June 19, 2011
Henke inducted to Canadian Baseball Hall
By Ryan Pyette, QMI Agency
ST. MARYS, Ont. — It’s a long way from Taos, Missouri (population 869) to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s.
To end up there, even a 6-foot-5 guy nicknamed the Terminator had to muster enough courage to overcome all his fears.
“I hated going to New York,” said Tom Henke, the Toronto Blue Jays’ greatest closer inducted Saturday along with Baseball America founder Allan Simpson of Kelowna, B.C., and Prince Edward Island native George Wood, a pre-1900s outfielder. “I felt like a fish out of water there. I’d go from the hotel to Yankee Stadium and that’s it. It took me two or three years before I went out to visit the Statue of Liberty and I never took the subway.”
The big city was scary. Same goes for Toronto, though somehow Henke always felt at ease pitching in a stadium full of 50,000 people.
“I never took the subway — but I did take the Fuji train,” he said, “or at least that’s what I called it (the GO Train) because it was the green-and-white colour of Fuji Film. I rented an apartment downtown for two or three years and that wasn’t for me. I’m just a guy from a small town and that’s where I’m most comfortable.
“We always lived outside in Oakville, which was big, too, but I thought it was important to have a yard, somewhere you could have a barbecue and be surrounded by family and friends.”
Henke wasn’t always the greatest closer off the mound. He met his wife Kathy in college.
“My catcher one day said, ‘Let’s go to McDonald’s’ and Kathy was working there at the time,” Henke said. “She sold me a Big Mac and I was done. She was tall and athletic and I was pretty shy. Turns out we had a class together and started talking.
“I finally got up the nerve to ask her out and she said I’ve been waiting for months for you to ask me. I guess I wasn’t very quick.”
One time, he nearly balked at starting up a conversation with Nolan Ryan when he was standing right next to him.
“I had already pitched for 15 years but I was nervous because I was like, ‘That’s Nolan Ryan, he holds 56 major league records,” Henke said, “but we did talk and I’m glad we did. We became pretty good friends and I couldn’t believe what it’s like — he’s hounded every time he walks down the street.
“I told him I could never live like that but I don’t have to worry too much because in Taos, no one would let me come back from Canada with an inflated head.”
Henke never worried too much about the pressure of making the big leagues. He started out throwing every night to his father, who caught his pitches while sitting on a five-gallon bucket.
“Every kid should have a dad like that,” Henke said.
A couple of friends, who believed he had pro-calibre stuff, told him they would buy the beer if he showed up at a talent evaluation opportunity — so he did and got noticed.
Once in the big leagues, Henke was rescued by the Jays from a bad situation in Texas. At the start of the 1989 season, he blew a couple of saves and lost his closer’s role.
That old self-doubt crept in.
“I was hearing some boos and reading and listening to what was being said,” he said, “but we went out to Oakland and my old teammate Frank Tanana must’ve been able to see I was down. He told me to put down the papers and just pitch. It was mental. The stuff was still there and Tony LaRussa came over and said, ‘If they don’t want you, I’ll take you’.
“I told Cito (Gaston) I don’t care what the score is, I want to prove I’m not done. I came back and I think ’89 ended up my best season.”
The best moment, of course, is the World Series win in 1992. He retired three years later with St. Louis when he was still the most effective reliever in the National League.
He spurned a late comeback the following season with the Cards because his back acted up again and he didn’t want to steal the team’s money or be a media sideshow for a team that had worked hard to get into playoff contention.
“He could come off as a golly-gee type,” said Bob Elliott, the dean of Canadian baseball sportswriters, “but he was usually the smartest guy in the room.”
Henke said there were sleepless nights over composing his induction speech. He’s a great storyteller but doesn’t fancy himself a public speaker.
“We drove into St. Marys and I relaxed right away,” he said. “I felt comfortable.”
And there will be no fear when he comes up in front of the National Baseball Hall of Fame veterans’ committee in four years time.
“When I retired, I was fifth all-time in saves,” he said. “I got hall of fame votes from Toronto, St. Louis and Texas before I went off the ballot. Maybe this (Canadian induction) will shine a light. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m happy.”
2011 CANADIAN BASEBALL HALL OF FAME INDUCTION
Inductees: Toronto Blue Jays closer Tom Henke, Baseball America founder Allan Simpson, old-time Prince Edward Island outfielder George Wood.