What if Tom Kotchman wasn’t standing there in the spring of 2002, the only major league scout for miles, pointing a black-and-white camcorder at the smallest kid on the field? And what if Howie Kendrick wasn’t there, either, if his grandmother never sent him to play ball some years ago, if he never saw Callahan, Fla., of all places, as the starting point for a big and distant dream?
When Dave Martinez begins to wonder and considers Kendrick’s growing spot in Washington baseball history, the manager often goes back to the same question: Where would these Washington Nationals be without Howie Kendrick?
Then Martinez doesn’t give it much thought. He will never have to.
Take the vivid moments of this playoff run, put them on loop in your head, then count how many Kendrick has created. There’s the grand slam at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 9, in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series, pushing the Nationals to their first playoff series win. There are all those doubles — cracked into right-center, left-center, wherever there’s open grass — to rev an offense for a few extra weeks. And there was the celebration after Washington advanced to the World Series late Tuesday night, with the 36-year-old Kendrick clutching the NL Championship Series MVP trophy.
“I feel like being around this long, I wouldn't change anything about the past,” Kendrick said after the Nationals earned their title shot. “Because this is just … I mean, it's unbelievable.”
He helped by doing what he has always done. He has hit and kept hitting, driving in nine runs across 10 postseason games, until the Nationals got to where they have never been. He is in the process of capping a career, 14 years in the game, a life that could have gone in so many other directions. Kendrick wasn’t recruited out of West Nassau High. He tried out for almost a dozen junior colleges, was cut by two and, when hope was slipping, considered joining the Navy SEALs.
But Kendrick waited a bit longer, testing fate, until he landed at St. John’s River Community College between Jacksonville and Orlando. He was soon drafted by the Anaheim Angels in the 10th round of the 2002 draft. He earned a reputation as a “professional hitter,” joined the Nationals via trade two summers ago and would have retired after tearing his right Achilles’ tendon last season. Yet there was one year left on his contract, and he wanted to finish it.
Now he will play in Game 1 of the World Series against the Astros in Houston on Tuesday night. Now, somehow, Kendrick is a reason the Nationals won a pennant and have a chance at more.
“It’s hard not to think about how different things could have gone if he’s never seen,” said Torii Hunter, Kendrick’s longtime friend and former Angels teammate. “But you have to understand that Howie is who he is, he’s still going, because of everything along the way.”
They called him “Sloppy” as a kid because he still had baby fat and his clothes never quite fit.
He would spend afternoons in his grandmother’s driveway, the Florida sun cooking the pavement, tossing rocks into the air before whacking them with a stick. But one day Ruth Woods told him to run on down to the Little League field. Kendrick grew up with her because his mother was in the army and deployed overseas. He often has credited Woods for his love of baseball, for nudging him into organized games and for making sure he spent just 18 years in their two-stoplight town.
It was all he wanted to play once he got to West Nassau. Richard Pearce, the varsity baseball coach, figures that Kendrick could have starred in football, basketball, maybe even soccer. One day after practice, Kendrick challenged the school’s best tennis player and held his own. His teammates stopped with Sloppy. He went by Howard, and they all wanted to play like him.
“I traveled the country trying to find anyone who would listen,” Pearce said of trying to get Kendrick recruited. “But they didn’t want the little guy.”
Kendrick stood 5-foot-7 and weighed no more than 110 pounds. Pearce convinced Lake City, a nearby community college, to come watch him at West Nassau. Kendrick made an early error at shortstop, and the coaches left. He later hit the game-winning home run with hardly anyone in the stands.
But St. John’s River saw something when Pearce and Kendrick took a visit. He began his first and only season there in the spring of 2002, before social media could make a star out of nothing, and scouts weren’t showing up. That’s when Kotchman got a phone call he will never forget.
It was Ernie Rosseau, the head coach at Brevard Community College, telling him Kendrick was must-see. Kotchman was the Angels’ area scout and always trusted Rosseau’s judgment. So Kotchman went out to St. John’s River, his expectations tempered, and noticed that no other scouts were there for the game against a small program from Illinois. That made Kotchman comfortable removing the camera from his bag. Scouts try to hide interest in a specific player, especially when the draft is nearing, but he had exclusive access to Kendrick.
“He didn't have the travel ball and stuff like that. He didn't have the luxuries that other players have,” Kotchman said of why Kendrick was an unknown. “He's getting the last laugh.”
Kotchman was soon sitting with Donny Rowland, then the Angels’ scouting director, as they watched the Kendrick tape. Rowland had the basic list of questions for Kotchman: Could Kendrick field? He was fine. Could he run? He had average speed. But Rowland couldn’t stop watching a swing that hasn’t changed much in the 17 years since. It was all that mattered — and still is.
They called him Truck with the Angels, both because he was built like one and had a fascination with big cars.
When Hunter got to Anaheim in 2008, after spending nine full seasons with the Minnesota Twins, his locker was next to Kendrick’s. Hunter was eight years older and took Kendrick under his wing. They sat at their stalls for hours, sinking into deep conversation, skipping from baseball to their childhoods to interests away from the park.
On one of their first road trips, Kendrick bought a digital camera and began snapping pictures all over Seattle and San Francisco. He walked right up to homeless people, camera in hand, and asked about their lives. Then he stepped back and took a portrait before showing them on the tiny screen. Hunter says now that he never saw a 24-year-old so comfortable around strangers.
“The more I learned about him, he starts telling me about how no schools wanted him, how it was really hard to stay confident,” Hunter remembered. “I just kept thinking: This guy could have really fallen through the cracks.”
Hunter often stood behind the batting cage before games to watch Kendrick. Most hitters, Hunter explained, get front or back spin with their swing. But not Kendrick. He crushed the ball so hard and at the perfect spot on the bat that it knuckled into the field. Hunter only ever saw three players able to make the ball do that, the red seams stuck between rotations, as if it were speeding up and slowing down at the same time.
The list is Mark Kotsay, Tony Gwynn and Truck, who almost never made it at all.
They call him Howie now, even if he introduces himself as Howard, because those two syllables are synonymous with this city’s newfound trust in fall.
It was Kendrick who, way back in spring, paced a lineup down Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman because of injuries. He kept the club floating despite a 19-31 start. Then he put together a career year — a .344 average, 17 homers, insane production in 370 plate appearances — that has carried into the postseason. Kendrick doesn’t like talking about himself and never pretends to. One-on-one interviews are rare and short. The most he has opened up this season, across eight months at the field, was about his love for Mike Trout and thoughts on Hall of Fame voting.
Teammates respect the low-key approach. He is an elder on the oldest roster in baseball. Martinez has repeatedly noted Kendrick’s influence on young players such as Soto and Victor Robles. Soto’s locker is right next door, like Kendrick’s was to Hunter’s a decade ago, and that’s how tradition spirals forward. Soto was behind him onstage last Tuesday night, after the Nationals swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, while a sellout crowd chanted “Ho-wie!” through a layer of fireworks smoke.
It was hard to hear the public address announcer name Kendrick the MVP. But somehow it wasn’t so hard to believe.