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IN THIS era of jacked-up power hitters and on-base specialists who work deep counts, Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick's foremost skill is almost quaint: He hits hard line drives where there are no fielders. In doing so, he rarely alters his swing, tries to crank moonballs or jerks one down the line. Neither does he lunge, teeter or lean. Just one short, efficient cut after another, hands slicing through the hitting zone. Outfielder Torii Hunter, who joined the Angels this off-season as a free agent, was taken aback.
"Anytime you hit the ball so hard that it knuckles, that means you squared it up," says Hunter. "The first time I saw him take BP, he knuckled it like 10 times. I don't think I did it 10 times all last season."
Kendrick's ability to connect on fastballs is such that when he was in rookie ball, his manager, Tom Kotchman, used to judge pitchers by Kendrick, not the other way around. Says Kotchman, "If a guy gets a fastball by him, you better check the gun, 'cause it's got to be in the mid-90s." Last year, Kendrick hit .322 in 88 games, his season twice interrupted by trips to the disabled list with fractured fingers on his left hand. In four minor league seasons before that, in order and with eerie consistency, he hit .368, .367, .367 and .369. There are talented baseball players who go their entire career and never hit .300 for a full season—Johnny Bench and Tino Martinez, for example. In the case of the 24-year-old Kendrick, it's conceivable that he could go his entire career and never hit below .300. "It's not a matter of if he'll hit .300," says an American League scout, "but how high in the threes."
As such, Kendrick inspires comparisons with Bill Madlock and Kirby Puckett, and prompts observers to draw on old bromides such as He can literally roll out of bed and hit .300 (uttered by Reggie Willits and Gary Matthews Jr., both Angels outfielders) or He's a guy who could hit when he fell out of the womb (Kotchman). Presumably, the only time Kendrick couldn't lace a fastball to right center was while in utero, and then only for lack of defined appendages.
So why then did it take so long for anyone to notice? Coming out of West Nassau High in Callahan, Fla., a small town 20 miles northwest of Jacksonville, Kendrick received no scholarship offers. He tried out for a few junior colleges, but drew no interest until he got a late offer from St. Johns River, an out-of-the-way community college in northeast Florida with a mediocre baseball program. "They offered me books and tuition, and I was like, 'Yes! I'm going to get to play junior college baseball!'" says Kendrick, without sarcasm. To say St. Johns was off the scouting map would be an understatement. As Kotchman, who has also been an Angels scout for more than two decades, likes to say, "The last guy drafted out of that school went to Vietnam."
Yet the Angels found him, if only by chance. On a whim Kotchman went to see Kendrick play in Tampa in early 2002 after hearing about him from Ernie Rossean, the coach at Brevard Community College outside Orlando. After watching a few minutes of BP, Kotchman ran to his car to get his video camera. "My goodness, the kid hit the ball," he recalls. "I couldn't believe there weren't other scouts there. And other JCs cut this guy? What were they thinking?" For the remainder of the season, Kotchman wouldn't even approach Kendrick at games, lest his secret get out. In '02 Anaheim took Kendrick in the 10th round of the draft. As for why he went undiscovered for so long, both Kendrick and Kotchman are somewhat flummoxed, though each ends up blaming geography. "His school was way out in the sticks, and he didn't play summer ball," says Kotchman, whose son, Casey, plays alongside Kendrick in the Angels infield. "Hey, I'm just glad we were the ones that found him."
Still, Kendrick was far from a sure thing. Yes, he could hit, but he was a mess defensively. "If you saw him three or four years ago, probably the furthest thing you could project was that this young man would play second base in the major leagues," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia. Kendrick, who had played shortstop in high school, said that he'd never been taught certain defensive fundamentals—bunt defense, cutoffs, rundowns—until he reached the minors. Nor did he have much power or speed. "To be honest, I never expected him to make it," says one early minor league teammate. "Guys like him wash out all the time. But he had one incredible tool. He could hit for average."
ASK Kendrick about that ability, and he'll tell you he can't remember a time when he couldn't hit. Even as a five-year-old it came easy. Back then he used to play a game called Strikeout with his sisters and cousins. They'd use a broom handle as a bat and collect shirtfuls of the small, spiky burrs that fell off a sprawling tree in his grandmother's backyard in Callahan. One kid hit, and the others pitched the burrs or fielded. Whiff or hit a pop-up that was caught (the downward arc of the burr slowed by the looming branches above), and the next hitter was up. Given that the burrs were gumball-sized, staying up at the plate should have been tough, right? "You'd think so," says Kendrick's younger sister, Michelle, "but we couldn't strike him out. Sometimes he'd be up there hitting for 20 or 30 minutes. Usually, I'd just quit."
Kendrick spent much of his youth in that yard. He never knew his father, and his mother was an Army staff sergeant who traveled extensively and was away from home for months at a time. Howie and his two sisters were raised, for the most part, by their maternal grandmother, Ruth Woods, with whom he was especially close. (He called her Mama.) Along with two great aunts and assorted cousins, the Kendricks shared Woods's double-wide trailer at the end of a dusty road on the outskirts of Callahan. The town's population was just over 900, and most of the people seemed to be related to Kendrick. All 12 of Woods's kids, plus all of their kids, lived in the area. Says Kendrick, "We'd have full teams on both sides for baseball or football made up of just cousins."
From an early age Kendrick was obsessed with hitting. Whatever he could smack with a broomstick, be it a pebble or a piece of glass, he'd send soaring into the woods, or sometimes into one of Mama's windows. After one shattered pane too many, she signed him up for T-ball, and there he fell in love with the game. Through high school, he played only baseball, a Braves fan who loved not only David Justice and John Smoltz, but also Hank Aaron, whose clean stroke he came to admire from watching old footage of the Hammer. Along the way, his grandmother provided motivation and discipline. If he got in trouble, out came the switch. When he briefly thought of quitting a team as a 12-year-old, she told him to march his butt right back out there.