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Howie Kendrick: The hero the Nationals need and deserve

Washington wouldn’t have won the World Series without its veteran leader

(Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Oct. 25 and was updated after the Nationals won the World Series.)

“I don’t know where the hell we are without Howie Kendrick.”

Those were the words of Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo after Kendrick sent a blast deep into the California night in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, reshaping the path of the franchise when no one expected it. He’d had a terrible series by all accounts, but he wasn’t swayed. When Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts left Joe Kelly in to face the veteran with the bases loaded, Kendrick took him deep to center and suddenly the 36-year-old from Florida was a household name.

When Kendrick then slammed a homer off the right field foul pole in Game 7 of the World Series, effectively solidifying his place in baseball history, the question was answered: With him, the Nationals are the greatest comeback champion in MLB history.

It was a long time coming.

“When we were at our worst, Howie was at his best,” Rizzo said. “Five of our starting eight players were on the disabled list at one time during the season and Howie Kendrick carried this team. There was nobody I wanted up there in that situation more than Howie Kendrick.”

These days in Major League Baseball, Kendrick is a bit of a rare breed. A black player who was never projected to be a superstar, but has been in the big leagues for more than a decade and made every team he’s played on better by all accounts. When it comes to black baseball in the bigs, the idea of being a role player is sort of a concept of yesteryear. Guys such as Mark McLemore and Bill Hall are not populating tons of rosters, but their utility is obvious. The idea of brothers occupying the gym rat role in baseball is ironic on a few levels. If we talked about black players as managers as often as we do others, he’d be high on the list.

Primarily a second baseman, he’s done plenty of time in the outfield. But this season he learned a new position. After being traded to the Nationals two seasons ago and signing a relatively small-time deal, in 2019, the team asked him to learn first base to help spell the Nats’ infield through injury.

“Howie’s the best. Howie’s one of those guys, he’s like a Renaissance man, right? So while he’s a great player and he’s very dedicated to his craft, he’s also a normal guy,” said former first baseman Mark Teixeira, who played alongside Kendrick with the Angels. “First base is tough to learn if you’re not used to it, but he didn’t let that affect his at-bats and he hit the biggest home run at the time in Nationals history. It helped propel them to a World Series and I’m just so happy for him.”

But his road to the top was a tough one. He injured his Achilles tendon in 2018 and the battle back was intense.

“First of all, don’t think that his injury last year didn’t have something to do with the Nationals not making the playoffs,” Bob Carpenter, voice of the Nationals on MASN said before Game 2’s blowout win. “I mean, when he tore the Achilles, it was a horrible injury. And we’re thinking at his age, oh, my gosh, please don’t let this be a career-ending injury.”

It wasn’t, and now he’s the NLCS MVP whose personality is starting to become a little bit more popular. You might recall his run-in with Ben Affleck back when he played for the Dodgers, but he’s also cut out a bit of a niche as a guy who thoroughly enjoys watches, photography and cars. The Second Amendment is something he believes in as well.

His love of automobiles is a big part of how he and Adam Eaton became such close friends. It showed in their celebratory style that went viral this week.

“We’re great friends. We’ve done car experiences together during the season. We go to Cars and Coffee. I think we went almost a dozen times this year,” Eaton said. “What’s not to like about him? He’s a pro’s pro, comes here every single day focused. He’s willing to help anybody and everybody, grinds on a bat. He gives you everything and effort. He’s very levelheaded. He’s a family man. That’s big in here, as well, how you are off the field. He’s someone I looked up to and somebody that I have a very good bond with now, and will for a long time.”

His days as just a straight-up citizen go all the way back to his first years in the majors. He was overlooked in college and drafted by the Los Angeles Angels, where he developed into a guy known for a solid bat and general attitude as a gamer. The fact that he rocks dope Bathing Ape backpacks and high-end wristwear doesn’t mean he is above real life.

“His second spring training, we took him, we did community relations events before, throughout spring training, and we had a van trip,” Tim Mead, longtime Angels exec and Baseball Hall of Fame president, recounted this week. “We went to this community center and picked up a bunch of toys and gave them to these kids at a homeless school shelter, and we were talking about how quick that had gone.

“I watched Howie grow up through the Angels, and independent. I always thought he was going to win a batting title. He was just one of those young men that you just saw something special in and, personally, on a personal level, any Angel that goes on to have success, it means a lot to me, but Howie’s persevered to be in this World Series, just seems to have given a lot more meaning, on a personal level.”

As a young black kid playing baseball, it was more of the Kendricks of the world who drove me to want to be better. Sure there’d be stars, but everyday grinders were far more interesting and relatable. Kendrick, for lack of a better term, is a throwback.

He batted .344 this season for the Nationals, hit 17 homers. That clutch homer against the Dodgers certainly wasn’t his first. On a team with a healthy mix of veterans and young guys — see Juan Soto dominating the psychological battle against multiple Astros pitchers — Kendrick is an excellent piece to have.

It’s easy to fall in love with Soto’s shuffle and Max Scherzer’s fastball. Trea Turner has speed to burn on the basepaths, but no one is more valuable than the next. Kendrick’s return almost exactly mimics how this squad got it together to surprise — and overwhelm — opponents as a wild-card team in the playoffs on their way to the city’s first World Series appearance since the ’30s.

It’s a story that manager Davey Martinez, who was much maligned over the course of this season, knows well.

“Howie’s one of my guys,” Martinez said after the NLDS about the Game 5 at-bat. “There was no thinking about taking him out. He’s been unbelievable all year. He’s been one of our go-to guys in clutch situation. He came up in a huge moment and I’ve seen him do it all year long.”

As he’s done throughout his career, Kendrick stepped up.

“You know what? I was hoping for any moment,” Kendrick said. “To be in that situation, and have the opportunity to actually come through means a lot. That’s probably the best moment of my career.”

He’s not a man of a ton of words, but when he speaks, the clubhouse listens.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.