Inside Baseball

December 06, 1999

HALFWAY HOME
His ankle healing, Jason Kendall aims to be at full speed by
spring

Manhattan Beach, Calif., is not a place known for inspiring hard
work. A slice of nirvana just southwest of L.A., it is famous
for its raging nightlife and an endless beachside exercise path
teeming with bronzed hardbodies. Fully reclined on a black
leather couch in his swank three-story bachelor pad overlooking
the ocean, Jason Kendall appears comfortable in this milieu, but
then, everything about the Pirates' All-Star catcher is
paradoxical. A catcher with speed, a die-hard surfer who makes
his living in blue-collar Pittsburgh, Kendall, 25, has been in
Manhattan Beach since August, strenuously rehabilitating his
severely dislocated right ankle, an injury of Theismannian
grotesqueness that cut short his season and cast doubts on his
major league future. So, while those around him are striving for
the perfect tan, Kendall gets supine these days only at the end
of another rehab session. "I know this coming season is going to
be fun because this off-season has been work," he says.

Kendall suffered his injury on Independence Day during the fifth
inning of a game against the Brewers. Trying to break up Steve
Woodard's perfect game, he dragged a bunt, raced down the first
base line and hit the bag awkwardly. Here Kendall picks up the
narrative: "I knew I had tweaked my ankle, but I was pissed that
I got called out at first and started to turn to say something to
the ump. That was when I looked down and saw the bone sticking
out of the skin. I was like, There's no way that's what I think
it is. It just didn't register, so I took another step toward the
ump, and then I saw the bottom of my shoe facing upward, staring
back at me. At that point I was like, O.K., I think I'll fall
down now."

Though Kendall hadn't broken any bones, the ankle bone had been
torn from the joint, shearing virtually all of the ligaments and
leaving his foot dangling. That night Kendall underwent surgery
to reattach the ligaments, and eight weeks later he was
beginning his rehab in Manhattan Beach, about six miles from
Torrance, where he grew up. When the cast was removed, his leg
had atrophied to the point that, he says, "It looked like a
fungo bat."

Since then he has been working out six days a week in hopes of
returning to the form he established in 1998, when he finished
fifth in the National League in batting (.327) and seventh in
on-base percentage (.411), and stole 26 bases--a season record
for a National League catcher. At the time of his injury Kendall
was again fifth in the league in hitting (.332) and had stolen
22 bases, a pace at which he would have broken the major league
record for steals by a catcher (36, by the Royals' John Wathan
in 1982).

Kendall's daily five-to-six-hour rehab routine begins at 8:30
a.m. It includes weightlifting, physical therapy involving
ultrasound and deep tissue massages, running and jumping in a
swimming pool and, finally, a series of 90-foot sprints (he
began running again on Nov. 1). Last week Kendall was allowed to
swing a bat for the first time since the injury, and he also
started lateral-movement exercises.

"Jason's at a point now that's better than any of us thought
possible," says Rob Maffucci, Kendall's physical therapist.
"He's regained 90 percent of his range of motion, and by the
start of spring training he'll be at least as fast as he was,
and hopefully faster." Even though he was a very good base
stealer, Kendall didn't have proper sprint mechanics. Maffucci
has lengthened Kendall's stride, synchronized his arm and leg
movements and gotten him to run lower to the ground. Some have
suggested that the best thing Kendall could do to maintain his
speed would be to give up catching. "If I have any say in it,
there's no way in hell that I will," he says.

Clearly Kendall hasn't gone soft, despite the damage to his
ankle's soft tissue. "It was a freak accident, and I'm over it,"
he says. "I'm going to be as reckless as ever. Just don't expect
to see me bunting again."

Oakland's John Jaha
Loyalty Comes Before Loot

In one of this year's most meaningful free-agent signings, the
dollar amount was of secondary significance. "Believe it or not,
money isn't the most important thing to a lot of guys who play
baseball," says John Jaha, 33, who on Oct. 5 signed a relatively
paltry two-year, $6 million deal to stay with the A's. "I wanted
a good community, good teammates, a comfortable life. I knew
where to find them."

As Oakland's designated hitter and fill-in first baseman last
season, Jaha contributed mightily to the surprising run of the
small-payroll ($23 million) A's at a wild-card berth, hitting a
career-high 35 home runs, driving in 111 runs and making his
first All-Star team. But when the season ended, he opted not to
capitalize on a market in which All-Stars go for a bit more than
$3 million per. He chalks up his decision to loyalty.

At this time last year Jaha was a ghost. After hitting .300 with
34 home runs and 118 RBIs with the Brewers in 1996, he missed
most of the next two seasons because of bone spurs in his left
foot and a torn left labrum. He was a free agent after the '98
season, but nobody was calling him. Jaha pondered playing in
Japan and considered the independent Northern League. Then,
shortly before spring training, A's general manager Billy Beane
offered him a $400,000 minor league contract (with incentives,
Jaha has earned $525,000).

"He was the only guy who gave me a shot," says Jaha. "Then, when
I made the All-Star team, Billy said they wanted me back next
year. When someone treats you like that, you want to show your
appreciation."

He believes the A's, who also re-signed second baseman Randy
Velarde, righthanded starter Kevin Appier and righty reliever
Doug Jones, and who lured free-agent lefthanded reliever Mike
Magnante into the fold, will again be a playoff contender.
"Oakland," Jaha says, "is becoming a place where people want to
be." --Jeff Pearlman

For complete stats and off-season news, plus notes from Tom
Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER A grueling rehab and a revamped running style have Kendall thinking about stealing again.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)