By Steve Breazeale
As Kyle Hendricks stood at the center of the court in Capistrano Valley High School’s gym, the memories began to flood back into his mind.
He was being awarded the school’s Spirit of the Cougar award, an honor doled out to accomplished students and alumni. After Hendricks’ unbelievable 2016 season as a pitcher for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs, it’s easy to see why he was selected to be honored before the Cougars’ home basketball game on Feb. 3.
But Hendricks wasn’t thinking about his start in the seventh game of the World Series, a game in which he helped his team erase a 3-1 series deficit and break a 108-year old title drought. Nor was he thinking about the All-Star batters he baffled on his way to claiming the ERA title in just his second full year in the MLB.
Hendricks was instead thinking about where it all started, which was the baseball diamond located just a few long tosses from the back door of the gym he was standing in.
“It feels like I was here yesterday,” Hendricks, a 2008 Capo Valley grad, said. “All this has happened so quick for me.”
Hendricks grew up on the ballfields of Southern California. The weather, and his love of the game, ensured that he could play year-round. He began playing in Dana Point Little League and eventually joined the storied program led by longtime coach Bob Zamora at Capo Valley.
Hendricks grew into a two-sport standout in high school, playing both golf and baseball.
He became known on the diamond for his poise and mental approach to the game, and rose to become the team’s top pitcher his senior year.
But Hendricks, a San Juan Capistrano native, was not a hot prospect his senior year, despite being the Cougars’ ace. He had a fastball that hung around in the low-to-mid 80s, and wasn’t the can’t-miss arm on the Capo Valley staff that drew attention of Major League scouts. That distinction belonged to Tyler Matzek, a junior hurler who lit up radar guns that went on to become a first-round draft selection in 2009.
After a solid senior year, in which he led the Cougars in wins and innings pitched, the low-profile Hendricks was picked by the Angels in the 39th round of the draft to little fanfare.
Rather than go straight to the MLB Hendricks instead chose to attend Dartmouth. The Ivy League and college atmosphere allowed Hendricks to hit his stride.
His 2011 season at Dartmouth ended up being Hendricks’ breakout collegiate year. He went 5-3 as a starter, pitched 62 innings and compiled a 2.47 ERA. He was named first-team All-Ivy League and was Dartmouth’s pitcher of the year.
“I happened to be a late bloomer, and in college I started to develop a little bit more and found my path,” Hendricks said.
After three years of college, Hendricks reentered the draft and was taken by the Texas Rangers in the eighth round.
The Rangers traded Hendricks and another prospect to the Cubs for aging starter Ryan Dempster in 2012. Four years later, and every Cubs fan from Wrigleyville to Logan Square can look back on the trade and chuckle at the fortune.
Hendricks made his MLB debut in 2014, and after a middling 2015 season, broke out in a big way last year. He went 16-8 as a starter, tossing a career-high 190 innings, led the league in ERA (2.13) and finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting, ahead of superstars like Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw.
Already a recognizable name amongst baseball fans, Hendricks became a national storyline during the Cubs’ magical postseason run.
He allowed two hits, no walks and struck out six over 7 1/3 shutout innings against the Dodgers in Game Six of the National League Championship Series. When manager Joe Maddon replaced Hendricks on the mound he left to a raucous standing ovation from the Wrigley faithful. The Cubs won the game 5-0 and punched their ticket to the World Series. Hendricks appeared twice in the Fall Classic but did not factor into a decision.
Hendricks’ calling card has always been that he is cerebral, a thinker and student of the game. He’s earned the nickname “The Professor” as a result, and the only flashy thing about Hendricks on the mound is his results.
For much of his baseball life, he was able to fly under the radar, but that’s not possible anymore.
He said whenever he walks anywhere in Chicago these days, he gets stopped by a fan looking to connect and tell him a story of how much the team’s win meant to them or their family.
That same scenario played out outside the Capo Valley gym on Friday night. Hendricks waved to the crowd inside one last time, and headed for the exit, flanked by his former coach. Outside, he was stopped by a dozen fans and took the time to smile for selfies and sign autographs for anyone who wanted one.
It’s now all part of life for the player who has emerged as a full-fledged star.
“It’s pretty overwhelming when you think about it. To come back, being honored and have all these people getting up and clapping for me, it’s a lot but it’s very humbling,” Hendricks said. “It’s all changed, but it’s all for the positive.”