Hitting the big time
LOS ANGELES – Howie Kendrick, whom one major-league scout has called "a batting title waiting to happen," had been cut by two Florida junior college teams and was a walk-on at a third when the Los Angeles Angels first heard his name.
He was "Howard" then, and he still is to Tom Kotchman, the scout who discovered Kendrick at St John's River Community College in Palatka, Fla., where, Kotchman said, "Nobody's ever been drafted out of, expect for the military."
Kotchman – the father of Angels first baseman Casey – was passing the time with a community college coach just more than five years ago now when the question popped out of his mouth.
"Who's the best hitter you've seen this year?"
"This kid Kendrick," answered Ernie Rosseau, the coach at Brevard Community College, "a second baseman at St. John's."
Not long after, Kotchman got into his van and trundled off to Palatka to see the kid Kendrick. He found a switch-hitter whose dominant side clearly was his right, but, he said, "He had a pretty good swing left-handed."
After one at-bat, Kotchman said, "I went right back to my van to get the camera so I could start filming him."
Just ahead of late interest from a handful of teams who had seen his statistics, Kendrick, by then having scrapped the left side, was chosen by the Angels in the 10th round of the 2002 draft, and he hasn't hit less than .300 in a season since.
"He just didn't get seen," Kotchman said. "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. I just stumbled onto him."
Those five years later, and five months after the Angels set Adam Kennedy free to create an opening, and three days before he would begin the season as the Angels' second baseman, Kendrick sat in the visitors' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium and tended to a well-worn bat.
He is a born hitter. Everyone says so. He believes it and has since the moment his grandmother put a bat in his hand when he was a child. It was her – Ruth Woods – who raised Kendrick until he was 11 and who registered him for youth baseball in Callahan, Fla., for the purposes of distraction.
"Just to get me out of the neighborhood," Kendrick said, smiling, "and keep me from throwing rocks at the houses."
Then he started hitting. Going on 15 years, he has not stopped.
"My bat was the thing that got me to junior college and then to the minor leagues," he said. "I could hit and I loved playing, and I was just good at it. My swing's evolved here and there, but for the most part it's the same swing."
Kendrick batted .285 in 267 major-league at-bats last season (.369 in 290 Triple-A at-bats), plenty well enough to convince the Angels his time had come. And so as the organization continues to move from an era of players who won its only World Series – gamers Darin Erstad, Tim Salmon and Kennedy departed this offseason – it is Kendrick, and soon Brandon Wood, who lead the next generation.
"You know what," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "Ersty, AK, [David Eckstein] a couple years ago, Tim Salmon, those guys were such a big part of our organization, they played the game so hard, you know they left a certain void."
But, he said, players such as Kendrick and Wood, "I can go down the whole list. These guys have such a passion to play the game, and they play it every bit as hard as those guys did."
Kendrick, he added, "has got the potential to be an eye-popping offensive player."
Ruth Woods lived just long enough to see Howie find his way through those junior colleges, through the minor leagues and into the major leagues. She died of lung cancer in the fall.
"I'm blessed to have had someone like her in my life," he said.
He called her often along his way to the big leagues and returned in time to Florida to remind her she had provided the bat that put him there.
"She knew," he said. "And I told her again."
Wood, a former shortstop who played alongside Kendrick for nearly three years, allowing the two to become close friends, said he never met Ruth Woods, but heard plenty of her.
"He grew up the way his grandmother raised him," he said, "and she raised him to be a good kid. He kept his nose clean when he had his choice of one or two roads."
Wood also is sure that Ruth Woods raised a hitter.
"I've never seen anybody – not on TV, or high school, or in the minor leagues – put the barrel on the baseball more consistently," he said.
It is that which Kotchman saw on that junior college field, something about the way young Howard put the bat on the ball.
"He was a respectfully confident kid," Kotchman said. "I didn't think he knew how good he could be. I know I didn't know he could be this good. I'd be lying if I said I did."
He again recounted Kendrick's journey, from an offhand conversation to an opening day start.
"This guy," Kotchman concluded, "is a self-made player."