Thursday, August 7, 2014

Card #89: Steve Henderson

Who Can It Be Now?
Steven Curtis Henderson was born on November 18, 1952 in Houston, Texas.  Henderson grew up in the Third Ward neighborhood in Houston and attended Jack Yates Senior High School, from which he graduated in 1971.  He was not drafted straight out of high school, so he attended nearby Prairie View A&M University.

After his junior year, the Cincinnati Reds drafted Henderson with the 23rd pick of the 5th Round of the 1974 June Draft.  Henderson signed and was assigned to Billings in the Pioneer League.  He spent the requisite one season there and moved up to Single-A Tampa for the 1975 season.  According to the Tampa Sports History blog from 2009, Henderson met his wife in Tampa that year and thereafter made Tampa his home.  

Despite not hitting for any power in the Florida State League -- as was the case for most players -- the Reds promoted Henderson to Trois-Rivieres in the Eastern League in 1976. Henderson showed off both his speed and his hitting ability there (I'd call it French Canadian Pittsburgh, but not having been to Trois-Rivieres, I don't want to insult one or the other city with the comparison) -- slashing at .312/.384/.504 with 24 doubles, 11 triples, 17 homeruns, 61 RBI, 44 SB (17 CS), and 55 BB in 571 plate appearances.  

That performance was good enough to earn Henderson an invitation to spring training in 1977.  He played well there and impressed Sparky Anderson, whom the AP quoted as saying, "That guy in centerfield is going to be some player." Then again, Sparky Anderson promised us in the mid-1980s that Chris Pittaro was the "best young infielder" that Sparky had ever seen. Still, Henderson kept his head about him, saying that, even if he had been informed that he had made the club that year, he would "probably ask them to send me down [because] I want to play every day, not sit on the bench."

Henderson waited in Triple-A Indianapolis for only about two months before he received the call that he would be playing in the Major Leagues.  What he didn't expect, though, was that the call to the majors would come from the New York Mets.  Henderson was a key part of the "Midnight Massacre" trade that sent Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds on June 15, 1977.

The trade gave Henderson the opportunity to play every day for the Mets as their leftfielder, and he took advantage.  In his rookie year of 1977, he hit .297/.372/.480 with 12 HR, 65 RBI, and 6 SB in 398 plate appearances.    Perhaps if he had been with the Mets the entire season, he might have racked up enough stats to overtake the Montreal Expos new star outfielder Andre Dawson in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Instead, Henderson was edged out by the Hawk by one vote -- a 10-9 total, with the Padres' Gene Richards getting 4 votes and Houston's Floyd Bannister garnering the final vote.

Perhaps 1977 set the bar too high, but Henderson struggled some in 1978.  In nearly twice as many plate appearances, Henderson hit 2 fewer HR and drove in the exact same number of runs.  He did steal more bases and hit nearly twice as many doubles, but his .266/.333/.399 slash line had to be disappointing to the Mets.  

Henderson's numbers improved in 1979, but an ankle injury shelved him in late July for the rest of the seasons except for a pinch-hitting appearance on September 25.  It was especially poor timing for Henderson because his July was one of his best runs as a major leaguer -- .369/.398/.553 for that month of July.  

By 1980, the Mets figured out that Henderson was never going to be a superstar. He would provide a solid bat, average or slightly below average fielding, and a little speed, but he was never going to be the star that the Mets hoped he would be when they made the trade for Seaver.  For his part, Henderson said in 1980 that he had "never been able to understand why [he] was the one they said made the deal. It doesn't make sense."

After the 1980 season, the Payson family put the New York Mets up for sale. The Paysons were much maligned for their cheapness in dealing with their players -- such as Seaver and another victim of the 1977 "Midnight Massacre," Dave Kingman.  So, when publisher Doubleday & Co. bought the club in 1980 (with Fred Wilpon as a 1% owner), the impression was that the new owners wanted to show fans that they weren't the cheapskates that the previous owners were.  Doubleday wanted to undo the harm.

As a result, one of the first moves the club made was to send Steve Henderson and cash to the Chicago Cubs in return for Dave Kingman. Noted Seaver troll Dick Young was not impressed, as the first paragraph of his syndicated column on March 8, 1981, makes clear:
Henderson for Kingman is a bad deal. It is a bad deal because Dave Kingman is a bad ballplayer. He also is not a nice person, but that's only part of it. Most of you, the fans, never will be exposed to an unpleasant person he is and therefore need not accept Dave Kingman on that basis. You will judge him on that basis. You will judge him on what he does for the Mets, as compared to what Steve Henderson and $100,000 would have done for the Mets. I'm afraid it will be a minus, a big minus.
The next several paragraphs then griped about Kingman being a jerk, being injured all the time, being selfish, and being a bad writer. Young then compared Henderson to Kingman:
In Steve Henderson, the Mets lose a fine ballplayer and a fine person. I don't think there has been another major league trade involving two men of such contrasting character. Steve Henderson has been playing tense during his years with the Mets. He reminds me of Bill Robinson when he was young. Bill was a talented young man but intense. He failed to cut it with the Yankees, who traded Clete Boyer for him, but at age 29, Bill Robinson started a career that was to span nine highly worthy years with the Phils and Pirates, and he's still at it.  Steve Henderson can be like that.
I wouldn't call that a great comparison in retrospect -- the two are not all that comparable nor were they at the time each was traded -- but you see what Young is getting at, and he was at least partially correct -- Kingman was an unpleasant person who really only cared about getting his homers.

Enough feeding the troll.  Henderson spent two years with the Cubs before the Cubs decided that they had seen enough, sending Henderson to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Rich Bordi.  Henderson played two complete seasons for the Mariners in 1983 and 1984 before signing with the Oakland Athletics as a free agent -- perhaps Oakland thought they could fool their fans into not realizing that the Henderson in the outfield was Steve and not Rickey, whom the A's had traded during the 1984 offseason to the Yankees.  

If that was the goal, it was not reached.  Steve played a total of just 142 games over 3 years with the A's.  His time in Oakland was interrupted for a while in 1986 when Oakland released him and the White Sox signed him.  But, he never played in the majors for the White Sox. Then, in 1988, Henderson hooked up with his hometown Houston Astros for one final season. After that year at home, Henderson hung up his playing spikes and called it a big-league career.

Mustache Check: Steve's fu-manchu mustache isn't much more developed than the wispy stylings of Biff Pocoroba, but he's got one.

Trivial Pursuit
It's not much, but it's all I've got: Henderson was the first Prairie View A&M player to be drafted in the Major League Baseball draft.  He's probably not the A&M player who had the best career though. That honor would likely belong to Cecil Cooper, who was not drafted.

A Few Minutes With Tony L.
Henderson spent 1982 in the National League with the Cubs, so I didn't think too much of him at that point.  When Henderson was in the AL, though, he absolutely loved to face Milwaukee pitching.  Even though it is a fairly small sample -- just 78 plate appearances -- Henderson owned the Brewers to the tune of .351/.385/.568 with 7 doubles, 3 HR, and 14 RBI. I mean, considering his lifetime stats in the AL were .280/.346/.422, I would call that "owning" the Brewers.

After his retirement from the Astros, Henderson played a year in the Senior Baseball league. He played and coached some in winter ball as well.  Then, in 1990, he was hired on by Pittsburgh to be a minor league hitting instructor. In the Pirates system, he met up in Triple-A with a manager named Terry Collins. When Collins was hired in 1994 to be the Houston Astros manager, Henderson went with him and coached the outfield and baserunning.

After Houston, he hooked on with the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays as a roving minor hitting instructor. He spent 1998 in Tampa as the club's first ever hitting instructor.  That didn't go all that well, but he stayed with the Rays back in the minor leagues from 2000 through 2005. 

The Rays then "called him back up" in 2006, where he stayed as the hitting coach until 2009, after which he was fired and dispatched by the Rays.  A blogger on SB Nation said at the time that Henderson might have been let go because of B.J. Upton's failure to develop as a hitter.  

Whatever the reason, he left Tampa and joined the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 2010. He served as the Phillies minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator in 2010 and as a minor league hitting coordinator in 2011-12.  In 2012, Henderson was named as the hitting coach for the Phillies and still serves in that role today under former Cubs teammate Ryne Sandberg.

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