November 12, 2002, was a rare day in the Arizona Fall League.
The New York Times seldom shows up for AFL games. And the games are seldom played in Tucson, which hasn’t had a team in the league since 1993.
The annual offseason general managers meetings were being held in Tucson, so the AFL decided to schedule a game there, instead of a couple hours away in the Phoenix area. They could put on a little show for the baseball executives and the accompanying media horde.
Drew Henson of the New York Yankees organization was among the prospects playing that day at the University of Arizona. More media attention was the last thing he needed or wanted.
Henson was the most high-profile player in the league, although Baseball America rated him as only the Yankees’ No. 9 prospect.
Henson is remembered today as the guy who shared quarterbacking duties with Tom Brady at Michigan.
Henson was known for that in 2002, as well. Or at least he was known for having played quarterback at Michigan and for walking away after one season as the starter to concentrate on baseball.
Brady had won a Super Bowl by the fall of 2002. But his underdog story at the time tended to focus on how Brady was the 199th pick in the NFL draft who took the quarterback job with the New England Patriots after Drew Bledsoe was injured. The somewhat raw deal Brady received at Michigan has become a bigger part of the tale through the years.
Anyway, back in 2002 Henson also was known as the Yankees’ third baseman of the future. The near future, the club hoped.
Henson was 6-feet, 5-inches, weighed 220 pounds, and looked like he was born to wear the uniform. Think Michelangelo’s David in Yankees pinstripes.
Henson possessed a majestic swing, long and sweeping, like Darryl Strawberry’s, only from the right side.
Henson hit 70 homers in his high school career, a national record, with that swing. Although it looked impressive, his swing was his undoing.
It left him extremely vulnerable to breaking balls.
While Strawberry struck out often with his long, sweeping swing, he made contact often enough to post a respectable batting average as well as hit with prodigious power.
Henson’s swing worked in a similar manner – at Double-A and below.
By the time Henson and the Maryvale Saguaros played on November 12 in front of the general managers, Henson’s baseball career was unravelling.
After his prolific baseball career at Brighton High School in Michigan, the Yankees drafted Henson in the third round. He was also a highly recruited quarterback who had signed with Michigan. Henson signed for $2 million to play in the minor leagues during summers.
In 1998 and most of the 1999, he battled with Brady for the starting job at Michigan.
Henson started at quarterback most of the 2000 season (he missed early games recovering from ankle surgery) and compiled a higher passer rating than Brady ever did. But Henson decided to concentrate on baseball and signed a six-year, $17 million contract with the Yankees (who had traded him to the Cincinnati Reds and then traded to get him back).
Over his head
He played in Triple-A in summer of 2001, a pretty high level for a kid who started the season with just 159 games of professional experience. The Yankees thought Henson’s athletic ability could easily overcome his lack of seasoning
He hit .222 at Columbus.
He was sent to the Arizona Fall League in 2001 and hit .314. The Yankees hoped he would be ready to contribute at the major-league level by midseason in 2002.
But 2002 was another lackluster season at the plate in Columbus. He batted .240, although he hit 18 homers. While his hitting was disappointing, his fielding was worse. His throws from third to first often landed in the stands. He committed 35 errors on the way to a fielding percentage of .893.
After a cup of coffee with the big club in September, Henson went back to the Arizona Fall League. He struggled this time.
By the time he played in front of the GMs in Tucson, he was leading the league in strikeouts and errors and had the lowest batting average of anyone playing regularly.
Murray Chass of the New York Times watched and wrote that Henson swung “at some awful pitches today, including a curveball that bounced about five feet in front of the plate and a fastball at least head-high.”
Ignoring the data
This was a few months before the book “Moneyball” came out. You might remember from the book that Billy Beane continually chides his scouts – “We not selling men’s jeans here” – for worrying too much about players’ appearances and not paying enough attention to stats.
Traditional scouting methods and acumen were unfairly denigrated in the aftermath of the book and the analytics revolution that followed.
That said, I think that Henson so looked the part that the Yankees believed their eyes over the numbers.
The team still hoped – despite all empirical evidence to the contrary – that Henson could help the big club at third base in the 2003 season.
The 2003 season was more of the same for Henson. He compiled a .234/.291/.412 slash line in Columbus. The Yankees traded for Aaron Boone at the deadline to fill their needs at third base.
Reporters pressed general manager Brian Cashman about what the trade said about Henson.
“The move for Aaron Boone speaks volumes about where we feel Drew Henson is the at this time,’’ Cashman told reporters.
Henson didn’t have to be told twice. He decided to give the NFL a try. He bounced around the league from 2004 to 2009.
Henson started just one game, for the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day in 2004. He was pulled in the third quarter.
Henson ultimately was a victim of expectations — the Yankees’ certainly, and his family’s and his own as well.
Another victim of those expectations was Brady.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr clearly wanted Henson to beat out Brady for the job. Brady was the more polished quarterback in 1998 and 1999. Brady and Henson split time for those seasons, although Brady eventually wrestled the job away late in his senior season.
Eventually, it all worked out for Brady. He is about to play in his ninth Super Bowl.
But it almost didn’t.
The New England Patriots had one area of concern with Brady going into the 2000 NFL draft. Why didn’t Michigan want him as its quarterback?