Monday, June 1, 2009

Catching Up With Steve Henderson

Steve Henderson, a veteran of 12 major league seasons with the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, Oakland A's and Houston Astros, is one of the longest-tenured members of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Currently in his fourth consecutive season as the Rays hitting coach (a position he also held in 1998), Henderson served as the team's minor league hitting coordinator from 1999-2005. Henderson, in his 34th season of professional baseball, recently sat down to talk about his playing days, coaching career and his long-standing ties to the Tampa Bay area.

Q. You played one season of Class-A ball for the Tampa Tarpons in 1975. What do you remember about your time playing for the Tarpons?

A. It was hot! There were nice people, and I enjoyed playing over in Tampa. That's where I met my wife too, so it was great. You know, Tampa was a small baseball town, really more of a football town back then. I enjoyed it, though. That was one of the reasons I moved here.

Q. You started your career in the Cincinnati Reds system before being traded to the New York Mets.

A. I played in the Reds organization for 3 1/2 years before being traded for a fella by the name of Mr. Tom Seaver in 1977.

Q. At the time, the Mets were still training in St. Petersburg, so you got to spend a fair share of time here even then.

A. I've spent a lot of time here in St. Petersburg. Then, I ended up playing for the St. Pete Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball League in 1989. We ended up winning the whole thing. Then I got the opportunity to come here and work, so that was a great feeling to come home again.

Q. Your manager with the Mets was Joe Torre. Can you talk about what it was like playing for him just as his managerial career got underway?

A. He took care of me real good. Coming over there for a guy like Seaver, who was a legend in his own right, was hard. The people in New York treated me real well, and like I said, Joe took good care of me.

Joe knew how to handle people, he knew how to handle the players, the press. I thought he did a good job, he just didn't have the team at the time to make it work.

Q. Who would you say had the biggest impact on your playing career and helped shape your perspective on the game?

A. There's a man by the name of Ron Plaza. He was a baseball guru. That's what I'd call him. He's with the Oakland A's in the minor league system right now, and is one of the guys that really got me going and believing in myself. He made me believe that I could do certain things even if I didn't have certain skills, but that I could work on them and get better.

Q. Is there a memorable moment from your playing career that still stands out today?

A. It would have to be one game. June 14, 1980, at Shea Stadium against the San Francisco Giants. My girlfriend had just flown up to New York because we were about to get engaged. I hit a home run with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth off Allen Ripley to win the game. We had come back from six runs behind to win, 7-6. That home run kind of put me on the map up there. Fans remembered me more for that home run than they did for me hitting .290 that season.

Q. You were traded to the Cubs for Dave Kingman, and played in Chicago from 1981-82. Do you believe in the theory that one reason the Cubs can never win a World Series is because of all the day games they used to play compared to other teams?

A. It wasn't that much fun for me, but I had to get used to it. You know, 81 day games is a lot. This was before they got the lights at Wrigley Field. It's almost like playing a Spring Training game every day. You've got to get up early, your routine has to change and everything. It can take a toll on any man.

Q. After your career, did you segue right into coaching?

A. I knew that's what I wanted to do. When I got out of the game, it just so happened that Chuck LaMar and Cam Bonifay, who were both with the Pittsburgh Pirates, came down to see me at winter ball. They asked me to be a coach. I said I'd be happy to do that, no problem. I went to Triple-A with a manager named Terry Collins from 1990-93. When Terry took the Houston Astros job, he hired me to be his outfield and baserunning coach. I wound up coaching there for three seasons (1994-96), and with Houston being my hometown, I thought that was just great. I finished my career there in 1988 and got to go back and coach.

Q. You had some great hitters on those Houston teams -- Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell. Who was the best pure hitter of the bunch?

A. All of those guys were pretty good, but Bagwell had the most power and speed. Biggio, well, he was the total package and could do it all.

Q. After Houston, you became the first hitting coach for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998.

A. Yeah, I coached on Larry Rothschild's staff for one season. Stuff didn't go well (laughs), so I wound up going down to work in the minor leagues. When Joe (Maddon) came over, they asked me to interview for the job and I got it.

Q. You've seen just about every hitter to come through the organization.

A. Every last one of them.

Q. So who is the best pure hitting prospect to come through this organization?

A. We've had several great hitters come through, and right now Longo (Evan Longoria) could be one of them. Crawford could be one of them. As far as the best, there's so many guys. We had a kid named Josh Hamilton, too, so we've had some good hitters here.

Q. Speaking of Josh Hamilton, what do you think about the way he's turned his career around these last few years?

A. I'm very happy for him. He just got sidetracked. He's a good kid.

Q. As far as this team goes, when you talk about pure hitters like Longoria and Crawford, can you explain just what makes them such great hitters?

A. That's a good question. I think it's just their patience and their ability to make adjustments up at the plate.

Q. As somebody he's been a part of the Rays organization for 12 seasons, can you talk about what last season meant for you?

A. That was something very special for me, Tom Foley, Steve Livesey and the people in the front office who went through all the hard times. I can't even express how much because I never got to the World Series when I played -- never even got to the playoffs -- so it was great feeling to experience all those things here where it all started.

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