Jason Kendall's worst Fourth of July

He's one of nature's wonders: A brilliant young catcher who can run. But on Independence Day his luck ran out.

Published July 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There it was, shown over and over on the television sports shows on July 4. Jason Kendall, the brilliant young catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, runs down the first base line, hits first base with the edge of his right foot and, after an awkward series of half-steps, plunges to the ground. The announcers say that a close-up shot is too horrible to see: Kendall's ankle shattered, a piece of bone piercing the skin and sock. The tape shows the first baseman turning away, unable to look, and Kendall, having gone into shock, carried away on a stretcher, his teammates hiding their faces.

"One of the worst things I've ever seen," said his manager, Gene Lamont.

At 25, Kendall was one of nature's wonders -- a catcher who could run. That's pretty common in Little League or college ball, but for a guy with leadoff speed to make it all the way to the major leagues as a catcher is extremely rare. Stealing bases, playing like a matador behind the plate, hitting line drives, Kendall looked like one of those special players who redefine a position and expand the game's possibilities.

We often see the old player give up the game at the end of a long career. One of the problems of baseball today is that ballplayers hang on forever, many of them mediocre guys able through sheer longevity to reach once-rare milestones like 3,000 hits, 500 home runs or 300 victories.

But the game belongs to the young. Each spring, baseball celebrates a new crop of young players possessing extraordinary talents. Often, these phenoms go on to productive, slightly disappointing careers. In special cases, one goes on to be a Ken Griffey Jr. or a Derek Jeter. For every Cal Ripken, there's a host of players who arrive on the scene displaying mystical ability and quickly disappear.

Memories of flaming meteors like Herb Score, Pete Reiser, Mark Fidrych and Tony Conigliaro tell us that the game eats its young. Even with the great career Mickey Mantle had, we feel it fell short and wonder what might have been if, as a young man, he hadn't caught his foot in a drainpipe in Yankee Stadium's center field and broken a leg. Think of last year's phenom, Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood. Even if he comes back as strong as before, that sense of mysterious, supernaturally bestowed ability won't be there. Now it will be the same for Kendall.

The sight of a young player wounded by the game, touched by mortality, is sad enough. It's even sadder when it happens to a player like Kendall, who played so fearlessly, who brought something new to a game that endlessly repeats itself.

As usually happens in these tragedies, Kendall was a victim of his own gifts. He tried to get a hit off a bunt and, legging the play out, he hit first base at the wrong angle and shattered his leg. Through a season, players run to first base again and again without incident. The chances of such an injury occurring, especially to somebody so young and gifted, are probably 10 million to one.

A successful 90-minute operation put Kendall's leg back together and they say he'll return by spring training. With modern medicine, his speed and ability will likely be restored. But not his pure joy for the game. Some of that will be lost.

By Henry Louis Taylor

Henry Louis Taylor is a writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

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