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Pirates Kendall faces surgery today

Injury to left thumb never healed

Thursday, October 11, 2001

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Jason Kendall, injured in the first home series in April after taking a pitch on his catching thumb, will have surgery today to reconstruct a damaged ligament and should be fully recovered in three months.

"This tops off my year," said a frustrated Kendall, who had hoped to avoid surgery.

To repair the thumb, doctors will remove a tendon from his left wrist and graft it onto the ulnar collateral ligament, essentially building a new ligament. Dr. Mark Baritz will preform the surgery at Allegheny General Hospital.

This will be the third consecutive off-season Kendall will be rehabbing from surgery. His right ankle was severely dislocated July 4, 1999, and he spent the off-season going through a grueling rehabilitation. Last year, his right cheek was fractured after being struck by a pickoff throw by Houston's Chris Holt..

Diagnostic tests were taken on the thumb Monday, a day after the Pirates completed a 62-100 season. Dr. Mark Langhans and a hand specialist analyzed the tests, and another hand specialist was consulted yesterday before the decision to go ahead with the surgery.

First baseman Kevin Young had similar surgery in 1997 when he damaged his thumb on a fielding play.

"If I had to, I could be playing again in six weeks," Kendall said. "Honestly, I don't think it will take three months."

Although he refused to say the thumb affected his play, he said he was injured against Cincinnati when he was expecting a certain pitch from one of the Pirates' young pitchers but got crossed up, taking a ball on his thumb instead of catching it in the pocket of his mitt.

"When you call for a sinker, you don't expect a cutter. When you call for a cutter, you don't expect a sinker. It's impossible to react that quickly when the ball's moving 90-plus miles an hour," Kendall said. "I was waiting for the pitch to go a certain way. We had pitchers who were rushed to the big leagues, who should have been learning how their ball was going to move in the minor leagues and didn't know what their stuff was going to do."

When the pain persisted -- if he caught a ball on the thumb it felt like a nail was being driven through it -- Kendall had his hand examined in June. After that, he twice received cortisone injections to numb the pain so he could keep playing.

"It shows you his toughness and competitiveness," General Manager Dave Littlefield said.

Kendall insisted on remaining in the lineup rather than missing the four to six weeks required for the ligament to heal. The wear and tear made things worse, even though trainer Kent Biggerstaff taped the thumb to keep it in place.

"The ligament kept getting stretched out and stretched out," Biggerstaff said.

There is still a one in 10 chance the damage can be repaired with arthroscopic surgery, but the overwhelming odds are that only reconstructive surgery will work.

When asked during the season how much the damaged thumb bothered his hitting, Kendall always brushed aside the question with a one-word answer: "None."

But Manager Lloyd McClendon, a former hitting coach, acknowledged that any injury to the hands affects a batting stroke.

"The thumb has hurt him more than he let on," McClendon said just before the season ended. "He never once used it as an excuse."

The injury was one of the reasons McClendon started Kendall, a three-time All-Star catcher, in the outfield 26 times this season. It gave his thumb a break from the rigors of catching and kept his bat in the lineup.

Kendall, who was held out of the final two games of the season, set a career high in plate appearances with 606. But, statistically, he had his worst year offensively. He hit .266, 48 points below his career average, with 10 home runs and 53 RBI.

"I had a terrible season. I embarrassed myself with the season I had," Kendall said yesterday.

He had hoped that the ligament would heal with rest in the off-season. As it stands now, his left hand will be in a cast for two weeks and in a splint for two weeks after that.

"The way my year has gone, it doesn't surprise me," Kendall said ruefully. "I looked at every possible option. If I didn't catch, I could probably get by without the surgery. But if I took one ball wrong on the thumb, I'd be in the same situation again. I can't go through this kind of pain again."

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