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Kevin Kennedy Was Just a Stranger to Most of the Texas Rangers When He Took Over at Start of Season, but . . . : He’s Managed to Win Respect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

George W. Bush, son of the former president, made a move last October that raised more than a few eyebrows.

He hired a Kennedy.

Kevin Kennedy, of the San Fernando Valley Kennedys, was new manager of Bush’s baseball club, the Texas Rangers.

Responding to the news, Rafael Palmeiro, the club’s star first baseman, spoke for the majority of his teammates when he admitted, “I don’t know who he is.”

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Few people did.

Kennedy, a Taft High graduate, never played in the major leagues. His only big league coaching experience came last season, which he spent as a bench coach, inconspicuously stationed at the right hand of Manager Felipe Alou of the Montreal Expos.

But he had a track record, one that Tom Grieve, Texas’ general manager, found difficult to ignore.

In eight seasons managing in the Dodgers’ organization, Kennedy steadily climbed the minor league ladder. From rookie ball to triple A, his teams never had a losing season or finished worse than second place.

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“We knew he was a high-caliber guy,” Grieve said. “People in baseball, the ones who follow the inner-workings of the game, knew all about Kevin Kennedy.”

And those rather baffled Rangers players? They would learn.

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Their lineup already savaged by injuries, the Rangers were eight games below break-even and in a free-fall toward the division cellar when their rookie manager called a workout for June 24, on what was supposed to be a day off.

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The previous night, a Wednesday, the club completed a 2-8 trip by losing to the Chicago White Sox, 7-4.

On Friday, Texas was scheduled to open a six-game home stand with the first of three games against the Oakland Athletics. But there would be no rest for the weary.

Kennedy, a no-nonsense, 39-year-old Mike Schmidt look-a-like, did not believe his team deserved time off.

“The biggest thing Kevin had facing him when he got here was turning around an atmosphere and attitude that wasn’t conducive to winning,” said Claude Osteen, Texas pitching coach. “There were a lot of stat-conscious things going on, things we knew did not lead to winning.”

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So Kennedy laid down the law. The players had their way for 70 games. He would have it his way the final 92.

“Basically, we had a lot of problems,” Palmeiro said. “All of our guys weren’t on the same track.”

Kennedy demanded aggressive, team-oriented play. He would help set the example. The coaching staff would steal signs, catcher’s signals and whatever else they could hustle from the opposing dugout.

Ranger players would be expected to bunt, execute a hit-and-run and even the slowest of players would be asked to swipe a base given an opening.

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If they were going down, it would not be without a fight.

Since then, the Rangers have a record of 52-35, best in the American League.

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During his first season, Kennedy kept the Rangers in a pennant race longer than any of the 12 managers who preceded him in the club’s 21-year history.

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But he still is best known as the man who mistakenly made a pitcher out of Jose Canseco.

On May 29, in the ninth inning of a 15-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox, Kennedy chose to save his bullpen while also satisfying his $4.1-million slugger’s longstanding request to pitch.

Canseco, normally an outfielder, threw 33 pitches. In the next six games, he started only once and failed to hit a ball out of the infield in five at-bats.

On June 4, a magnetic resonance imaging test revealed a ligament tear in Canseco’s right elbow.

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Canseco’s injury required ligament transplant surgery. After driving in 46 runs in his first 60 games, he was done for the season.

There was media speculation that Kennedy, his team already reeling, also might be finished.

Typically, he faced the controversy without a flinch, taking full responsibility.

“If anyone in the country wants to ask me about it, I’ll answer,” Kennedy said before a recent game in Anaheim. “I’m not going to go hide and feel sorry for myself.

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“There was a little goodwill involved. But I had said before when our pitching was going poorly in June that if the situation arose in a blowout game and I didn’t want to use my bullpen, I would use Jose.

“In that situation, we were playing about as bad as you can play. Our bullpen was being taxed every night, so I decided to do it.”

Canseco was prepared for the appearance. He worked on his pitching during spring training, appeared in an exhibition game during the season and had thrown on the side under the watchful eye of Osteen between games.

Since then, doctors assert that Canseco’s injury was progressive, and that pitching probably only worsened damage already done to the ligament.

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But for a team that had lost a 40-home run, 100-RBI man from its lineup, that was small consolation.

“I wouldn’t do it again, but it happened and we’ve had to deal with it,” Kennedy said. “The main thing was to go forward and not allow negativisms, the heat, injuries, the absence of Jose, or anything else to knock us off track.”

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If they strike back at all, batters who have been hit by a pitch usually attack the man who threw it. Occasionally, they tangle with catchers. Once in a while, they might even challenge a mouthy first baseman.

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Outfielder Brian McRae of the Kansas City Royals is the only player in recent memory to make a dash at the opposing manager.

In the eighth inning of a 9-4 loss against the Royals on July 29, Ranger relief pitcher Bob Patterson launched a fastball that ricocheted off McRae’s back.

But rather than charge the mound, McRae sprinted toward the Texas dugout, searching for the hitman’s boss.

Kennedy came up the steps to meet him, but McRae was intercepted by a contingent of Rangers, led by batting coach Willie Upshaw and pitchers Kevin Brown and Kenny Rogers.

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Though no punches were thrown, Kennedy had driven home a point: His club would not be intimidated.

The previous day, after a 10-3 victory by Texas, Kennedy had promised retaliation after relief pitcher Rick Reed hit Palmeiro on the knee with a pitch. Palmeiro had homered in three of his previous four at-bats against Kansas City.

Kennedy, enraged at the sight of his only left-handed hitting power source writhing on the ground, screamed at Reed. That prompted an appearance by Royals’ Manager Hal McRae, Brian’s father, who pointedly requested--with his index finger jabbing in the vicinity of the Texas manager’s face--that Kennedy reserve any comments for his own players.

The managers ended up arguing nose-to-nose and after the game Kennedy issued a warning. “We’re not going to take it anymore,” he fumed. “I’m deadly serious. Don’t mess with me.”

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Kennedy’s heated response seemed to spark unity among Ranger players who had viewed the manager’s sometimes biting postgame remarks as too critical.

“He was really upset and that showed everyone that he really cares about us,” Palmeiro said.

Kennedy’s beef wasn’t just with the Royals. He estimated his players had been intentionally hit by pitches more than two dozen times in a little more than a month.

McRae said the Royals simply were “pitching inside” to Palmeiro.

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The following day, Kennedy, stone-faced, offered the same explanation for McRae getting hit.

“Everybody in the park knew it was going to happen,” said Mickey Hatcher, the Rangers’ first base coach. “But I’ll give (Brian) McRae credit. Him running over to the dugout, that’s a new tactic.”

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He was in the right city, but the wrong hotel.

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When the Rangers invited Kennedy to Fort Worth to meet the team owners, they did not reserve a room for him in the hotel the club usually provides for its guests. Instead, he was sequestered in a hotel outside the city, to avoid being detected by the media.

“I figured then that I had a serious chance of getting the job,” Kennedy said.

Grieve wasn’t after a manager with name recognition. He wanted a winner. Kennedy, whose Dodger farm clubs finished 20 games over .500 on the average, fit the bill.

“There are those of us who have been with this franchise, seven, eight years,” Grieve said. “We needed to win. That’s why we recommended him to ownership. Our only feeling was, he was the best guy.”

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Kennedy impressed the Rangers with his straightforward approach and candid appraisal of the team during a three-hour interview.

“I didn’t tell them what I thought they wanted me to say. I spoke from the heart,” Kennedy said. “I said we could win, and that I expected to win.

“This is not an expansion team. This is a team that should contend for a long time, and that’s what I said. I didn’t say it to put my neck out so my head could get chopped off. I said it because I believe it and I wanted our players to believe it.”

Grieve asked him what his first moves would be were he hired.

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To fly to Miami, then Puerto Rico, Kennedy replied.

Vacation? Not exactly.

Kennedy said he would fly to Miami to meet Canseco, then move on to Puerto Rico, where he would introduce himself to Juan Gonzalez, the American League home run champion, and Gold Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

“I thought it was important that I make an effort to reach out to those guys, to let them get to know me and for me to explain what I expected,” Kennedy said.

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Grieve liked that idea. And a few weeks later, on Oct. 26, 1992, Kevin Curtis Kennedy became the 13th manager of the Texas Rangers.

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Sitting in the dugout more than three hours before a recent game at Anaheim Stadium, Kennedy thoughtfully considered a question.

“What experience best qualified me for this season?” he repeated thoughtfully. “Winter ball,” he said, a smile spreading quickly across his face.

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“It started in the spring when Rafie (Palmeiro) got his tonsils out. We’ve had all kinds of injuries. Nolan Ryan is on the (disabled list) three times and none of his injuries are arm related. It’s been hamstrings, chicken pox and then it all culminates with Jose. You name the injury and we’ve had it.”

The unpredictability of it all reminded Kennedy of his days managing teams in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic during the winter, from 1986-89.

“You had players from all different levels and all different organizations in surroundings where you never knew what to expect,” Kennedy said. “Sometime the food wasn’t what you’d like. I remember once Ramon Martinez pitching with two outs in the fifth inning and all the lights went out. For two hours we waited for the power to go back on. Those types of things prepared me as well as anything.”

A two-time team MVP at Taft, Kennedy played three seasons at San Diego State and spent eight seasons as a minor league catcher with Baltimore, St. Louis and the Dodgers, reaching triple-A ball.

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His work as a manager and catching instructor in the Dodger farm system won him respect, but put him no better than third in line as successor to Tom Lasorda.

“I felt I had more to offer than that,” Kennedy said. “I felt I deserved it.”

After the 1991 season in Albuquerque, Kennedy quit, reportedly because of a squabble with Dodger farm director Charlie Blaney.

Kennedy downplays any rift with Blaney, saying their “philosophical differences were not that great.”

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Soon after his resignation, Kennedy was made farm director of the Montreal Expos.

And soon after that, John Wetteland and Darrin Fletcher, two mainstays in Montreal’s late-season run at the Philadelphia Phillies this year, became Expos.

Wetteland has become the Expos’ bullpen stopper and Fletcher is the starting catcher and a productive hitter.

“Kevin has never been a guy who gets hung up on big names,” Osteen said. “He takes guys for the job they can do and how they fit into an overall plan. He’s like Whitey Herzog that way.”

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When the Atlanta Braves needed to chase down the San Francisco Giants, they acquired Fred McGriff. The Toronto Blue Jays, also seeking extra offense, went shopping and came back with Rickey Henderson.

And who did the Rangers add to help in their attempt to chase down the Chicago White Sox?

Chris James, a reserve outfielder who is with his sixth major league team, joined a Texas lineup that already included such notables as Manny Lee, Doug Strange, Donald Harris, David Hulse, Rob Ducey and Doug Dascenzo.

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“The other night we put a lineup out there that had about six triple-A players in it,” Osteen said. “You look at what we’ve done this year and you wonder how.”

Charlie Leibrandt and Craig Lefferts, who were supposed to provide stability to the Ranger pitching staff, have combined for 12 victories and an ERA over 5.00. Leibrandt has been on the disabled list twice. Lefferts failed as a starter and is now in the bullpen.

Brown, a 21-game winner last season, is 15-11. Nolan Ryan, 46 years old and limited to 100 pitches even when he was healthy, is on the disabled list for the fourth time and won’t pitch again.

“You look at the whole picture and this is a very difficult club to manage,” Grieve said. “You look at our injuries. You look at guys like Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez and Julio Franco, all highly talented, good guys, but who can also be temperamental. Not many big league managers can handle a group like ours. We’ve had our share of brush fires, but Kevin has put them out.”

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Kennedy is alone in the visiting manager’s office at Anaheim Stadium after a 2-1 loss to the Angels on a blooper that fell among three Rangers, inches inside the right-field foul line.

Texas, which pulled to within 2 1/2 games of the White Sox on Sept. 13, had just fallen to 4 1/2 games behind with 15 remaining.

“The low point of being a manager comes after games like this one,” said Kennedy, whose team was finally mathematically eliminated from the divisional race on Monday. “I could almost accept a blowout more. In a blowout from inning one, you have eight more innings to deal with the fact you’ve lost. But when you’re battling tough each inning. . . .

“On the positive side, it’s a credit to your ballclub when your losses are close ones. That means you’re battling. That’s the fun part. I guess I’d rather have it that way than have a season where you’re 30 games out and never in the chase.”

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Kennedy had to be guessing.

His teams have rarely been out of a race. Not in any league.


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