Old-school Kendall gives his all

The sport would be better if more players shared his approach

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That silly Dave Kerwin business at PNC Park Monday night? That was a bit extreme even for Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jason Kendall. But the admirable old-school approach to baseball that seems so rare these days? That was pure Kendall, and it was a beautiful thing to see here again.

The Kid -- as Kendall always will be known in these parts because of how he broke into the big leagues at 21 as the Pirates' opening-day catcher in 1996 -- has been in his share of dust-ups, but he has never purposely ridiculed an opponent by calling him a fictitious name. So what was up with him repeatedly referring to Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan as "Dave Kerwin" to the media after the teams had a bench-clearing incident?

"I have no idea who he is. I thought that was his name," Kendall said yesterday. "Then, after they told me it was Jim Kerrigan, I was like, 'Whatever.' "

Ah, Kid, it's Joe Kerrigan.

"Whatever," Kendall repeated.

What wasn't surprising is that Kendall was in the middle of the chaos after Milwaukee's Chris Smith hit Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens with a pitch in retaliation for Karstens hitting Brewers star Ryan Braun after a home run in April. Kendall strongly suggested to Karstens that he charge the mound or take first base instead of yapping and gesturing at Smith for the simple reason he believes that's baseball protocol. Kerrigan, standing up for Karstens, started screaming at Kendall, who then had to be restrained by teammate Prince Fielder.

"I don't like to be yelled at," Kendall said.

Nor does the man tolerate fools or those who he believes are disrespectful of the game. That's why he said his piece to Karstens. Kendall has been hit by a pitch 239 times -- sixth-most in history -- and almost always goes right to first base. He has charged the mound just twice, when Colorado's Joe Kennedy screamed at him to get his fanny to first faster and when the Los Angeles Angels' John Lackey screamed at him to lose his elbow pad.

Hey, he said he doesn't like to be yelled at.

The incident with Karstens is just one more reason to appreciate what Kendall brings to baseball. He's 35 and a father of four now, but he has been old school forever. The sport would be better if more players shared his approach: Know your place as a rookie. Excessive celebrations are taboo after plays that a pro is supposed to make. Go all out all the time. And, most of all, honor the game that has been so good to so many.

In Kendall's case, about $75 million good.

Kendall never shortchanged Pirates fans -- "The most intense competitor I've ever played with," former teammate Joe Randa once called him -- even if Kendall had no chance of living up to the six-year, $60 million contract the team gave him before the 2001 season. That deal -- offered to a singles and doubles hitter -- crippled the franchise, which still is feeling some of that hurt. But that wasn't Kendall's fault. Don't blame him for his perfect timing, coming up on free agency just when the Pirates were moving into PNC Park and promising to keep their best players.

"I wasn't going to say no," Kendall said. "I might be dumb, but I'm not stupid."

It didn't work out for Kendall in Pittsburgh, much to his regret. "I had good times here. I'd love to still be here and us having won two or three World Series. But it is what it is." In the end, the Pirates did Kendall a favor by trading him to the Oakland Athletics after the '04 season, just as they'll do Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez a favor this month if they trade them to teams that actually, you know, have a chance to win. After being a total of 153 games under .500 during his nine seasons here, Kendall played postseason baseball with the Athletics in '06, the Chicago Cubs in '07 and the Brewers last season.

"It was everything I thought it would be and more," Kendall said.

The Brewers are in the hunt again. Kendall isn't the same offensive player he was, hitting in the .240s for the third consecutive season. But he's still valuable behind the plate, starting 80 of 94 games this season. He could catch 140 games for the 10th time in his career. No one in the majors has come close to his 1,821 starts at the position since '96.

That's a lot of squatting, a lot of abuse on the body. It's also a mental grind, calling a game for your pitcher every night.

No one knows that better than Pirates manager John Russell, a former catcher who served as a coach with the Pirates during Kendall's time with the club.

"It comes down to toughness and fortitude, really," Russell said yesterday.

"I stay in shape," Kendall said. The mixed martial arts workouts he added a few years ago help. "I'm the exact same weight I was when I was 21. ... I know I'm not 21 now, but I still feel like I did when I'm 21."

Who could have predicted this Iron Man run at baseball's most grueling position? Especially after Kendall's gruesome ankle injury in a game at Three Rivers Stadium in '99?

"I thought I was Superman until that day," he said. "When I got my 2,000th hit earlier this season, they asked me what I was most proud of. It's coming back from that injury. Ninety-five percent of the people said I'd never be the same player. They said I'd never last."

Kendall said he hopes to keep playing even though his $5 million contract with the Brewers is up after this season. "I still feel like I have a lot left."

Here's hoping The Kid finds a job.

The game is better with him in it.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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