MOOSIC, Pa.-It’s Gary Kendall’s first trip to PNC Field, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Kendall looks at the RailRiders’ lineup and sees Aaron Judge on a rehab assignment, Logan Morrison, who hit 38 home runs for the Tampa Bay Rays two years ago, and several others who’ve already played for a deep New York Yankees team.
Kendall’s Norfolk Tides are playing the RailRiders, and he’s got an Orioles outfielder on rehab as well, Dwight Smith Jr. Smith walks into Kendall’s office, which is spacious for a visiting manager, and goes over his schedule.
The 55-year-old Kendall, a Baltimore native who never played professional ball, is in his 20th season with the Orioles’ organization, and his first with Norfolk. In his previous eight seasons, he managed Double-A Bowie, winning the Eastern League title in 2015. He’s also managed Short-Season Aberdeen and Low-A Delmarva. Kendall even squeezed in a year at Bluefield, West Virginia, when the Orioles had a Rookie League affiliate there.
At Delmarva, Kendall managed against Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, with whom he speaks regularly.
The International League is chock full of players with substantial major league careers, but is still far from the majors. For Kendall, it’s an earned promotion from years in Double-A.
“It’s a nice reward,” Kendall said. “I know that nothing’s etched in stone, and I have to live in the moment, but it’s nice … when we went to Louisville, we stayed at an Omni downtown, and I thought it was the nicest hotel I’ve been in in my life.
“I had big league players saying, ‘This is a big league hotel.’ I almost felt it was too nice to have a ballclub in. It’s one of those places you go on vacation, not walk in there with 35 guys with bags over their shoulders. That was a really nice place to stay. I never saw a place like that in Double-A.”
Some of Kendall’s players are names that Oriole fans know because they’ve had big league experience: Austin Hays, David Hess, Cedric Mullins, Jace Peterson, Jesus Sucre and Austin Wynns.
Others are top prospects, including left-handed pitcher Keegan Akin and first baseman Ryan Mountcastle. Others are players with brief major league experience who were with the Orioles in spring training, including infielders Christopher Bostick, Jack Reinheimer and Zach Vincej.
“Nobody’s happy about being here,” Kendall said. “I think everybody wants to get to that next level. The hardest thing for me is, all of them have usually been everyday players. Every night, there’s going to be three players on that bench. I try not to do it two days in a row. Sometimes it happens because they’re used to playing, and I respect what they’ve done, where they’ve been.
“The hardest thing is, when I don’t pencil them in, even if they’ve had a hit or a big hit the day prior, and that’s a hard thing because I want to try to keep everybody fresh and get everybody in there as much as I possibly can. That’s been the hardest thing … making out the lineup card every night because we do have options because all of them have been to the big leagues and the ones that haven’t been are prospects, and they’re going to get a fair share of playing time. I think players out there are smart enough to realize that and know that I’m doing the best that I can. I know there have been times that they’re not happy.”
The Tides travel in two buses, one more than in the lower minor leagues. There’s a sleeper bus for the ones with the most major league time and the staff, and another one for the rest. The hotels and food are far above what they remember in Delmarva or Frederick, and Kendall appreciates the upgrade.
“The conditions, the environment, just watching the game you realize the talent and how good it is at the big league level,” Kendall said. “I’ve never been there. I’ve watched a lot of big league baseball, never actually been in the dugout for the course of a season, but to see the talent and the gifts that these players have in Triple-A, not just ourselves, but the teams that we play, how talented they are, it’s really nice to watch. It is.
“…The game’s better. You see deeper bullpens. You see deeper rotations, so there’s fewer mistakes, and mistakes and extended innings turn into disastrous innings just like they would in the big leagues.”
Because so many of the Tides are potential callups for the Orioles, Kendall has to stay away from a skilled reliever because he could be a day away from Baltimore.
“There are times you have to leave that pitcher in there to face one more hitter,” Kendall said. “ It gets more magnified when a pitcher tires and you leave him out there one or two extra hitters.”
After watching hundreds of Double-A games, it’s a huge step up.
“The speed of the game is quicker, but I haven’t really felt overwhelmed,” Kendall said. “Not to say, I’m some expert manager, but I just haven’t said to myself, ‘Wow, I really got outmanaged or I got outdone.
“You have to be on your toes more because the talent is better, and you want to protect your players.”
At Norfolk, pitching is what’s most important.
“I always believed in developing starting pitching,” Kendall said. “There’s been instances where I wanted to try and get a guy a win, and you’re in the gray area, the fifth inning, and you’re trying to get him through it, and you may have a very tight lead, and you leave that starter in instead of removing him and trusting your bullpen to carry it the rest of the way, and it’s backfired on me.
“I don’t know if I’d change that in any way because I do believe if they’re your starters, you protect them as much as you can. Try to develop them because you want guys who can give you length and go deeper in the games.”
Players don’t have to be reminded how close it is to the big leagues. They see it from the regular callups and players being returned from the Orioles.
“I think they should realize that the opportunities are presented to them.” Kendall said. “In Double-A, I looked at it that if you had a hot month, you might go to the big leagues, but sometimes here, if you have a hot couple of days, you’re hot … DJ Stewart had a tremendous month, Chance Sisco.
“Those guys had tremendous months of May and were consistent even in April, but were really on fire, and that’s all it takes. It does make your job easier when the players perform. I know [Anthony] Santander … when I look at his body of work that he did here, he was steady, there wasn’t anything that was really … I tell you what he did out in right field, where he played primarily. He played some left, plays like he’s making up in Baltimore. He’s scaling a wall, he’s throwing out a guy on base.”
In Kendall’s years at Bowie, he occasionally got to tell Manny Machado, Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart or Corban Joseph they were going to the Orioles. Here, he’s doing it almost nightly.
“Probably at Double-A you get a little bit more excited,” Kendall said. “The reason that I say that is that the time you’re telling a position player or pitcher they’re going up. In Bowie, we were 30 miles from Baltimore and everything was visible. We were visited a lot by our front office. It seemed like you had more information.
“This league, it’s more spread out. The times that I get calls … I got a call at 11:30 at night about [Josh] Rogers and [Luis] Ortiz that you really can’t give them a sendoff or I can’t let them know what they’ve meant to us. It’s a phone call because everybody’s back at their hotels, and so you really can’t give the message you really want to give. It’s a little different giving that message.
“Because these guys have been up and down, up and down, it becomes more routine. At Bowie, it wasn’t routine when Givens went up, when Machado went up …”
It’s a routine Kendall is enjoying.