Q&A: Norfolk Tides Reliever Mark Hendrickson
A veteran of nine major league seasons, Mark Hendrickson failed to make the major league roster for the Baltimore Orioles out of spring training. He has appeared in twelve games for the organization's Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, compiling an 0-3 record and 3.51 ERA in 33.1 innings as the long man in the Tides bullpen. After giving up nine earned runs in his first eight innings, he has settled in and allowed just four earned in his last 25.1.
I had a chance to sit down with Mark after batting practice last Friday at Syracuse's Alliance Bank Ballpark (and I owe him a special thanks, as I was late getting into town and missed our scheduled time). We talked about his background as a two-sport athlete, the importance of adjusting throughout the course of a career, and the mental challenge of returning to Triple-A after several years in the major leagues.
I was wondering if maybe first you could just talk to me about how your time was budgeted between baseball and basketball growing up?
I grew up in Mount Vernon, Washington, which is kind of like the northeast when it comes to weather, for baseball. We played a lot in the summers because the weather wouldn’t really allow us to get a whole lot of baseball in the spring, so I played basketball in the winter, baseball in the summer, and just kept doing it.
What people don’t realize, I was fortunate to be on some very good teams in high school. Had a lot of success, both in basketball and in baseball, and I just wanted to go to college, and to me, college basketball was exciting, it was something I wanted to be a part of. I ended up signing at Washington State, and I always knew baseball was a summer sport, always knew I could play in the summers, and my biggest thing was that I had a lot of family around me that helped me make a good decision. When the draft came, out of high school, I wasn’t ready to sign. I know that the scout I dealt with at the time, I kinda had a little bit of a sour taste, cause he probably tried to bully me into signing. But my grandfather had nothing to do with it, and my biggest thing was just wanting to control my rights. And once I signed on the dotted line I knew that if this team wants me to go to winter ball, if this team wants me to go to spring training, regardless of what the contract states, there was always a fear that that could happen, and then I wouldn’t have control of what I wanted to do, and that was go to school, play college basketball.
That’s how it started. Everybody thinks I had basketball more than baseball at the time, it was like, no, that was what I kinda wanted to do in college. So, that’s how that got started, and I just kept playing baseball every summer. I had a unique situation where I got drafted every year, just because I never signed a letter of intent to play baseball, so I kept going back in the draft. It became a little comical, cause it wasn’t like there was a whole lot of interest, other than getting drafted. There wasn’t a lot of discussion, there wasn’t a lot of negotiation. It was just a matter of a team picking me up, “Hey, if he wants to come play baseball, we’ll do it.” The Atlanta Braves, they’re the team that got me out of high school, and they got me again down the road, and actually their scouting director came to my house cause my grandfather had him in school. So that was probably the closest I came to signing, but it just still wasn’t the right time for me.
It finally came to fruition, and basketball progressed, and the NBA was there, and I put forth the effort to see what I could do there - all the while still playing baseball - and after my first year in the NBA Toronto picked me up in the draft. Followed me the whole summer - I was playing in some men’s leagues down in Pennsylvania cause that’s where my family’s from - and I went out in September, went up to Toronto, worked out for them, and then the following spring I signed. We agreed to a contract to play in the summer, so I did that for three years, and then basketball was kind of one foot in, one foot out, wasn’t really landing. After playing for parts of four years, just kinda said, “I wonder how good I can be in baseball?” So I committed full-time in the winter of 2000, and went to spring training, kinda got my feet wet, came here, Syracuse, played one full year here, and then the next year I played half a year and got called up.
So it was a situation where you decided that basketball had run its course.
Yeah, I mean, I played against some NBA guys that just…I would probably say my college coach put it best, he said I do a lot of things good but nothing great. And you get to the NBA level, it’s a different style of game, guys are more athletic. I did okay, but I think the lure of pitching, being left-handed, having some advantages before I even step on the field, was intriguing to me, and I had only played a couple months a year, my whole life, after high school. So the lure of getting in shape, pitching, seeing how good I could be, was appealing. And I just remember that day I decided to go for it and say, “Hey, let’s go.” Because ironically it came after the fall league, which after my third year with Toronto they said, “Hey, we want you to go to the fall league,” and I pretty much couldn’t turn it down. My agent said, “If you want a future in baseball, you need to go.”
I went, I was in the top ten in ERA out there, had a very good fall league. Didn’t get put on the forty-man - cause that was my third year, that was my protection year – I didn’t get Rule 5, and that to me was just a sign that I need to commit more than three months to baseball. So that’s kinda how that led to the full-time baseball in 2000.
One of the things that you notice a little bit with some of the taller guys, like a Randy Johnson or Andrew Brackman, it seems like they blossom a little bit later. Johnson was a little bit older when he really came on and Brackman’s in his mid-twenties and starting to pick it up. I know it’s a little bit different for you because, like you said, you didn’t really devote yourself to it when you were younger, but did you notice that things came to you differently than it seemed like they came to other guys, developmentally?
Yeah, pitching’s a craft, no doubt. I mean, there’s guys that throw the ball well, that have questionable athletic ability. There’s guys who have great athletic ability, you put ‘em on a mound and they’re clueless. It’s its own unique craft, and for me, I just have been blessed with athletic ability. I’ve been blessed with the ability to pick things up quickly. I swear to this day I made it to Double-A on strictly athletic ability. It wasn’t anything more than just knowing how to compete and knowing my body.
Did you realize that at the time, that you were just kind of going on that?
Yeah, if you think about it, I was pitching in Double-A and I pitched two, three months a year, you know? It’s not like I was dedicating any time in the offseason. I’d play catch to get my arm in shape and that was it. So, for most guys, they get to Double-A and not really put in the time, that’s saying something. But it’s just one of those things that that was probably one thing that I was blessed with, was just picking up things rather quickly. Even my growth spurt in high school, I didn’t have any physical problems. I played point guard until I was a sophomore in high school and then I grew six inches in a summer and all of a sudden now I’m playing down low, doing a little bit of everything, but I just never really had any issues that you see with some taller guys.
So your game had to change entirely.
I just adapted. And that’s touch. I think it goes with – it’s amazing to me how you find some pitchers who can’t play catch, who can’t lob it. They don’t have touch. I think a lot of the sports, because I played so many sports, I was able to take something from another sport and apply it. My touch – what I would say is I’m kind of a “touch and feel” guy on the pitching – obviously, I don’t throw 95 – but my touch and feel has a lot to do with basketball. You know, playing around the hoop, having some touch, you gotta have a little bit of finesse in your game, and I think that carries over to pitching.
So you don’t have to be all power all the time. You CAN’T be all power all the time.
No, and most guys aren’t. I mean, the guys that ARE power usually have no clue where it’s going. Yes, you see the elite power guys up there, but that’s the select few. What about the other guys that don’t make it? They can’t command it, and can’t throw to a base. I think that, for me, I’m a firm believer of telling kids, “Hey, multiple sports.” It keeps your interest. It does have attributes in both, in a lot of sports, that carry over, and you just don’t get burned out. A lot of people try to pick a sport at such a young age, and then kids get burned out.
You mentioned adapting. As far as what you came up with with pitches, what you were throwing, how has that changed, or has it changed, over time, with what you’re throwing now?
It changes over time. When I first came through this league ten years ago, I learned how to pitch inside. I pitched inside, all of a sudden, I skyrocketed through Triple-A, and it was because of learning that the hitters down here are still developing. And so a lot of guys have a hard time hitting inside pitches. They have a hard time keeping inside pitches fair. They have a hard time with offspeed pitches. That’s kind of the learning curve they’re going through. I go up to the big leagues, that’s how I start, and all of a sudden I get a reputation of, “Oh, he can pitch inside, he can pitch inside.” Well, that was just a carryover from down here. But you play in the big leagues long enough, you have to start to adapt. You have to kinda start to see that guys in the big leagues can put it over the fence if you keep throwing inside, so you gotta pick and choose, you gotta work on different things.
And that’s just the constant battle with professional sports, because you see the same guys, they’ve seen you, it’s a cat-and-mouse game, and you gotta adapt. If you don’t adapt…very few pitchers or hitters have gone through their career not having to adapt. That’s just the way the game is, and the guys that do, have a long career.
What’s the difference between when you were playing in the minor leagues back then and now, when you’re here this year?
This one is all mental. When I first came back, I got the news, I was very disappointed. [pause] First couple outings, I just didn’t have anything mentally. I didn’t know… [pause] I didn’t even know if I wanted to pitch again. Because I just felt like I was a major league pitcher, I am a major league pitcher, that wasn’t the case, I’m here in Triple-A. Mentally, to be up there for nine years and come back – I mean, I’m ten, twelve, fourteen years older than a lot of these guys. I told my wife, I said, “I just don’t know.” And I had to work through some of the emotions that came with not making the team, and just deal with all that comes with that. And if anything, that’s the lesson I’m trying to teach these young guys. This league is all from the neck up. There are some physical skills that guys have to work on, but it’s the constant dealing of different situations that are thrown at you. Whether it’s your buddy getting called up, whether it’s the road trips, the travel, there’s a lot of things that, if you have some big league time, it’s a tough road. If you’re a young guy, it’s a little bit different, it’s kind of the next level. It’s kinda like you don’t know what you’re missing, because you haven’t been there. But for guys like us, which I think is some of our struggle, is we have a lot of guys who have a little bit of time. And it’s tough. You got that taste, you got the emotions that come with being at Triple-A, not being in the big leagues. It’s the biggest challenge of my career by far.
When the time comes to hang it up – you said you weren’t really sure you wanted to pitch anymore at one point – do you think that your basketball career, having played basketball professionally and then leaving that behind, do you think that prepared you at all for when baseball ends? Or is it just entirely different?
Entirely different, cause I’m an athlete. I looove everything about being an athlete. I take care of myself, I eat well. I’ve been doing it since I was in high school. My college coach’s wife remembers how I used to eat well in the airport. It’s just something that I just have always loved to do. I have aspirations to play golf when I’m done. And not just recreationally. That lure is how good I can be at that sport, competitively. So I have that.
I think for me the biggest thing, too, to kinda make clear is: after the first couple outings down here, having gone through the process of the emotions I had, I’ve been able to refocus, to say, “Hey, this is just a challenge to get back,” and when I get back I’m gonna have learned a few things down here that’s really gonna pay off. So that’s kind of where I’m at now. But very easily I could’ve gone the other way.
I think you see some guys, from watching on the outside looking in, I see guys that kinda go that way. They run into something…
And it can happen [snaps fingers] within a week. You can be great one week, the next week it can be all bent out of shape. And so, that’s a challenge. For me it was always forty. I was always gonna play until I was forty and then just kinda see where I was at. Jamie Moyer’s a great role model, just because I love the fact that he’s adapted, adjusted, he’s been around, he still loves playing, and that’s kind of what I aspire to be. I wanna play into my forties and temporarily this is a little bit of a situation I just have to go through, which I’m fine with, and I’ll get myself back. And we’ll keep playing and we’ll see what happens. You know, the family too, that kinda weighs on it.
After that, yeah, the transition. I don’t know if anybody’s ever really used to it. My wife and my family, we’ve committed our lives to it. When it’s over, I think it’s an adjustment for a lot of guys. Unless they’re just completely burned out, but I’ve yet to find a place where I can find that adrenaline, that emotion that goes with being on a baseball field, or being on a basketball court prior to the game. Those are hard to find, that adrenaline rush and that feeling of butterflies in the stomach. I still get it. That’s why I know the desire’s still there. I still have it. So we will see. I’m sure I’ll transition, but that time hasn’t come quite yet.
Thanks to Norfolk Tides Media Relations Director Justin Rosenberg for coordinating this interview and Syracuse Chiefs Director of Communications Jason Benetti for supplying the necessary credentials.