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Catching a dream 

Bobby Henley knows better than most that the course of a lifetime can be altered in an instant.

A Major League catcher with his star on the rise, in 41 games as a rookie with the Montreal Expos he had amassed a stellar .304 batting average. He was living the dream he and his father had nurtured. He was playing on the same fields, behind the same home plates as his father’s hero, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench.

He was making good money, and the great money was a negotiation away. And on March 14, 2001 he heard the words that haunt every ball player’s dreams: “The big club has decided to release you from your contract.”

“Baseball was the basis of my relationship with my father- before work, after work, anytime we could really, we got outside and played ball. He’d played ball himself, and he loved to watch me play. His favorite number was thirteen, so that was always my jersey number.”

His dad always made sure Bobby had what he needed to develop as a ball player. When Bobby decided he wanted to leave his Little League position of pitcher, his dad sent him to camp at the University of South Alabama to learn to be a catcher. Bobby found that this job suited him and never looked back.

“The catcher sees more action than any other player. Every single play starts in that sixty feet, six inches between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. He has to know the personalities of twelve or thirteen pitchers, know what each guy responds to. His job is to get the best out of each guy.”

And Bobby proved, to himself and to the Major Leagues, that he was equal to the task. He’d only had one error and 189 putouts in his young but glorious career. Until a throw to second base in Spring Training caused a strange pain in his shoulder.

Tests would show a torn rotator cuff and labrum, a devastating injury that he would aggravate repeatedly, even during rehabilitation efforts. Bobby spent the next two years on the disabled list with an injury that resisted all his efforts to heal. He knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier when the Expos called to release him from his contract.

“I was devastated. I think of it like this: to be a doctor, you put in a lot of time. Eight years of college, an internship, all that training. You finally become a surgeon, what you’ve worked for all your life, and just when you get really good at it, somebody comes along and tells you that you can never do surgery again.

“I know that playing baseball is not in the same category as surgery, but that doesn’t mean it is any easier to achieve. And in the prime of my career, when I am doing something that very few people are capable of doing- Boom! It’s all over. I was 25 years old, and my career was over.”

Bobby never thought of coaching. He was still in talks with the Expos in hopes of being allowed to play first base. But when they needed a manager for their Gulf Coast team, they decided Bobby was the man for the job.

When asked whether his background as a catcher helps him as a manager, he wrinkles his brow. “I guess it really does- catchers really understand the game of cat and mouse that takes place with the pitchers. They know how to motivate guys with different personalities. The game stays the same no matter what changes with the players, so I guess, yeah, being a catcher does help lay a foundation.”

But Bobby still sees himself as a student of the game. He feels that since this is only his second year as a manager, his best tools come in the form of baseball fundamentals.

“If you ask any of my guys what I believe in, they’ll tell you- defense. Move your feet. Hit the cutoff man. Take care of the baseball. If you are gonna lose a game, don’t lose it because you let an errant throw turn into an extra base for the other team. Get in front of the ball and stop the damage from getting worse.”

His guys know it too. They know that Bobby understands the frustration of a long tenure in the minor leagues. He knows how scary it is to get hurt when you are being paid to stay healthy. He knows how to work hard even when you don’t feel like it. He knows that it is more important for his outfielder Reggie Fitzpatrick to wear the number thirteen than for Bobby to wear it himself. And Bobby’s guys know to listen to what he tells them. Bobby knows how great it feels to see all that work pay off in the form of a cheering crowd at a Major League cathedral.

“It took a long, hard, four- year effort to put my heart back together. My wife reminded me over and over how much harder it would have been if I’d gotten hurt a year earlier than I did. Most guys never get to set foot on a Major League field. She reminded me of how lucky I really am.”

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A. Dendy

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