Twelve months ago, Howie Kendrick was fresh off his NLDS-winning grand slam and about to become NLCS MVP for the Washington Nationals after tormenting the St. Louis Cardinals.
Kendrick was already on cloud nine before he was able to slice a ball down the right field-line at Minute Maid Park.
The doink of the foul pole sent Nats fans around the world into absolute delirium and marked the most memorable moment in franchise history.
He never has to worry about buying himself a well-earned beer in the nation’s capital again.
Even though Kendrick’s contract expired shortly after the confetti from the parade had settled, when the opportunity to return to Washington came around in the offseason at something of a hometown discount, it was a no-brainer for both parties.
The contract was a one-year $4 million deal, with a $6.5 million mutual option or a $2.25 million buyout. He took the deal despite reportedly having multi-year offers on the table.
He wasn’t the only playoff hero set to return either. World Series MVP, Stephen Strasburg, was given a huge $245 million contract. The battery on the mound for the final out of the Fall Classic, Yan Gomes and Daniel Hudson, returned on modest two-year deals. Asdrúbal Cabrera re-signed not long after. And then of course, Ryan Zimmerman re-signed too.
The proverbial band was coming back together for a chance to run it back.
“Being around these guys and playing here in D.C. it’s really been a dream come true,” Kendrick told reporters before the final series of the season.
“What we accomplished last year and being able to become World Champions, I mean, that’s something special.
“And my whole career, I’ve played 15 seasons, and you know when I’m getting close to the end of my career something like this happens, and like I said, you get around a special group of guys and what Mike Rizzo has done here to bring in a lot of the veteran guys and the influence we have with the younger players, and the younger players, they influence us too.”
As the Nationals set off for West Palm Beach to begin Spring Training, excitement was already building around that first series at Nationals Park. There were going to be roaring standing ovations for the returning heroes as the championship banner was raised.
Kendrick may have gotten the loudest cheer of all for his sensational October performance.
Unfortunately, with the 2020 season played behind closed doors, it denied players and fans the chance to really celebrate the team’s accomplishments from that memorable run a year ago.
“It would have been great to be able to have that celebration,” Kendrick said, reflecting on what could’ve been had the Nats been able to bask in 2019’s glory in 2020.
Instead of dwelling on what could’ve been, Kendrick fondly remembers what happened.
“I felt like we celebrated the whole year. We started 19-31 and then we went on a roll after that, and being able to have all those memories, and celebrate every victory, some of the sweeps, us as a whole as a team, we had so many guys that just really go along and we enjoyed each other’s company, and we celebrated a lot, we would dance in the locker rooms after wins, I mean, we had some really good celebrations, and there’s no greater feeling than putting on your ring, that takes care of that celebration.”
In due course though, the 2019 Nats will receive their dues from the Nationals Park faithful.
Whenever that day comes, Kendrick will look forward to it because of not only the fans but that same group of players that made last year such an enjoyable one for everyone in the clubhouse.
“I think in years to come,” Kendrick said, “when we have our reunion, cause we’ll always be the first team of Nationals to win a World Series here and the first franchise winners of the World Series, and that’s something we all share, we’ll all be able to celebrate that. And I think it’s cool.
“Some of the guys — we do miss not having a traditional celebration, but at the same time, we did get our rings, and we got to come back this year and all hang out with each other, a few guys missing, but at the same time, nothing can take away that camaraderie that connection that we all have and the affection we have for each other in the locker room.
“We truly cared about every guy that was in there, and I think that’s something special. I’ve never been on a team that we’ve had such great chemistry. I’ve been on with some great players, a lot of really good teams, a lot of great teams, but this team was different.
“The way we cared for each other, we didn’t really care whether one guy was playing or not, you always pulled for the next guy. And that’s really hard to find in sports in general, to have all that selflessness around you in the locker room.”
That much-ballyhooed clubhouse atmosphere was one of the main reasons that Kendrick decided to re-sign with the group that he etched himself into franchise history for in the 2019 Fall Classic.
Something that was kept under wraps at the time he re-signed was that the now-37-year-old planned for the celebratory 2020 season to be his last hurrah as a major league player.
“This year was going to be my last year before COVID to be honest with you,” Kendrick explained.
With all that happened this year in baseball and the world in general though, Kendrick now finds himself at a crossroads just a year on from the best moments of his career.
Does he still call it a day? Or does he give himself one more chance after a disappointing year for so many reasons on and off the field and truly celebrate what they accomplished in 2019 with the team’s fans, hopefully at that point, back in the ballpark?
“I was thinking about retiring after this year, but because of COVID it kind of raised the question of like, ‘Man, do you want go out like this?’
“2020 has been strange due to COVID and all the other climate going around the country which I don’t really care to talk about, but you know it is a strange year, and to think that you would end on a year like this, it is a tough one.
“Like I said, I haven’t made any decision about what I was going to do yet, but I want to get healthy first and like I said, talk with my family and then decide. Because right now, being hurt, I wasn’t too happy about finishing this way, and we’ll see what happens.”
No matter what Kendrick decides, he will always receive a true hero’s welcome every time he returns to Nationals Park because of what he did for the franchise just 12 months ago...