Sudden exit seems off base to coach

June 06, 2006|By RICK MAESE

The old baseball coach loaded a lifetime into that 1994 Ford pickup. There were uniforms, equipment, old lineup cards and files going back more than 20 years. He pulled away from the ball yard with much more than a career packed away in those boxes.

"My life," George Henderson says.

Henderson, 71, is one of those unique characters who somehow managed to smear his fingerprints on nearly every page of the history book. He's the line that connects the dots over the past half-century of baseball in Baltimore.

Al Kaline? Grew up with him in South Baltimore.

Reggie Jackson? Gave him spikes, a glove and a roof over his head.

Brooks Robinson? Did business together for several years. Though they're just a few years apart in age, Robinson chose Henderson as his godfather when the Hall of Famer was baptized nearly 40 years ago.

"All I can say for George Henderson is: He's a great businessman, a wonderful friend and a lousy godfather," Robinson jokingly wrote in his autobiography, Third Base is My Home.

Henderson has been coaching baseball in the area - amateur, semipro and college ball - for nearly 50 years, the past 22 seasons at CCBC-Essex. After 21 playoffs appearances, a string of one-year contracts, hundreds of players and nearly as many success stories, Henderson was let go this spring. Last week he said good-bye to the school, program and locker room that had been his home for so long.

"I'm not happy the way it all went down," admits Henderson, his hair more salt than pepper, his personality still cayenne. "I'm really not ready to wake up next year and not be helping kids learn baseball."

Henderson grew up in South Baltimore, back when kids were never seen without a baseball bat; in the rougher areas, you needed one just to walk home from school. He's never lost that South Baltimore attitude and doesn't always rub everyone the right way.

He's quick to point out that he coached 4,000 games and wasn't thrown out once. But one breath later, he'll admit that there were occasions he had to show up at an umpire's house after hours "to have a conversation."

Like him or not, no one ever questions his love of the game. He often talks about the perfect words for his tombstone: "I'd rather be coaching." So you can imagine what taking the game away from him does. He only got paid for 90 days out of the year but worked 300. It was never about money or publicity or even winning.

His team won the NJCAA national championship in 1992. Ask Henderson about that year, though, and he's just as quick to mention a sportsmanship award his team won.

If CCBC-Essex thinks it's going to find another guy who will work that many days for so little money, who will spend his own dime on recruiting, phone calls and traveling, who will forge relationships with kids that extend well beyond their two years of eligibility, well, then someone needs to check the ventilation on campus.

He's seen a bit of everything in his time and saying hello to him is an invitation for an oral history on baseball in Baltimore.

Best hitter? "Without a doubt, Kaline," Henderson says. "He just had it. No one touches him."

Top coach? "Walter Youse, the very best," he says. "Nobody's even close. He coached for 60 years and you can look at guys like Earl Weaver, Casey Stengel, Tony La Russa, and I'll take Walter Youse over every one."

While witnessing the most important era in Baltimore baseball, Henderson managed to write a chapter of his own. No longer in an official capacity, he's still vested in the players. Today, he's rooting for his last great one.

Devin Good is only 5 feet 8 but he's a sports car on the base paths. He has an outside shot of getting selected in today's amateur draft. Henderson has seen them bigger, seen them stronger, but hasn't seem them much faster. He calls Good the best two-year player he's coached.

The way the old coach tells it, Good drops bunts and ends up on second base, turn doubles into inside-the-park homers and can routinely steal second and third after reaching first.

Henderson hopes this isn't necessarily the case, but Good represents something bigger than a lot of the other great players who've shagged flies off Henderon's bat. He's the last of something - an era, a career, whatever you want to call it.

For decades he's watched his players give their all to a game and then find something else, some other life, after the sport was done with them. He could afford to prepare his players for a second life because Henderson has always had baseball.

He still has the game in his stories and in those boxes he unloaded from his truck. But it's different.

"You know what," he says. "I bled blue and gold all those years because I believed in the kids. I really did."

Not ready for retirement, he's hoping baseball still believes in him. He has a few more innings left.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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