Buck O’Neil pro­tege Ken­drick has per­spec­tive on pan­demic

The Kansas City Star - - Sports - BY VAHE GREGORIAN vgre­go­[email protected]­star.com

If you didn’t al­ready know the uni­verse had spi­raled out of whack, you get the hint walk­ing up to the shut­tered en­trance of the Ne­gro Leagues Base­ball Mu­seum and Jazz Mu­seum. You’d sense the dis­tur­bance in the force all the more when NLBM pres­i­dent Bob Ken­drick greets you wear­ing not a cus­tom­ar­ily strik­ing suit and tie en­sem­ble but a merely classy turtle­neck. He hadn’t fig­ured on see­ing any­body, af­ter all.

But maybe the most telling sign of the times would be the healthy re­spect for so­cial dis­tance prac­ticed by one of the most gre­gar­i­ous peo­ple you’ll ever meet.

More than most, it dis­tresses Ken­drick to not feel able to shake hands or hug or just stand closer to con­nect with an au­di­ence — an ab­sence in his life that has made him ache since the NLBM made the dif­fi­cult but nec­es­sary de­ci­sion to shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

“I’m such a so­cial be­ing that it’s dif­fi­cult,” he said, with a laugh.

As a dis­ci­ple of Buck O’Neil and the ste­ward of a mu­seum that stands as a trib­ute to the per­se­ver­ance and courage and op­ti­mism sig­ni­fied by the Ne­gro Leagues, Ken­drick feels called on to be a light of the com­mu­nity. Luck­ily, the sort of ra­di­ance and re­silience that’s also the essence of who he is.

Which is part of why we turn to him in times of up­heaval, try­ing to see it through his lens and ab­sorb and con­vey his warmth and wis­dom.

And it ac­counts for a quite ba­sic but true point he read­ily makes about th­ese

bleak days.

Yes, the sun keeps com­ing up. But at least in the Kansas City area, it has been ob­scure and dim for days and days now. Like “this black cloud just hov­er­ing over us,” as Ken­drick put it.

“You know, it would help if the sun came out, I swear. I think it re­ally would,” he said. “But this kind of fits the mood that ev­ery­body is in. It’s just kind of sat over the top of us and we can’t get out of it, you know? …

“The sun seems to al­ways have a way to make things seem a lit­tle bet­ter even when they’re still the same as they are. It just feels bet­ter.”

It might seem like a lit­tle thing, but it’s ab­so­lutely true.

And it speaks to a broader point that Ken­drick of­fered.

When I men­tioned to him that birds have never sounded louder to me, he un­der­stood right away.

“Ev­ery­thing kind of takes on a whole new per­spec­tive,” he said. “From a sen­sory stand­point, you’re just kind of more in tune to vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing around you.

“And you know what that does? It gives you a per­spec­tive of just how pre­cious the things that we take for granted re­ally are.”

Turns out even the sim­plest day-to-day things can leave you yearn­ing when they are out of reach or in­ven­tory or shut down. And maybe we can hope those res­onate more when we have them again.

“I think once we come out of this thing, and we will, I think we all will gain an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the sim­ple things in life,” he said. “And I hope that we do all em­brace that. Be­cause some­times it takes th­ese kinds of things for us to kind of stop, mo­men­tar­ily, to ap­pre­ci­ate.”

As nat­u­ral as it is for Ken­drick to grav­i­tate to the pos­i­tive view, he is search­ing for some in­ter­nal sun him­self right now amid all the un­cer­tainty and fear as cir­cum­stances be­come pro­gres­sively more eerie.

While it’s less than ideal tim­ing for the mu­seum dur­ing its year-long plan to cel­e­brate the 100th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of the Ne­gro Na­tional League last month, and such an­nual fix­tures as the Jazz & Jackie (Robin­son) pro­gram sched­uled for April 11 al­ready have been can­celed, Ken­drick un­der­stands that ev­ery non­profit will suf­fer pro­foundly right now.

But he’s less mind­ful of that than a broader and deeper sense of sad­ness for hu­man­ity — one that might feel fa­mil­iar to oth­ers.

“By the time this is all said and done, we all may need a lit­tle men­tal and emo­tional help,” he said. “I think that’s very real.”

It doesn’t help that one of the time-hon­ored reme­dies dur­ing crises has gone dor­mant.

“You need to know what’s go­ing on, but I can’t sit there and watch continual coverage of this; you’ve got to kind of pull your­self away from it,” he said. “But the other side of it is, I don’t have sports to watch!

“I love the Game Show Net­work, but I think I’ve watched ev­ery episode of Fam­ily Feud.”

So that’s why he’s at the of­fice on this day, with the Jazz Mu­seum shut down al­to­gether and a se­cu­rity guard and one other worker the only peo­ple to be seen over the course of an hour.

Of course he could work at home, mak­ing phone calls and con­duct­ing vir­tual meet­ings. And this set­ting feels more empty emo­tion­ally than the feel­ing he knows when the mu­seum is closed on Mon­days.

“Now ev­ery day is kind

of like Mon­day,” he lamented with a laugh. “Most peo­ple don’t like Mon­days.”

But there re­mains a vibe of con­nec­tiv­ity in­side the mu­seum that he finds sus­tain­ing.

“I think I needed this for my own peace of mind,” said Ken­drick, who spent much of Fe­bru­ary trav­el­ing the country evan­ge­liz­ing the NLBM, but had in­tended to slow down the pace this month, any­way.

It also brings him some peace of mind to feel the on­go­ing sup­port from so many lovers of the mu­seum. And to think about what he does so of­ten: What would Buck, the an­gel on his shoul­der, do?

“He’d find a ray of sun­shine through this,” Ken­drick said. “And he would al­ways have a per­spec­tive that I think would make you feel bet­ter.”

As we spoke Tues­day and con­tin­ued the con­ver­sa­tion by email Wed­nes­day, we kicked around some thoughts about that na­ture.

For in­stance, it was sub­mit­ted that it may be help­ful to think of ev­ery day be­ing an­other day closer to the end of the pan­demic — even if, alas, we know it will get worse first and don’t know when that end will come.

“To me, that’s the Buck O’Neil per­spec­tive,” he said. “Ev­ery day we’re a lit­tle closer to this be­ing over, it com­ing to pass.”

It’s funny about time, of course. We all want more of it, and now, like Ken­drick, we all want it to speed up so we can get back to our lives.

Or as Ken­drick put it, “Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait!”

Mean­while, it also seemed apt to bring up the eter­nal Satchel Paige’s time­less rules for stay­ing young:

“Avoid fried meats which an­gry up the blood ... If your stom­ach dis­putes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts … Keep the juices flow­ing by jan­gling around gen­tly as you move … Go very lightly on the vices, such as car­ry­ing on in so­ci­ety, the so­cial ram­ble ain’t rest­ful …

… Avoid run­ning at all times ... Don’t look back. Some­thing might be gain­ing on you.”

To which Ken­drick replied by email, “Satchel’s sage ad­vice to keep us young might even be bet­ter served as a re­flec­tion to help keep us sane dur­ing th­ese crazy times!”

As our time wound down Tues­day, some­how we moved to­ward the cur­rent ro­tat­ing ex­hibit on Black Base­ball In Liv­ing Color.

Next thing you know, Ken­drick is point­ing out the on-loan ledger book of Ne­gro Leagues founder

Rube Foster and the re­mark­able art of Graig Kreindler.

And now he’s talk­ing about the life-size Satchel Paige im­age “brought out of re­tire­ment” and rev­el­ing in com­par­ing Josh Gib­son to Bo Jack­son be­cause our friend Joe Pos­nan­ski just wrote about the sim­i­lar sounds in their bats that Buck only ever heard made by one other, Babe Ruth.

We keep our so­cial dis­tance, yes, but …

“For a minute, it felt al­most nor­mal again,” he said, laugh­ing.

While we’re all “a lit­tle numb” and know we’re still in the early stages of what­ever this will be, those min­utes are all the more pre­cious.

It’s a lit­tle bit like a doc­u­men­tary about the Ne­gro Leagues that came to mind for Ken­drick: “There Was Al­ways Sun Shin­ing Some­place.”

And that sun even peeked through for a spell on Wed­nes­day.

“Enough time,” he wrote, “to let us know it’s still there and to give us some­thing else to look for­ward to.”

KC Star file photo

Bob Ken­drick is pres­i­dent of the Ne­gro Leagues Base­ball Mu­seum.

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