'91 draft hollow for pitching phenom Kenny Henderson

'91 draft hollow for pitching phenom Kenny Henderson

June 6th, 2013 by Ward Gossett in Sports - Professional

The Major League Baseball draft

When: Today-Thursday.

Today, 6 p.m.: First round, compensation rounds and second round.

Friday, 1 p.m.: Rounds 3-10.

Saturday, 1 p.m.: Rounds 11-40.

Who's eligible: High school, junior college and four-year college players (with at least three years in school)

Kenny Henderson was a pitching phenom, good enough to be the fifth player selected in the 1991 major league baseball draft.

But the sport he loved ultimately wasn't so kind to the Ringgold High School standout who holds the distinction of being the Chattanooga area's highest drafted player.

"Honestly, I fell asleep on the couch on draft day," he said. "That day and the days leading up to it were hectic, fun and a little disappointing."

While he seems indifferent today about pro baseball, he still follows his alma mater Miami Hurricanes and now as a Nashville resident has become interested in Vanderbilt partly because of the success of the program under Tim Corbin, who was coaching at Clemson when Henderson was playing at Miami.

He never made it to "the Show" as a player, but from 1991 through 1997 he got headache and heartache and more than a peek at the sometimes seamy underbelly of professional sports.

"Things were supposed to go a little differently than they did," Henderson said, "but I'm still very proud of where I was drafted and I do wish it had gone differently."

Beginning of the end

Draft day started on a disappointing note for Henderson and his family, who had anticipated a call from the Atlanta Braves. They had the No. 2 pick. The Hendersons instead received a call from adviser Scott Boras, who was just beginning to make his mark as a sports agent, telling them that Braves owner Ted Turner had nixed Henderson's selection in favor of college player Mike Kelly, an outfielder from Arizona.

Turner supposedly wanted a college player, and Kelly actually did play for a short time with the Braves in 1994 before moving on to play for the Devil Rays, the Reds and the Rockies over the next five seasons.

The Ringgold ace wound up falling to Milwaukee with the fifth pick, and that selection set off a war of words between Henderson's parents and the Brewers and then the Brewers and Boras. Current MLB commissioner Bud Selig was the Brewers' owner.

In a Milwaukee Sentinel story published 19 years ago, the Brewers' general manager at the time, Harry Dalton, said that "[Pam Henderson] told me it would take $1 million to sign her son and not to call back until we were ready to do it."

Although he had heard that story previously, Henderson bristled at the memory.

"That's a fabrication," he said. "Number one, we couldn't throw out a figure. We relied on Scott and that [story] had more to do with Scott and the Brewers than us and the Brewers, but the Brewers considered us to be ignorant hillbillies from Georgia and let us know that.

"My mother had conversations with Bud Selig, and he was very nasty to her and made her cry on at least one occasion."

The Brewers' initial signing bonus offer was $550,000, and they raised it to $650,000 the day before Henderson started classes at Miami. It was the most the club had ever offered, but it was way short of what Boras was demanding.

It was Boras and his advice that kept Henderson from signing, Henderson recalled, saying that Boras later admitted as much.

"I think a lot of people were under the misconception that my parents were pulling the strings and that my parents were extremely greedy and that they wanted me to [sign]," Henderson said. "They heard it on more than one occasion. It was my decision and no one else's."

The Boras factor

"If I had regrets, it would be staying with Scott Boras," Henderson said.

They don't exchange Christmas cards, to be sure.

"I had knowledgeable baseball people tell me to separate myself from him, and I didn't," Henderson added.

"I was his experiment. He wanted me to be that first kid -- that first-round high school pick -- not to sign. He wanted to use me to test those waters."

While Boras landed a then-record $1.55 million bonus from the New York Yankees for Brien Taylor, the No. 1 pick in that draft, he couldn't get the $750,000 he wanted for Henderson.

Boras later told the Milwaukee Sentinel that the Brewers had not done their homework.

"The mistake the Brewers made was not spending enough time with him before the draft," Boras said while admitting that he didn't think Henderson was "developmentally ready" to be a professional baseball player.

"Their scouts should have known that," the agent said

To which Dalton responded, "There was never any suggestion he didn't want to play or wasn't ready to play."

Again, Henderson bristled, recalling the uncomfortable triangle of himself, the Brewers' front office and Boras.

"I had talked with everybody in their organization and told them I wasn't interested in playing with Milwaukee," he said. "That [Boras] experiment came with a club that had a very vindictive owner, and I have since had numerous scouts and national cross-checkers tell me that I [shafted] myself.

"I haven't had any contact with [Boras] in 13-14 years. But listen, Scott is very good at what he does. He's ruthless, but you better know that going in with him. It's all business, all numbers, all money."

Doing it differently?

"I'm not sure how much you grasp as an 18-year-old. I can't say, though, that I regret going to school," Henderson said of his decision. "I made some great friends, got to play in three college world series and got my degree."

And if he had today's knowledge and a chance to go back to 1991's decision, would it change?

"I've thought about that over the years," he said. "To be honest, there are no regrets because I was a bit of a wild child, and I probably would've blown [the bonus money] and I wouldn't have gone to school, so I wouldn't have had a damn thing to show for it."

He was drafted again in 1994 after his junior year by the Expos and would have signed for a lot less than $550,000 as a late second-rouder.

Boros had him negotiating through part of the summer, but before he could sign, major league players went on strike in late August and clubs signed no more draft picks.

Henderson eventually signed in 1995 with the San Diego Padres as a fifth-round draft pick and stayed in the minors before calling it quits in 1997. He got no higher than high-Single-A.

Neither his body nor his mind was willing to go on.

"I had shoulder reconstruction and elbow reconstruction," he said. "I could never stay healthy. Whether I had gone to school or signed, it would have been the same. I talked with Dr. [James] Andrews, who had done both of the surgeries, and he said I was basically cursed with loose joints. On one hand it was good and allowed me to do the things I had done, but on the other hand it was not so great for durability down the line.

"He said, 'I can keep repairing your arm, your shoulder and your elbow,' but I didn't have an interest in doing that."

In the way of advice for today's draftees, Henderson said, "It's changed so much now, especially the way they push kids -- the higher draft picks -- through the system. If a kid has the grades, then I'd say test the waters and go to school and shoot for being a fifth pick rather than a fifth-rounder.

"On the other hand, if a kid wants to take the money, [the drafting organization] is going to give him every opportunity. I couldn't blame a kid for going either way."

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com