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Jason Kendall

Kendall's Pirates Ready for Rebirth

April 14, 2001
By Paul White


PITTSBURGH — Snow was swirling. The wind off the nearby rivers was bone-chilling. What in the world were a couple of California guys doing at a ballgame in these conditions?

"It was the first time I had seen weather like that," says San Diego-born Jason Kendall, who was playing his first home game as the Pittsburgh Pirates' catcher. "But the place was packed. It was awesome. Everybody was going nuts."

That crowd of 41,416 made even the cold concrete of Three Rivers Stadium seem inviting. It certainly warmed the spirits of Sacramento native Kevin McClatchy, the new owner of a team that had battled for its mere existence, at least in Pittsburgh, for several years.

This week, Pittsburgh's "place" was packed again, for another home opener five years and a day after Kendall rubbed his hands for warmth and stepped into the batter's box against Philadelphia's Sid Fernandez. McClatchy was beaming again, secure in the glow of having stabilized one of the game's traditional franchises. Most important, Kendall still was tossing around superlatives. "Just look," Kendall says. "This is the best ballpark in the game." He adds: "I know I'm biased."

That Kendall is biased — that he's even in Pittsburgh — says as much as sparkling, spanking new PNC Park does about the future of baseball in a city that's been a home to the major leagues since 1887.

Everyone figured Kendall, who has been the heart and soul of the Pirates almost since he and the owner shared rookie seasons in '96, was gone as the Pirates stumbled to an eighth consecutive losing season. His contract was to run out after the 2001 season, and with no new agreement in sight, surely Pittsburgh would take the prudent route and trade him. The obvious choices were the Dodgers or Padres, close to his home.

After all, this was the kid who grew up hanging around the ballpark in San Diego. He and his brother, Mike, could be found playing their own improvised games with a tennis ball on the upper concourses when it was called Jack Murphy Stadium. They'd duck in to watch only when they heard over the public address system, "Now batting, the catcher, Fred Kendall."

Their dad, who spent 12 years in the majors, now is a coach for the Colorado Rockies. Mike is the Pirates' scouting supervisor for Southern California. Jason has a new six-year deal to keep him in Pittsburgh.

Jason is just about a Pittsburgh guy.

"I'd stay there year-round if it wasn't so cold," he says, laughing and admitting the city is in his veins but the blood hasn't thickened that much. "When I'm there, the only thing I miss (about California) is good Mexican food."

It's the spice in his play that cements his position in the fans' eyes.

"It's just a hard-working, blue-collar town," says teammate John Wehner, the career fringe player who grew up taking the bus to Pirates games at Three Rivers and reached a personal pinnacle by hitting the final home run there. Of course, in the typical give-no-quarter Western Pennsylvania approach, Wehner still is more bothered that he also made the final out at the now-razed multipurpose, cookie-cutter stadium. Pirates fans suit his style perfectly: "They don't accept the ballplayers giving anything but their best and working hard."

But even Kendall thought for much of last season that the fans would be forced to accept him leaving.

"At times I was unsure," he says. "That's the business part of baseball. I didn't know what to expect. It was the first time I'd dealt with anything like this. It got to a point last year that the best part of the day was 7:05 every night or whatever time the game was. I could put all that other crap behind me."

Kendall and the Pirates finally put all of it behind them with the new deal, which is exactly what the catcher wanted.

"I want to stay in one uniform," he says. "It's rarely done. And this is a sports town. I wanted to be here. It didn't matter if we were playing on a Little League field. Don't get me wrong — (PNC Park) is pretty darn nice, too. The city of Pittsburgh deserves a new ballpark. I take it from a sports fan's outlook. It's neat.

"If we win, there's going to be a hell of a party."

Right now, winning is a stretch.

With much of the team's starting rotation — Kris Benson, Francisco Cordova, Jason Schmidt and Terry Mulholland — out with injuries, optimism on the field is hard to come by.

"Expectations were too high last year," says McClatchy, who was boldly talking about 90 victories in 2000. "I shoulder some of the blame." The Pirates finished fifth in the NL Central with a 69-93 record. Only the Phillies and Cubs had worse records.

But McClatchy also gets plenty of the credit for putting together the ballpark package when many in the Pittsburgh business community said it wasn't viable. After all, McClatchy and his partners swooped in to buy the club when a conglomerate of local investors wanted out and nobody else in town seemed interested. That purchase came with the condition of getting a new ballpark built within five years. Not only did McClatchy get the stadium deal done, but the business community got excited again.

"We sold out our suites in a month and a half," McClatchy says. "That was important because it showed the corporate community was solidly behind us."

Building support from business and fans hasn't been a snap. McClatchy took over a team that was last in the league in revenue and attendance in 1995. Three years removed from their last playoff appearance — the galling Francisco Cabrera pinch-hit in Game 7 of the 1992 NL Championship Series against Atlanta — the Pirates had drawn fewer than a million fans.

"From the beginning, we wanted to plagiarize the Cleveland model," McClatchy says. "We had a long way to go. In '97, we had a $9 million payroll on the field, $13 million total. We're now mid-revenue. We've counted on the revenue (from the new ballpark) to have $50 million in payroll. That's not high by major league standards, but we're living in a nice neighborhood."

Drawing themes from Wrigley Field, Baltimore's Camden Yards and Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field, McClatchy and the Pirates put together an intimate, retro-look 38,000-seat stadium with a view of the local skyline unmatched in the majors.

The view and the rest of the facility will help fill the seats for a while, with well over two million a certainty this year. But the crucial element of Cleveland's model is the product on the field once the honeymoon effect of the new stadium wears off.

McClatchy estimates that the novelty lasts "two, maybe three years. But I don't want to worry about honeymoons. We want to win now."

He's not shy about pointing out that his team's young players have to step up this year. That's fine, at least according to one of the clubhouse leaders.

"I don't want to be in last place," Kendall says. "I've been in last place. We have a great nucleus. It's time for everybody to step up. You have to learn something every day. Every night, 25 guys going to war."

Kendall's fire can be contagious. But can he maintain it and spread it if, indeed, it's another sub-.500 season for the Pirates?

"Hell, yeah," he says. "I'm totally obsessed with (winning). I always have to leave it on the field."

When he arrived in Pittsburgh for the first time this year, Kendall was struck with the reality of the new ballpark. Driving to downtown from the airport, he emerged from the Fort Pitt tunnel to the city's most famous vista: the downtown triangle formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers to form the Ohio.

"That's when it struck me," Kendall says. "Three Rivers wasn't there. Three Rivers was my first big-league home. I was sad."

But his sadness over Three Rivers didn't last long.

"I looked a little bit to the right," he says, "and I said, 'Oh, (bleep).' "

There was PNC Park. "I was as excited as can be," Kendall says. "They got it built. Now we have to do our part. I can't ever be satisfied until we're partying in Pittsburgh."