New York Mets reliever Jim Henderson has made a career out of throwing a baseball, and unlike a lot of Canadian kids, his first love wasn’t hockey.
“I didn’t play organized hockey at all actually,” Henderson told me. “A lot of pond hockey, a lot of hockey out on the lake. It was an expensive sport, I mean it still is — ice time, equipment and all that stuff. So my Mom enjoyed baseball, her father played softball and she got me into it at an early age.”
A native of Calgary, Alberta, Henderson grew up as a Calgary Flames fan, but his favorite team was the Toronto Blue Jays and he was more drawn to a baseball diamond than the ice thanks to being raised by a family of baseball fans.
“We just had house league teams that would play 30-40 games a year, but when I turned 13 I got lucky,” said Henderson, who’s only the second Calgary native to reach the big leagues. “There was a group of fathers who were in that kind of house league before and they really enjoyed baseball and they had some good, talented kids so they put together a travel team. So by the time I was 13-14 I was playing 100 game seasons and traveling around the states in British Columbia.”
For ten long years, Henderson honed his craft in the minors after being selected by the Montreal Expos in the 26th round of the 2003 draft. He didn’t advance beyond Class A ball until he was 24 and spent three years in the Expos/Washington Nationals organizations before being plucked by the Chicago Cubs in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft. His first shoulder surgery in 2008 eventually led to his release from Chicago, but he landed on his feet with the Brewers and endured three more seasons of long bus rides, dingy hotels and winter jobs.
“Worked at a warehouse that printed business cards and dental reminder cards for about 3 or 4 off-seasons in a row back home in Calgary,” Henderson said. “Then the travel team that I talked about they built an indoor facility so they got a program going year-round now so I helped coach that.”
The unassuming Canadian was one of the real feel-good stories in baseball when the Brewers called him up to the major leagues in middle of the 2012 season. Henderson pitched in 36 games and did enough to convince the team to keep him around. He began the following season as a setup man, but quickly moved into the closer’s job when John Axford suffered an early meltdown. He converted 28 saves out of a possible 32 and posted a 2.70 ERA. He also held opponents to a .200 batting average and recorded 75 strikeouts across 60 innings.
However, the 6-foot-5 right-hander lost his job as Milwaukee’s closer before even throwing a pitch in 2014. He battled shoulder problems in the spring and tried to pitch through the pain. But with a 7.15 ERA over 11 1/3 innings during the first month of the season, Henderson was obviously not himself and placed on the disabled list with what was termed as right shoulder inflammation. He attempted a pair of failed rehab assignments before undergoing season-ending surgery to clean up his right rotator cuff and labrum.
The Brewers stuck with Henderson, letting him rehab last season at his own pace in the minors. He sought to recover his high-90s velocity with mixed results and went 1-2 with a 4.04 ERA in 35 appearances across three minor-league levels. Toward the end of last year his velocity was peaking at 95 mph — not consistently, and not exactly the 98 mph he hit on occasion prior to surgery, but it was enough for optimism.
“Last year I pitched in Triple-A but I spent a lot of time getting my arm ready to pitch and a lot of time trying to help it recover,” said Henderson, who is a two-pitch reliever who relies heavily on the velocity of his fastball. “So then when I finally got to this off-season I had a chance to really focus on the rest of my body and the workouts kind of ramped up then.”
Henderson was without a contract heading into the winter, but the Mets emailed his agent the exact minute free agency began, offering him a minor-league deal with an invitation to major-league spring training. While he had another offer, Henderson said he ultimately picked the Mets due to their immediate interest. He impressed in camp, allowing only one hit while walking none and striking out five over four scoreless frames. His fastball velocity was back in the mid-90s and the veteran righty became the lone non-roster invitee to make the squad.
“I was thrilled,” said the 33-year old reliever, who became the fourth Henderson in Mets history, along with Ken, Steve and Rickey. “I didn’t know after last year what kind of options I’d have actually so when I came in I was just excited for the opportunity first and foremost. And then yeah it was a strange situation, I haven’t been in a situation where I have to been like really evaluated before, it hasn’t been like that for three or four years. So I was plenty more nervous just throwing bullpens in front of coaches and front office then I was during the games but it worked out.”
While Henderson wasn’t the sexiest bullpen addition, he has looked reasonably close to the pitcher that he was a few years ago in Milwaukee. In 8 1/3 innings, he has fanned 14 batters and allowed just a single run. The Mets definitely could use a healthy Henderson, but it is fair to question if the journeyman with a history of shoulder issues can keep pitching this way over the course of a whole season. So far so good, but no matter what happens Henderson is just happy to be back in a big league uniform.
“It’s been great,” Henderson says. “I’ve enjoyed it a lot more this time. When you first get called up everything is new and exciting and then its gets taken away from you for a couple of years so I just appreciate everything a little bit more and just can soak it in a bit better.”