By Keith Mills
In a little more than two months, after the June 7 major league draft, Gary Kendall will leave Sarasota, Fla., and head home to the Baltimore area to begin his third season as manager of the Aberdeen IronBirds. It will be the 10th year Kendall will wear an Orioles uniform of some sort, and the 15th year he has worked for his hometown team.
"For me it's like a dream come true," said 46-year-old Kendall, a 1980 graduate of Sparrows Point High School. "I grew up watching the Orioles. Brooks and Frank. Boog, Jim Palmer, Paul Blair. Great time to be an Orioles fan."
And now is a much better time to be a manager in the Orioles farm system.
Since rejoining the Orioles in 2000 as a coach for the organization's rookie league team in Bluefield, W. Va., Kendall has watched firsthand an ever-improving minor league system now producing quality major league players.
"It reminds me of when I was a kid," said Kendall. "On the mound you had a Palmer, a Flanagan, a McGregor, a Dennis Martinez. Then you had guys like Bill Swaggerty, Dave Ford, Storm Davis, Mike Boddicker pushing them. There were a lot of guys on those minor league ballclubs who never got a chance to make it because of the depth you had on the Orioles. Now, we're starting to develop those same kinds of arms. Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman. Those guys are going to be fighting to keep guys out of the big leagues. It's a good problem to have."
Kendall wears No. 89 on his jersey as he hits fungos to a group of minor league players at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. It's fitting since 1989 was one of his favorite Orioles seasons. The "Why Not" year. Mickey Tettleton's Fruit Loops. The near worst-to-first season that ended in Toronto in early October when the Orioles fell two games shy of winning the American League Eastern Division championship.
In 1989, Kendall was an assistant coach on Elliott Oppenheim's staff at the Community College of Baltimore. Two years later he was assisting second-year coach Mike Gottlieb at then-Towson State University. Two years after that, in 1991, he was hired by then-Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin as a full-time scout. After spending four years in that post, he joined the scouting staff of the San Diego Padres in 1996, returning to the Orioles four years later as an assistant coach at Bluefield.
Since then he has managed teams in the Orioles farm system at Bluefield (2004), Delmarva (2005-07) and Aberdeen, where he first managed the team in 2008. Pitching coach Scott McGregor, the Orioles Hall of Fame left-hander who has teamed with Kendall since 2005 in Salisbury with the Shorebirds, will once again join him.
Over the past few years, Kendall has watched the team's farm system return to respectability under the guidance of three men: president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail; coordinator of minor league instruction Brian Graham; and outgoing farm director Dave Stockstill, who was recently named director of international operations for the 2010 season.
"The difference in our system now is the structure," Kendall said. "The direction the big league club is going under Andy MacPhail, how we're trying to build with pitching and defense. Everybody's on the same page and there's a plan in place. And we're seeing some results with some of our young players getting through. Since I've been here, the only guys getting up there were Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis. Now I'm over at Ed Smith and I see Bergesen, Brian Matusz, Brandon Erbe, Chorye Spoone, Jonathan Tucker, Matt Angle. They're going to be impact guys for the Orioles for years to come."
Kendall has managed current Orioles pitchers Bergesen and David Hernandez as well as many more young prospects such as Spoone; Erbe; Brandon Snyder, who spent most of spring training with the Orioles; Angle, the team's seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft; pitcher Pedro Beato; shortstop Blake Davis and pitcher Tim Bascom, the fourth pick in the '07 draft.
"We've had some good picks and we've made the most of those picks," said Kendall. "The majority of the picks have been pitchers and we want to develop those guys. Every once in a while you swap a pitcher for a bat, a hitter, and I think it's a good plan. I think it's working.
"There's accountability now. Andy MacPhail came in and he's allowing you to do your job. You draft a kid, you give him so much money and you send him out. You find out his strengths and weaknesses, and as managers and coaches and coordinators we're accountable now for that player. There's not so much an emphasis at Aberdeen or Delmarva or Bluefield so much in winning ballgames now. Certainly winning also breeds winning and development, but the players that need to get better have to get better. And that's the direction we've been going in. It's our main goal."
Kendall also said the move to Sarasota has been a huge plus. Two weeks ago, with the Orioles in Fort Meyers, Fla., to play the Red Sox, Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Markakis, Miguel Tejada, Nolan Reimold and Garrett Atkins all stayed behind at the Ed Smith complex to take batting practice and work with hitting coach Terry Crowley.
They were on a field next to more than 70 minor league players, including former No. 1 pick Billy Rowell; Brandon Waring, who hit 26 home runs last year at Frederick; outfielder Xavier Avery, the team's No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft; and first baseman Joe Mahoney.
As they took batting practice, or jogged to nearby batting cages, they couldn't help but watch as Atkins, Jones and Reimold ripped balls over the left field fence and Markakis, Tejada and Wieters sprayed line drives all over the field. One day later, as the big-league Orioles were back in Ft. Meyers to play the Twins, they all batted against Kevin Millwood and Jim Johnson in an intra-squad game at Ed Smith Stadium.
Waring, obtained along with infielder Justin Turner from the Reds two years ago in the Ramon Hernandez trade, hit a home run off Johnson, the Orioles’ projected set-up relief pitcher, while Mahoney ripped a single off Johnson and stole a base. Mahoney, a 6-foot-7, left-handed hitting first baseman from the University of Richmond, was the team's sixth-round pick in 2007, the same draft that produced Wieters, Bascom and Arrieta. He hit seven home runs last year with Delmarva with 29 stolen bases.
Zack Britton, a third-round pick in 2006 and the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year last summer at Frederick, started opposite Millwood in the intra-squad game and showed Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz why he may be the club's premier minor league pitching prospect. After struggling with his control for two batters, he settled in and retired 10 of the 12 batters he faced.
"It's been great," said Kendall. "In Fort Lauderdale it was such a long ride from Sarasota that the minor league kids never got over there to see who’s on the field for the Orioles. Guys that are playing in front of them. It's an excellent opportunity for them to interact and take in some extra ballgames and see what the major league level's all about."
Kendall remembers the 1980 Sparrows Point baseball team like it was yesterday.
"That was a special group of guys," said Kendall. "You never forget those guys. I can't remember my ballclub from three years ago, but I remember those guys. Rich Eshmont was our coach. We had a lot of fun and we had a good team."
This year marks 30 years since Sparrows Point played Brooklyn Park for the 1980 Class B state baseball championship. It was played on a sunny afternoon in early June before a huge crowd at Catonsville Community College. Brooklyn Park won the game, 4-2.
Ironically, the winning pitcher was Dean Albany, now one of Kendall's best friends. Albany was the team's Mid-Atlantic area scout and is now the Northeast national cross-checker who scouted and signed many of the minor league players Kendall now manages.
"Our first baseman had a Billy Buckner moment," Kendall said. "Ground ball went through his legs and cost us two runs. But I remember it was a great game with a lot of really good players."
Kendall played second base for Eshmont's Pointers. William Hughes was the starting pitcher, and Dave Griggs his catcher. Just a few days after the state championship game Griggs was selected by the Orioles in the 16th round of the 1980 draft while Hughes was named to the All-Metro team by both the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore News-American, as were Albany, shortstop Jack Turek and Craig "Tiger" Stump of Brooklyn Park.
Albany and Turek were both juniors in 1980, and after leading the Bees back to the state championship game one year later, went to the University of Alabama in the fall of 1981. Albany left Alabama early to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates while Turek, who led the area in home runs as a junior at Brooklyn Park, eventually helped Alabama reach the championship game of the 1983 College World Series.
The Crimson Tide faced Roger Clemens and future Boston Red Sox pitcher Calvin Schiraldi in the final game, losing to Texas, 4-3.
Albany left the 1980 state championship game in the sixth inning as junior Mike Buchheit came on to pick up the save, giving the Bees their first state championship win.
"High school baseball was structured a little differently then," said Kendall, who went on to play at CCB. "You had MSA (Maryland Scholastic Association) schools play county schools all the time. The best played best. Mount St. Joseph had a really good ballclub then as did Cardinal Gibbons, Curley, Calvert Hall. So for the Herefords and Sparrows Points in our county and Arundel, Northeast, Brooklyn Park in Anne Arundel County, the schools that were serious about baseball, that's how you made your mark. You played the best teams.
"I remember we played Calvert Hall that year. We were ranked in the top five pretty much all year. So was Brooklyn and Arundel. Today everything's so separated. The playoffs are structured differently. Back then you could actually say you were the best because we all played each other. But there were some really good players then."
Kendall also remembers a different philosophy in regards to scouting and signing players to professional contracts.
"Players were signed more frequently back then. If there was a need in the minor leagues, scouts had the ability to sign guys on the roof of their car at Swann Park or Carroll Park after a good ballgame. Today, you have to jump through more hoops just to get the kids out and playing, much less to sign them. A lot of clubs have more affiliates but for some reason that part of scouting is just not there. The Joe Consolis, the Walter Youses, the Dick Bowies -- guys that would just go out and flat-out sign guys.
"Kids played more baseball back then. There were no showcase events. You played little league and if you were good enough you'd play for Sheriff Fowble at Highland Federal or Pat O'Malley at Brooklyn Optimist, for Reds Nee or the Yankee Rebels or Putty Hill. But you also would get guys together during the day and just play.
“We'd throw batting practice to each other. We weren't rich. We had only five or six baseballs so you had to learn how to throw strikes. I pitched batting practice for the Orioles for five years and people say to me all the time, 'How did you get good at it?' I'd say I threw BP as a kid and learned how to throw strikes."
Kendall has now graduated from throwing batting practice at Camden Yards for the Orioles, and scouting young prospects to managing, coaching and helping them develop into future major league players. He likes what he sees in the system.
"Our scouting department has been nails as far as pitchers," said Kendall. “And now they're starting to bring in some real bat and position guys who can play defensively. I go over to Ed Smith and you see some big league players who are going to be free agents, and you see some guys below them who can take their place. And they're our guys.
"You're hoping Brandon Snyder can take someone's spot. You're pulling for those guys, our guys, to become future Orioles, and it's exciting. Sometimes you have to remind those guys in big league camp, 'Hey, dude, you're not over there to feel your way through it. You're here to make a mark. You're here to let Dave Trembley and Andy MacPhail know that you can play, to win a spot on the 25-man roster.'"
Posted March 30, 2010