baseman Berkman, who had a breakout year in his first full Major League season in 2001; former manager Larry Dierker, whose No. 49 was retired in 2002; former first baseman Bagwell, who led the team in home runs nearly every year; Kent, who carried the Astros on his shoulders with a walk-off homer in the NLCS in 2004; former manager Phil Garner, the only skipper to guide the Astros to a World Series in 2005; current pitching ace Roy Oswalt, the most successful pitcher at Minute Maid Park; current left fielder Carlos Lee, who joined the club in 2007; and current closer Jose Valverde, who led the league in saves once joining the Astros in 2008. Current manager Cecil Cooper represented the 2009 club.

The Astros invited 10 season-ticket holders to throw ceremonial first pitches to the Astros figures.

Looking as fit as he did during his two-year tenure with Houston a half-decade ago, the 41-year-old Kent admitted he probably could still play today. And if playing involved only the game on the field, he might have continued on. But with a wife and four kids at his Austin-area home, the travel-weary Kent is done with the game, and he's at peace with his decision.

"I feel relaxed," he said. "Jeff Bagwell made a crack comment -- what I'm smiling for? My answer was, because I'm not having to play today. I appreciate that. I don't have to get up with my game attitude. I don't have to. It's relieving."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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