Don't let anyone tell you there are "no ties in baseball." Howie Kendrick of the Salt Lake Bees establishes strong ties wherever he ends up.
And in recent years, the Florida native has been ending up in Utah.
"My wife (the former Jody Jensen) grew up in Payson," he says. "Her uncles still live there. Melba Penrod was her grandmother. Her mom is a Holdman."
Spoken like a lifelong Utahn.
Kendrick also stays in touch with Chuck and Melanie Barber and their boys in Orem. He lived with them in 2003 when he played rookie ball in Provo. He even stayed one winter to work at the Barber Brothers dealership. Now, when his wife's in Arizona and he gets tired of pizza, he'll drop down for a meal and conversation.
"They do a good job of cooking," he says. "Roasted chicken, pork tenderloin. I like hanging out with them."
Still, for Howie Kendrick, coming back to Utah has been bittersweet. He enjoys seeing people here. But being "sent down" is always tough. He clawed his way up through the Angel organization, playing for Provo and then the Bees. Last year, despite two bedeviling injuries, he ended up batting .306 for the Los Angeles Angels and was being hailed as a future batting champ. Most baseball annuals picked him to have a breakout year in 2009. But it didn't happen. He struggled early. Finally, the Angels sent him back to Salt Lake City to work things out.
"I think I've proven I can play at that level," he says. "But they wanted me to find myself again. So I'm just trying to put together some quality at-bats and help the team win. That will help me as a player. I think winning is the key to the whole puzzle."
And playing professional baseball can be a puzzle.
In Los Angeles, Kendrick had a dozen voices telling him what he needed to do to find his stroke. As the pressure mounted, he found himself getting confused, then mentally blocked.
Now, back with the Bees, he says he's "getting back in touch with the player I am."
Teammates and coaches in Salt Lake City have also played things just right. Coach Jim Eppard hasn't lectured or scolded but offers simple suggestions.
"He gives me little mental cues," says Kendrick. "You know, food for thought. He'll say things like, 'looks like you're in a hurry to get out.' "
And the Bees players have reminded him why he chose to play the game in the first place.
"I've been playing with a great group of guys here," Kendrick says. "Brandon Wood, Reggie Willits, Terry Evans, Bobby Wilson. When I walked in the clubhouse and saw those guys having fun, I knew it was going to turn around for me. If you're not careful, you start to press too much. I look at Shaquille O'Neal. He has fun all the time. He's one of the funniest guys in the NBA. You have to learn to brush things off and keep going at it. You have to be disciplined and play the game hard. You have to stay focussed. But in the end, baseball reminds you of what it was like being a kid."
The statistics seem to confirm Kendrick's optimism. He has hit safely in six of his last seven games and his hitting .308 for the Bees. In the field, he looks like his old self again.
"He won't be down long," says his good friend, Chuck Barber. "He's a pure hitter. I've seen a lot of .320 hitters go sour for a spell, but they're soon back hitting .320 again."
Still, for a professional athlete, doubt and confusion can be a nightmarish thing.
Losing your game feels like losing yourself.
"It's hard to come back down," Kendrick says. "Everybody has their pride, you know. So it kind of hits you."
At such times, character, hard work, patience and support are vital. And that's where all those "baseball ties" Kendrick has forged make the difference. Along with friends and relatives, Kendrick says the tie that keeps him afloat is the one with his wife and son.
"Owen's 6 months old and he's a joy," he says. "He's always happy. Having him has been a blessing."
The name Owen was his idea, Kendrick says. He read it meant "bold and strong." His wife said he'd change his mind, but he didn't.
"I did think about Luke," he says. "But Luke Kendrick kind of runs together. So it was Owen."
As he talks about his boy, his mood grows lighter and the world seems to rise from his shoulders. He's found perspective.
As he and the Angels hoped, he is indeed "finding himself."
He peers out of the Bees dugout as low clouds skim the Wasatch Mountains.
"It really is beautiful around here," he says.
He doesn't say it, but he could.
Utah's almost as beautiful as the lights of Angel Stadium glowing in the California dusk.
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