If there were no major league baseball, says Jason Kendall, he
would probably be running in slow motion on a Southern
California beach, a flotation device on one arm and Yasmine
Bleeth on the other, soaking up the sun and saving lives. "I'd
be Mitch Buchannon," says Kendall, referring to the main
character on Baywatch. "I'd probably spend my whole life on a
To that, all Kendall's friends and Pittsburgh Pirates teammates
can say is, Thank god for baseball. Former major league catcher
Fred Kendall raised his boy to play the game hard and take it
seriously, and thus there's still one thing in life that means
more to Jason than his custom-made Frohoff surfboard. "If not
for baseball, he'd be a bum," says Al Martin, Pittsburgh's
leftfielder and Kendall's close friend.
As it stands now, Kendall, a 24-year-old catcher, spends half
the year in the sand and the other half in the dirt. He makes a
miraculous transformation each time he pulls his Pirates jersey
over one of his many tattered pro wrestling T-shirts. Suddenly
he goes from Mountain Dew to Iron City, from carefree California
beach rat to the charismatic cornerstone of a proud franchise.
There's no surfing in the Monongahela, which is fine with
Kendall. When he's in Pittsburgh, he's not there to work on his
tan. "You've got to understand: I'm the most laid-back guy in
the world most of the time, but when I'm playing, I'm all
business," he says. "I don't give a f--- who you are. I don't
give a f--- how much money you make. I want to beat your ass.
I'm going to do anything I can to beat you."
Kendall, twice a National League All-Star in his three seasons
with the Pirates, provides more ways to beat you than do most
catchers. To the toughness and intensity that are typical in a
good backstop, he adds the unusual attributes of speed and an
uncanny ability to get on base. Last season Kendall was fifth in
the league in hitting (.327) and seventh in on-base percentage
(.411). He was hit by pitches a major league-leading 31 times,
and he set a league record for catchers with 26 stolen bases
(chart, page 61). "Every base he stole meant something," says
Pittsburgh manager Gene Lamont. "I don't think he cared about
the record at all."
One former National League scout has timed Kendall, a
righthanded hitter, at 4.0 seconds down the first base line,
quite a clip for a guy who spends half his night in a crouch.
Despite the arduousness of catching, Kendall believes that being
a receiver enhances his ability to steal. When he reaches base,
he says, "I think about what I would have our pitchers throw and
try to guess if that's going to be thrown by the other team's
pitcher. Then," he adds, "I just take off."
This season Kendall has picked up where he left off. Or rather,
he has led off where he left off. When the Pirates dealt second
baseman Tony Womack to the Arizona Diamondbacks early in spring
training, Lamont went in search of a new leadoff man and found
him in the last place a manager usually looks: behind the plate.
"I'm not saying he'll stay at leadoff forever," says Lamont,
"but it makes the most sense for this club. Jason takes a lot of
pitches, makes good contact and runs well."
At week's end, Kendall was in the throes of a 3-for-24 slump
that had dropped his average to .279. But he had scored 15 runs
(tied for fifth in the league) and was tied for third in stolen
bases with seven. His offensive prowess was well demonstrated on
April 19 during a 3-0 win over the San Diego Padres. He went 2
for 3 with three stolen bases (two less than his father swiped
in 877 big league games). The first theft, coming after a
single, set up the winning run, which Kendall scored on a passed
ball. With Kendall as the spark, the Pirates, who have the
majors' fourth-lowest payroll ($22.2 million), were playing
respectably until late last week, when a four-game losing streak
dropped them to 8-9 and fourth place in the National League
Kendall says he accepted the leadoff assignment, his first since
Little League, because "I had no choice." He still views himself
as more of a number 3 guy, a gap hitter with some power who can
drive in runs. Last year, while hitting second (40 games) or
third (103), he had 75 RBIs, the most for a Pittsburgh catcher
in 14 years, but hit only 12 homers. Coming into this season he
had a mere 23 home runs in 1,435 career at bats. The homers,
however, are likely to increase as the six-foot, 193-pound
Kendall creeps toward 200 pounds. "They made a big deal out of
me hitting leadoff in spring training, but it's really no big
deal," says Kendall. "I told Geno I wasn't going to change my
style. If the count is 2 and 0, I'm still hacking. Hey, I'm
happy as long as I'm not hitting ninth."
And as long as he's behind the plate. Kendall is a solid
defensive catcher with an inconsistent arm; last season he threw
out 31% of runners attempting to steal, around the major league
average. He already hears the same warning that the New York
Mets' Mike Piazza and the Texas Rangers' Pudge Rodriguez have
heard for years: If he wants to stay productive over the long
haul, sooner or later he'll have to get out from behind the
plate. "He's a fair defensive catcher," says Cincinnati Reds
manager Jack McKeon, "but if you're hitting .400, as he always
seems to be doing, no one looks at your defense."
Kendall has also been compared with the Houston Astros' Craig
Biggio, who started out as a catcher but was shifted to second
base and blossomed into an All-Star at that position. "It sounds
funny, but I don't think Jason would want to play second because
he doesn't want to be viewed as the next Craig Biggio," says
Keith Osik, Kendall's backup and best friend on the Pirates. "He
doesn't want to be the next anyone. He just wants to be Jason
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
"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
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
Or the Pirates could be a contender, dragged out of Three Rivers
and brought back to life by Jason Kendall, the Iron City surfer.
Maybe he already is Mitch Buchannon.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER THINKING THIEF The speedy Kendall, here sliding under the tag of the Reds' Pokey Reese, uses a catcher's knowledge of pitching to get his best jump.
Catch Him if You Can
Through Sunday, Jason Kendall had stolen seven bases in the
Pirates' first 17 games, putting him on pace to nearly double
John Wathan's major league record for stolen bases in a season
by a catcher. Kendall swiped 26 bags in 1998, only the 11th time
a backstop has stolen 20 or more in a season.
PLAYER, TEAM SEASON STOLEN BASES
John Wathan, Royals 1982 36
Ray Schalk, White Sox 1916 30
John Wathan, Royals 1983 28
Jason Kendall, Pirates 1998 26
John Stearns, Mets 1978 25
Ray Schalk, White Sox 1914 24
Johnny Kling, Cubs 1903 23
Johnny Kling, Cubs 1902 23
Benito Santiago, Padres 1987 21
Craig Biggio, Astros 1989 21
Red Dooin, Phillies 1908 20
Source: Pirates 1999 Record and Information Guide
"I'm not saying he'll stay at leadoff forever," says Lamont,
"but it makes the most sense. Jason takes a lot of pitches,
makes good contact and runs well."