Some players seek fame. Howie Kendrick runs into the famous by accident. As the Angels' second baseman stood in the on-deck circle between innings of an exhibition game this spring, a distinguished-looking gentleman in his 60s made his way across the field from the box of team owner Arte Moreno. The man made a detour to shake hands with Kendrick. "He was walking with one of the visiting clubhouse guys," recalls Kendrick, "and he said, 'Hello,' and I said, 'Hey' back."
It wasn't until after the game that Kendrick learned that the man was former New York City mayor and 2008 presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani. "I just shook his hand and didn't think twice about it," Kendrick says. "I didn't know I was supposed to know him. My bad."
It won't be long until the day when even the most casual baseball fan will know Kendrick, the crown jewel of one of the game's most envied player development systems. The 23-year-old native of the northern Florida town of Callahan spent the better part of five years hammering minor league pitching for a .361 batting average and .570 slugging percentage before getting called up to the big league club three weeks into the 2006 season. Though he struggled at the outset (3 for 26), which earned him a demotion to Triple A, he returned to the majors for good in July, put together a 16-game hitting streak and batted .303 for the rest of the season. "I know I belong here," he says.
No one in the Angels' organization, and few in baseball, doubt that Kendrick -- who spent most of last season playing out of position at first base -- is destined for stardom. His accomplishments in the minors plus his performance in the Show at the end of last season suggest an imminent breakout. His potential is a small but significant reason the Angels are SI's choice to win the World Series this fall.
The Angels know what type of team they have -- as deep as anyone in the power arms so essential in October (Jered Weaver, who held foes to a .209 average will be the fifth starter when Bartolo Colon returns from an elbow injury in late April) but bereft of sure things on offense after rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero. Leftfielder Juan Rivera (.525 slugging) was the only other regular who consistently provided above-average production in 2006, but he broke his left leg while playing winter ball and isn't expected to return until June.
In the meantime Kendrick and the rest of the kiddie corps will be counted on to deliver. Catcher Mike Napoli, 25, who in 268 at bats as a rookie last year walked 51 times and had a better home run rate than AL MVP Justin Morneau, brings good defense to the lineup as well. "The bottom line for a catcher is, How many runs did you give up and did you win or lose? Mike was off the charts on both," says manager Mike Scioscia. (Indeed, the Angels were 46-30 in games that Napoli started.)
Before long the club may also turn to prized prospect Brandon Wood, 22, a shortstop with prodigious power (68 home runs in the past two years in the minors) who is learning to play third base and will start the season in Triple A Salt Lake City.
But among the kids only Kendrick has celebrity connections. During a game at Fenway Park last July he found himself vying for a foul ball with actor Ben Affleck, the star of Hollywoodland. After Kendrick caught the ball, robbing Affleck of a souvenir, he picked up the nickname Howiewood and got a spot with Affleck on Access Hollywood, during which the ballplayer chided the actor, "Nice try though, even for a Red Sox fan."
That brush with fame in Fenway, Kendrick recalls with a laugh, was much different from his encounter with Giuliani. "I knew who Ben was," he says. "Hard to miss him." The same can be said of Kendrick. -- Jacob Luft
Issue date: March 26, 2007