Still, more than most catchers, Kendall relies on his legs to generate offense, and catching as often as he does (144 games last season) is bound to take its toll. Pittsburgh righthander Jason Schmidt says Kendall is almost too vital to the Pirates to remain behind the plate indefinitely. "He's extremely durable and as tough as they come, but it would be devastating if he turned into Darren Daulton," says Schmidt, referring to the erstwhile Philadelphia Phillies catcher who had to retire at 36 after nine knee operations. Says Kendall, "If the Pirates want to move me [to another position], what can I do? I work for them. But do I want to move? No, I don't. I want to catch. I like being in the game every pitch, every play."
Jason learned the game at the creaky knees of his father, who logged 12 years in the big leagues, mostly with the Padres. Now a roving catching instructor with the Reds, Fred, 50, hit .234 with 31 homers from 1969 through '80 and dutifully passed down a work ethic and respect for the game to his otherwise free-spirited son. "He comes to play," says Fred, "and I like to think I did the same."
Although Fred was on the road much of the time when Jason and his older brother, Michael, were young, the boys were never without a baseball coach back home in Alpine, Calif. Patty Kendall, a housewife, would take Jason into the yard and hit grounders until she got one past him. "That was the deal," says Patty. "If he missed one, I went in. He used to keep me out there for two hours some nights. Even as a kid, nothing ever intimidated him, and he had an incredible tolerance for pain." As an eighth-grader, Jason took a winter trip with a friend to the San Bernardino Mountains, where he rode his toboggan into a tree. He broke his leg and missed a year of baseball. As part of his rehab, he was told to swim, an activity that, he quickly learned, was a lot more fun when he brought along a surfboard. He's been riding the waves ever since.
A star quarterback at Torrance (Calif.) High, Kendall considered attending San Diego State as a two-sport man. When Pittsburgh made him its first-round pick in the 1992 amateur draft, he reluctantly gave up football. In '95 Kendall hit .326 for the Double A Carolina Mudcats and was named the Southern League MVP. The following spring, at 21, he jumped straight to the Pirates, never stopping to wonder if he belonged in the big leagues. "He had the perfect combination of confidence and cockiness," says Cincinnati lefthander Denny Neagle, the ace of the Pittsburgh staff when Kendall arrived. It also helped that Kendall retained his gridiron mentality. Last June 28 the Pirates were trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-1 when Gary Sheffield was thrown out at the plate. As he headed to the dugout, he knocked off Kendall's catching helmet with his forearm. The two exchanged words before Kendall wrestled Sheffield to the ground, inciting a dugout-clearing skirmish and earning each of them a three-game suspension.
"He's the cool guy in high school, the BMOC," says Martin. "He has a nonchalance about him that I wish I had, and a great inner confidence." At the end of last season, on his way home to Manhattan Beach, Calif., Kendall stopped off in Scottsdale, Ariz., to visit Martin, who had recently purchased a new silver Porsche Boxster. Kendall mentioned how much he liked the car. So what did Martin do? Sold it to him. Right there, in the driveway. Kendall got ready to drive the car the 375 miles to his off-season destination. The only problem was, Kendall had never driven a stick shift before. "He was stalling all the way down the street as he drove away," says Martin, laughing. "He had no idea what he was doing."
"Yeah," says Kendall, "but I was real good at it by the time I got home."
There, when he's not surfing the waves, he's surfing the net. Or sleeping, sometimes 10 hours a day. As if that's not enough rest, he puts his brain in neutral and watches Party of Five, Dawson's Creek and, of course, Monday Night Raw. "Not Nitro" he says. "There's a difference." He also listens to his pal, sports-talk radio-TV host Jim Rome—"Romeo," Kendall calls him—and roots for the Los Angeles Clippers. He's more SoCal than the Spellings.
During the season, however, Kendall takes on the blue-collar persona of Pittsburgh. In the Pirates' clubhouse it's rare not to find three or four players around his locker, listening, talking, feeding off Kendall's boundless energy. "People just gravitate toward him," says Osik. "It's not something that he asks for or wants. It just happens."
Kendall is earning $1.5 million this season, the second in a four-year deal. During spring training he rejected a three-year extension believed to have been in the neighborhood of $21 million. Kendall is waiting to see if Pittsburgh can be a winner. "If we're not competitive in three years, I'll go elsewhere," he says. The Pirates, who had a $9 million payroll only two years ago, are not nearly the hopeless band of low-budget quadruple A players they once were. The recent addition of such veterans as outfielder Brian Giles, lefthander Pete Schourek and third baseman Ed Sprague brought an immediate credibility to the Bucs. A new stadium, PNC Park, is slated to open in two years, and the unspoken front-office strategy is for the team to be ready to compete for a championship by then.
To which Kendall has a typically diplomatic response: "F—- that. F—- 2001," he says. "I want to win now. Who cares about 2001? The world could blow up in two years. We could all be dead by then."