Gary Kendall knew the deal when he signed up. Life in baseball’s minor leagues is, at best, insecure.
It is a high-risk, low-reward profession. Commitment and loyalty most often are one-way streets. Managers and coaches, like the vast majority of players, live a year-to-year existence, going from one October to the next wondering when, or if, another contract will be in the mail.
There are some perks like modest pension plans, 401ks and the like, but make no mistake — there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With very few exceptions, there are no guarantees here.
The best kind of reward is when you can tell a 20-year old kid he’s leaving your team and going to the big leagues — and then watching Manny Machado help the Orioles earn a wild-card spot. That’s the experience Kendall had in 2012, the second of his eight years as manager of the Bowie Baysox.
So, given the nature of the business and his almost 30 years of experience while living the dream, Kendall wasn’t shocked by the news he got the morning of Oct. 4, the day after what had been a long and grueling season as manager of the Norfolk Tides, the Orioles’ Triple-A farm team. It’s a well-known fact that the O’s are deep into a rebuild and that much of the carryover staff from the previous regime was long gone.
Kendall was packing, preparing to return home to Baltimore when his phone rang and Orioles general manager Mike Elias was on the other end delivering the news that his services were no longer needed. In what can be the cruel world of baseball, especially at the minor-league level, explanations are neither given nor expected. “We’re going to move on,” is the most often used catch phrase.
It sounds cold, and in reality it is — but in the social media age we live in, a phone call ranks a step above a text message or email and serves as the generally accepted practice these days. The message is pretty much standard: Thanks for your service, your email account is locked. At least there’s no worry about the door hitting a butt on the way out.
And, to be honest, this dismissal is nothing more, or less, than what Elias promised when he took on the task of presiding over the makeover of the Orioles. He said the changeover, both on the field and off, would be painful — and he was right.
“When the phone rang I could see who was calling, and I knew what it was about,” Kendall said. “I was a pro about it, and so was he. I was emotional because I’d been with this organization a very long time — started here and then came back after a short period [scouting and coaching in the Padres’ system].
“My thoughts kept coming back to so many people that I sat in a room with — great people like Cal [Ripken] Sr., Andy Etchebarren, Moe Drabowsky and so many, many more. I just kept coming back to that one thought.”
Kendall’s 26 years of service with the Orioles’ organization, during which time he worked under four different general managers, looks good on the resume, but in the midst of a celebrated rebuild isn’t worth the spreadsheet it’s written on. He coached and managed at every minor-league level, guiding Bowie to its only league championship in 2015, two years after he managed the Arizona Fall League championship team.
Along the way he has interacted with just about every player who progressed through the Orioles’ system en route to the big leagues. Those memories are the ones he will keep.
“Being able to tell a kid he’s going to the big leagues the first time is the best part of the job,” said Kendall, a Sparrows Point High School graduate and the last visible local connection to the Orioles. “It’s a great feeling. And whenever somebody has to come back, the challenge is sitting down, figuring out what went wrong, what didn’t work and trying to get it right. That’s the flip side.”
As he contemplated the close of one chapter of his career, Kendall experienced a wave of emotions.
“It kind of hurt,” he admitted, “but based on what had happened over the last couple of years it wasn’t surprising. I’d seen a lot of hard-working people, good friends, lose their jobs, so I didn’t take it personal.
“It was time to move on,” he said (there’s that phrase again). “I know I have a lot to offer. I can teach the game and I can manage the game. So we’ll see where it goes.”
Along those lines, he was touched by the number, and quality, of those who reached out to him, including Buck Showalter and Jim Leyland, whose son, Pat, was on Kendall’s coaching staff at Bowie.
“It’s been pretty overwhelming, the number of people who have called, mostly from other organizations, pretty much everybody I’ve interacted with over the years. But nobody from the Orioles, not even my farm director, which isn’t surprising I guess,” Kendall added.
Not surprisingly given the circumstances, Kendall had little direct contact with the Orioles’ front office during the most challenging season of his tenure with the club.
“We communicated mainly by chain of command, not much directly,” he said. “I probably talked with Brandon [Hyde] more from the alternate site last year than we did this year.”
Which is probably just as well, because they had way too much in common. While Hyde was trying to manage a record number of 62 players at the big-league level, Kendall had the staggering number of 81 players come through the Norfolk clubhouse, including many on rehab assignments from the Orioles.
Of those 81, only two logged enough time to rank among qualifying players, none of them among the 45 pitchers, only two of whom started as many as 10 games. Other than late addition Adley Rutschman, Ryan McKenna was far and away the Tides’ best player — but he had more plate in appearances in Baltimore than he did in Norfolk.
Orioles fans will be pleased but not surprised to hear that Rutschman was everything as advertised during his time with the Triple-A team.
“What a talent,” exclaimed Kendall, who had the minor league’s top prospect for the last two months of the season. “Hits with power from both sides of the plate. Everything about him stands out — his arm, his ability behind the plate, just everything about him.
“He has a great future. The one thing about him that I didn’t realize until I got a chance to manage him is his speed, how quick he is getting to bunts, the quickness on wild pitches.”
In his perfect world, working for his hometown team, Kendall would be the manager calling Rutschman into his office and telling him he was going to the big leagues. But that pleasant task will fall to somebody else. After 26 years he won’t be wearing the orange and black uniform. But there will be other opportunities down the road.
One door has to close for another to open. Gary Kendall will soon enough land on his feet. And if it happens to be in another dugout, that team and baseball will be all the better for it.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Les Treagus
Originally published Oct. 20, 2021