Anaheim, Calif. • The menu never varied, by the baseball player's choice. After every home game, Howie Kendrick would drive to his host family's residence in the Provo foothills and Melanie Barber would serve grilled chicken with barbecue sauce, accompanied by beans and rice.
The food, the family and the late-night talks about life and baseball around the kitchen counter played a major role in Kendrick's climb through the Los Angeles Angels' organization.
"You meet a lot of really good people along the way, people that support you," Kendrick said.
Kendrick's trek was steady, without skipping any steps. He's among few players who stopped at all six levels of the minor leagues before establishing himself in the majors and even then, he needed a couple of return trips to Triple-A before thriving with the Angels.
Arriving in Provo in 2003 as a second-year pro at age 19, Kendrick was "a scared little kid," by Chuck Barber's description.
Kendrick wouldn't disagree, in detailing a minor-leaguer's journey. "It'll turn you into a man, I can tell you that, because you really have to take care of yourself and just really have to understand what you have to do, day in and day out," he said on a July afternoon in the Angels' clubhouse. "Nobody else is going to do it for you. So you really kind of grow up in the minor league system."
Raised mainly by a grandmother (he never knew his father), Kendrick would come straight home from BYU's Miller Field after those Provo Angels games, then spend his mornings at a gym and report to the ballpark early. Even beyond his .368 batting average that summer, "You just knew Howie Kendrick was going to make it," Barber said.
He came to regard Kendrick as "a third son." Charlie and Josh Barber, employed as team batboys at ages 17 and 15 that summer, would introduce him as their brother.
That's the kind of relationship that developed between an African-American second baseman from northwest Florida and a baseball-loving auto dealer's family in Utah. "We had a lot of father-and-son talks," Barber said, "because he didn't have a father."
Shortly after Thanksgiving, having returned to Florida, Kendrick asked Barber if he could come back. He drove his truck 2,200 miles to Provo, where he worked as a parts delivery man at the dealership and stayed with the family until reporting to spring training in Arizona.
After making stops in Iowa, California and Arkansas, Kendrick was assigned to the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees to start the 2006 season. He moved into his old bedroom in Provo and commuted. In four seasons, covering stints with five teams starting in Provo and ending in Salt Lake City Kendrick's composite batting averages were .368, .367, .368 and .369.
This guy could always hit except when he couldn't. Recalled to the Angels after only two weeks of Triple-A ball in April 2006, Kendrick was sent down three weeks later. Pitchers had discovered his weakness for off-speed stuff. He regained confidence, thrived with the Bees and went back up in two months.
Yet in '09, when he was struggling with a .231 average, the Angels sent him to Salt Lake again in June. That's when Kendrick's career was revived for good. He returned to Anaheim after three weeks, batted .351 over the rest of the season and played in the 2011 All-Star Game.
Kendrick subsequently signed a four-year, $33.5 million contract. He's remained consistent during a disappointing 2013 season for the Angels, batting .310 as "an extremely productive player," manager Mike Scioscia said.
The Angels stock all these minor league teams, knowing few players will reach Anaheim. For those who do, there's nothing like it. Summoned briefly by the Angels earlier this season, Bees pitcher Ryan Brasier said, "You lay down and just kind of breathe easy, [realizing] that you finally got there."
Several of Kendrick's Provo teammates Brandon Wood, Reggie Willits and Bobby Wilson among them from that 54-22 club in '03 have experienced the feeling, but none succeeded to his degree.
In Provo, Melanie Barber still serves the dish she's labeled "Howie Kendrick Beans." At Chuck Barber Mitsubishi in Orem, autographed bats from Provo/Orem rookie-league teams are propped in a corner of the owner's office. Barber scrolls through his phone to find a photo of Kendrick, posing with the player's infant son. He speaks almost wistfully about the relationship.
"That personality, that smile you just can't forget him," Barber said.
Those memories, those feelings and those influences that originated 10 years ago flow in both directions, Kendrick would assure the Barbers: "To me, essentially, they are family."
Second baseman Howie Kendrick played at least 42 games at every level of the Los Angeles Angels' minor league system before sticking in the major leagues.
Year Team Level G Avg.
2002 Tempe Rookie 42 .318
2003 Provo Adv-rookie 63 .368
2004 Cedar Rapids Class-A 75 .367
2005 Rancho Cucamonga Adv-A 63 .384
2005 Arkansas Double-A 46 .342
2006 Salt Lake Triple-A 69 .369
2009 Salt Lake Triple-A 20 .346
Note: Rehab assignments not included; the Angels have new affiliates in some leagues.
About the series
The Salt Lake Tribune's Kurt Kragthorpe spent early July on the road taking stock of the teams, players, fans and ballparks of the Los Angeles Angels and their minor league affiliates. His purpose: to ferret out great stories at each stop and, in the bigger scheme, connect the dots between what fans love about baseball especially the minor league version and the players toiling to make it to the bigs. Sunday • Anaheim