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Jason Kendall

Behind the mask

Tuesday, June 30, 1998
By Chuck Finder

 


Whereas Barry Bonds was born on third base and simply figured he hit a triple, Jason Kendall was born on the stadium concourse and believed he could earn his way onto the field.

This son didn't have a glorious set of genes passed down from his major-league father. He didn't have Willie Mays as his godfather. He didn't have a division-winning clubhouse as his rumpus room.

All Kendall knew was a bunch of golden-brown San Diego expansion team players who displayed professionalism in spite of being baseball's sorriest club and a sturdy catcher of a Padre who handed down to his youngest son this work ethic:

Play every pitch as if someone's on third.

Approach every at-bat as if it's your last.

Bullpen coach Fred Kendall tells the same thing to his Detroit Tigers catchers nowadays.

"They remember it. They remember it. Just like it locked into Jason. The game doesn't owe you anything," explained the father and coach, whose Tigers come to Three Rivers Stadium today for a three-game, interleague series against the son and his Pirates. "You respect the game and it will take care of you. Jason comes to play. You don't find many players like that anymore. I'm not down on the players, but ... I don't know if there are many players who compete like Jason."

We're talking about the son who leaped over a San Diego catcher to score a run in April and launched himself horizontally to catch a foul-pop bunt four weeks ago.

The son who defended a Pirates teammate to the point of causing a cascade of letters to the editor.

The son who turned 24 Friday, between the weekend he briefly led the National League in batting and the Sunday night fight with Gary Sheffield that will earn him a suspension, fine or both from the National League president any day now.

If such a penalty comes tomorrow, it would make for an interesting reunion with his dad.

Because the son conceivably could receive a suspension and an All-Star Game invitation in one day.

Even though he was fifth among catchers in National League balloting, Kendall is the Pirates' odds-on favorite to be named to his second All-Star team in three major-league seasons when reserves are announced tomorrow.

He leads the rest of the National League catchers in almost every category thus far.

Kendall, hitting .325 and ninth in the league, has the highest batting average among a group of catchers that includes the New York Mets' Mike Piazza and Atlanta Braves' Javy Lopez.

He has the highest on-base percentage at .406, eighth in the league. He has the most hits, 89, and second-most doubles, 13. He has the most stolen bases, eight, the fewest strikeouts, 24, and the fewest errors, three.

He also owns the major-league lead in most times hit by a pitch, 20, and dirtiest uniforms.

"I don't think that anyone could say that Kendall cheats his teammates or his organization one iota when he puts that uniform on," said Pirates pitching coach Pete Vuckovich.

"He's certainly a gamer. And the kid's better than Freddie. Tell Freddie I said so. Must be part of his mother's genes."

Of his father, the son said, "He played the game the way it was supposed to be played. Obviously, in those days, you played the game because you loved it. You played the game to get a contract the next year. There wasn't this kind of money. That's why I am the way I am. The thing I'm proudest of is taking on the way my dad played."

His Padre

Kendall remembers little of his father's major-league career, except this:

Baseball.

That was life for him and brother Mike, two years his elder. They were always at the ballpark. They were always around Padres, wearing uniforms that looked like big french fries.

"That's all I knew," he said. "Everything was ball, ball, ball. What I remember most is going up with a tennis ball in Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Park). With (Doug) Rader's kids, with (Gaylord) Perry's kids ... I could name everybody who had kids on the team. And whenever I heard my dad's name on the loudspeaker, I'd run out and see what he was doing. When he was done hitting, I'd go back to what I was doing. I was just being a kid."

The Kendall brothers frolicked in the stadium concourse during games. They would grab a souvenir bat or tape together a Padres throwaway and play ball. They would toss the tennis ball off the wall in a game they called "Butt's Up" -- three misses, and you had to stand along the wall spread-eagle and let the others take aim at your derriere. The father remembered looking into the stands often and seeing wife Patty surrounded by two empty seats. They were just being kids.

But they also were sponges.

"Growing up in that kind of atmosphere, you learn from example," said Mike Kendall, now the pitching coach at the University of Toledo. "You learn from dad, from the Tim Flannerys, from the Ozzie Smiths, from the Rollie Fingerses and the Randy Joneses and the Gaylord Perrys. Me and Jason, we'd watch and see how these guys acted and how they handled the outside stuff. We were around it every day. We grew up at Jack Murphy Stadium."

Father Fred Kendall, of nearby Torrance, Calif., was an original member of the 1969 expansion Padres. He was the team's MVP in 1973, when he compiled career highs in hitting at .288, home runs at 10 and RBIs at 59. He was the team's regular catcher from 1973-1976, the last two seasons handling almost all of Randy Jones' 42 victories. He was the National League's second-best defensive catcher in 1976, when his .994 fielding percentage trailed only Johnny Bench. But mostly, Kendall was a plugger on an expansion team full of them: The Padres lost 110 games in that inaugural season, followed by 99, 100, 95, 102, 102, 91 and 89.

After Jason Daniel Kendall was born in 1974, the father played two more seasons in San Diego. Then he spent the 1977 season with the Cleveland Indians, his last as an every-day player, and part of 1978 with the Boston Red Sox, his only season on a pennant contender, which ended when Bucky Dent and the New York Yankees came along and won a one-game playoff. The blockish catcher returned to San Diego for bits and pieces of the 1979 and 1980 seasons, when the club lost 93 and 89 more games.

"Freddie took me under his wing," Padres coach and longtime infielder Tim Flannery said of those final two seasons. "Freddie Kendall taught me to play hard, like he taught Jason, too."

"He was huge in San Diego," Jason came to discover. "I went down there my first year with the Pirates (1996), I didn't really realize how big he was. Even now, when I go down there, there's always 10 or 20 people who come to me and say, 'Your dad was awesome here. Tell him thanks."'

While dad was on the road, it fell to mom to hit grounders to the boys. It fell to mom to coach their first Little League teams and reinforce the family philosophy: The apparition at third, the meaning of every at-bat, the intensity, the work.

Patty Kendall was no baseball rube. Her brother pitched for Stanford. She attended Fred's games.

"She knew the game as well as the coaches we were playing against," Mike said. "We learned how to play the game the right way, with a lot of intensity and taking it seriously."

The youngest son was a shortstop-pitcher-everywhere man until the day the incumbent Torrance High School catcher did something to irritate Coach Jeff Phillips. Next thing anyone knew, Kendall, just a sophomore, was inserted at catcher and calling pitches for his big brother, a senior. Mike would have nothing of the sort.

"We're jawing on the mound, and our head coach had to break it up," Mike recalled. "I got my way, but I gave up a base hit up the middle and lost my no-hitter in the fifth. Then I told Jason, 'All right, you're calling your own game from now on."'

Mike went off to San Diego State University, Jason to stardom. During the fall, Jason was the starting quarterback for the Torrance Tartars, passing for 4,651 yards and 41 touchdowns his junior and senior seasons, playing on a team that lost one member to a paralyzing neck injury.

He was the starting catcher in the spring, tying a national high school record with a 43-game hitting streak and his father's school record with eight RBIs in a game. Still, "The bat is a question mark," was printed in Baseball America. In one playoff game, he was intentionally walked twice and saw only one pitch -- which he promptly deposited over the left-center field fence for what turned out to be the two-run difference in the game.

San Diego State offered him a baseball scholarship, a chance to play with his brother, who was about to undergo two elbow surgeries that ended his career, and a chance to walk-on to the football team. Kendall readily accepted.

Along came baseball's 1992 amateur draft and the Pirates. They made him the 23rd selection of the first round, a few picks ahead of a collegiate catcher named Charles Johnson, and gave him a $336,000 signing bonus. The brothers celebrated that night by surfing from 8 p.m. to midnight. Fred Kendall wasn't around -- he was off in Utica, N.Y., managing a minor-league team.

A year later, father and son first collided in a professional ball game, and Fred tried to get Jason tossed. Fred Kendall was managing Chicago White Sox affiliate Hickory, N.C., in the South Atlantic League. Marc Pisciotta of the Pirates' Augusta club had thrown at a Hickory player's head, and Augusta catcher Jason Kendall tackled the offended batter, touching off a brawl. Pisciotta and four Hickory players were ejected.

Kendall the Hickory manager yelled at the umpire about Kendall the Augusta player, "Aren't you going to kick the catcher out of the game?" Overhearing, Jason asked, "Geez, Dad, are you going to pay my fine, too?"

Mom and sister Cathy were in the stands for that game.

"That's one of my regrets," Mike said, "not being able to see that one."

A family affair

Father and son have faced one another during the past three spring trainings. The rest of the family has watched from the stands. But everyone has been awaiting this real ball game, this Tigers-Pirates get-together, since the interleague matchup was announced last summer. This, after all, is a family always on the telephone with one another. This is a family where Mike in Toledo and Jason in Pittsburgh watch ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" together, long distance. "We're a perfect AT&T commercial," Mike said.

"Dad will stay with Jason," he said of this week. "It's tough on Dad; he's always wondering what's going on. The only chance he can catch up with Jason is through box scores and on highlights. He can't wait to get a chance to watch Jason play."

What Fred Kendall has missed:

His son batted .300 in his 1996 rookie season, while adroitly handling a staff of such veterans as Danny Darwin and Zane Smith, while making a league-high 18 errors and throwing out a paltry 20 percent of would-be base stealers, prompting newly named Pirates Manager Gene Lamont to briefly consider switching Kendall to second base. He batted .294 last season, while adroitly handling a young staff, lowering his errors to 10 and raising his percentage of throwing out runners to 40.

"His catching skills have come along, and need to come along, as far as throwing," said Mike Berger, a Montreal scouting supervisor based here. He used scoutspeak in noting how Kendall has "an arch in his spine when throwing down," but otherwise raved. "This kid saves you countless runs on balls in the dirt. It's very rare to find good catchers nowadays, and to find a guy like Kendall who can handle a pitching staff is tremendous. And he can hit and run, too. Gee, you'd think we're talking about a Carlton Fisk, Bob Boone guy."

Jason Kendall made the All-Star team as a rookie, placing his name in such company as Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Mike Piazza. The first person he dialed up then to tell the news was his father, and the unexpected invitation caused them to cancel their trip to Tigers Manager Buddy Bell's golf outing. To relay the news this year, the son would need only to walk down the Three Rivers Stadium hallway to the visitor's clubhouse.

Young Kendall made that highlight-reel leap over San Diego's Carlos Hernandez to score a run April 24. "White men can jump," joked the Venezuelan. A week later, Kendall mused that Pirates outfielder Turner Ward's running-through-the-wall catch May 3 yanked the ESPN ESPY award from his mitts. No problem, for the catcher's diving grab of a pop bunt by the Mets' Brian McRae June 2 just might wrest away the made-for-TV award for baseball highlight of the year. "He's trying to get it back," big brother said.

The son is on pace to be hit 40 times by a pitch this season, which would break a Pirates record he set last year with 31, which broke the record he set as a rookie with 16. He appears destined to someday break the National League hit-by-pitch records for a season and a career held by Ron Hunt, who had 50 and 243.

"I've got to ask Fred what he thinks about his son wearing that pad (on his left biceps)," joked Flannery, the San Diego coach and former teammate of Kendall's father. "Fred wouldn't wear that pad."

"It's not something I work on in the off-season," the son said of his plunkability. "I'd rather get hit on the (biceps) and have a bruise for a week than get hit in the ribs and have it hurt for a month." That said, he knocked on his wooden clubhouse stall.

The son also is getting hit by opponents' fists. Sunday in Los Angeles, Kendall objected to the Dodgers' Gary Sheffield knocking off the catcher's helmet while getting tagged out at home. Kendall used what umpire Jerry Crawford termed "baseball words," and Sheffield reacted violently. When the melee ended, Kendall had given Sheffield bruises and cuts that required medical attention. With Sheffield expected to become the Dodgers' lone representative, the two combatants might well see each other next week at the All-Star Game.

Maybe this explains why Berger the Montreal scout considers Kendall someone who would throw himself on a grenade to save you "and come out unscathed." Berger added, "Jason Kendall respects the uniform. That's the crowning achievement in baseball. Respect the uniform. Respect the game."

The son also is taking hits from fans, in the form of letters to the editor. On June 7, Kendall came to the defense of teammate Al Martin: He bashed "joke-book fans" and "rotisserie-league geeks" who made up "maybe 5 percent of the fans" booing and criticizing the slumping outfielder. The letter-writers bashed back.

"I definitely didn't want it to happen that way," Martin said. "I knew it would add fuel to the fire. When you have a negative situation, it's best just to let it lie. But I knew where his heart was, and it meant a lot to me."

But this is the same Kendall who criticized teammates in spring training 1997: "C'mon, man, you played in Lynchburg last year. Shut up. Get your job done." This is the same Kendall who May 2 criticized letters to the editor about the Pirates' building for the future: "I'm so sick of people talking about 2001. Heck, by 2001 the world might blow up."

Kendall expressed remorse over his choice of words in the Martin incident, but no regrets. He realized he already was a target after admitting in a Post-Gazette spring training diary that he knocked in a locked closet door of the condo he and backup Keith Osik were renting. "We took care of it," he said of the repairs.

"I want to be a leader by the way I play the game," Kendall added. "But if something needs to be said, I'll say it. I'm not trying to be some tough guy or anything. I'm being me. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut sometimes, maybe I shouldn't. But I shoot straight from the hip, and I always will. I want people to like me. That's important to me. At the same time, if they don't, I can't do anything about that."

All he wants is to play hard, play catcher and win a championship with the Pirates.

"He will never be satisfied until he gets that ring," Mike said of his little brother who is earning $550,000 this year, part of a four-year, $7.2 million deal he signed last July. "Then it will start all over, and he'll want another ring."

All he wants is to play ball the way it's supposed to be played.

The way his father played.

"Deep down inside, I knew one day I was going to play big-league baseball," the son recalled.

"I knew."