SARASOTA, Fla. - Mark Hendrickson isn’t ready to retire. He isn’t ready to move into the next phase of his professional life. He’s throwing better than he has in years, a lower arm slot raising his confidence that he can make it back to the majors for the first time in four years.
This isn’t a repeat, though the story is familiar.
Hendrickson is receiving his second tryout in three years with the Orioles, who also invited him to the 2013 minicamp at Camden Yards. He received a minor league deal, went 5-3 with a 3.06 ERA in 40 games at Triple-A Norfolk, became a free agent again and spent 2014 with the independent York Revolution.
Manager Buck Showalter received a letter from Hendrickson, 40, requesting another tryout. Showalter, who talked Hendrickson into using a sidearm delivery two years ago, was intrigued by the veteran’s 1.54 ERA in 55 appearances with the Revolution. He also has an obvious fondness for the former NBA journeyman.
“This is me taking my career by the horns, so to speak, and doing what I need to do,” Hendrickson said. “Realistically, the biggest hurdle for me is getting past the age factor and getting people who are front office people to not look at age and say, ‘Well, forget him.’ It’s about relationships that I have, reaching out to Buck.
“He’s a straight shooter. He’s not doing a charity case. If he doesn’t think I can help, then I’m not going to be here. So for me, it’s just taking that initiative and saying, ‘Look, I don’t want to waste your time. You don’t want to waste my time. Let’s give this a shot.’ And I said, ‘Look what I’ve done the last couple years.’ “
Hendrickson threw off a mound today in front of pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti and will get another chance on Wednesday.
“Dave and Dom, we had a couple discussions the first five minutes I threw and they can see a difference,” Hendrickson said. “I’m just picking it up. Naturally, I’m just more comfortable with everything.”
The new delivery seems to have rejuvenated Hendrickson, who’s 58-74 with a 5.03 ERA in 10 major league seasons.
“It’s helped my body, believe it or not,” he said. “It’s an adjustment that now, all of a sudden, different body parts are getting used. I know that’s hard to imagine because I’m still pitching, but different muscles are being used.
“A lot of it is a challenge. Being an athlete sometimes is exhausting. You have to have motivation, and for me, this is like a whole new thing that I took on. I’m as motivated now as I’ve ever been. Things are a little different. I’m not 22. But the passion’s still there. You need that. That’s one of the things that I’m sure guys get burned out with is the mental and emotional commitment it takes. It’s not just a physical thing. That commitment has to be there. That focus has to be there. Life evolves. Things are different.”
In more ways than you might imagine.
“I’m a grandfather, for goodness sake, and that was two months ago,” Hendrickson said. “Now there’s extra motivation. How many active grandfathers have been in the big leagues? Well, that right there is motivation in itself.
“Most of it’s just unfinished business because it was a challenge that was offered. If I hadn’t seen the progression between year one and year two, I wouldn’t be doing this. I wouldn’t be wasting my time. I wouldn’t be away from my family, because they all have to commit to this as well. But the progression has been so good that I’m excited about that. That’s why I’m excited to get back here and get the opportunity.
“Obviously I feel obligated to the Orioles because I want them to benefit, because Buck was man enough to tell me, ‘This ain’t working anymore and I think you should do this.’ Not many managers have the guts to say that to a player, and the fact that he did, I’m forever grateful for that. But I’m also realizing that my course the last couple years, it’s all still there. I want to see it all play out and I want it to play out here because this organization means a lot to me because I’ve seen a lot of the changes and it evolving back to what people are used to the Orioles being about. And living in York, I know all about the history of the Orioles. So that’s important, wanting to be a part of it. It’s nice to see how it has evolved in the last few years.”
How much does Hendrickson miss the majors? Enough so that he’s willing to pitch in the minors and independent ball, to reinvent himself as a sidearmer, to keep asking for another chance.
“I miss it,” he said. “This is a challenge, what I’m doing. When Buck mentioned to me about dropping down, my whole intent of dropping down was to get to the big leagues. That’s the whole reason I did it and that’s why I’m still playing. That’s the challenge that I have at 40, which is exciting, because the one thing I can tell these young guys is you’re always going to evolve as an athlete.
“I still have the desire. To me, it’s unfinished business. The last two years, I’ve come a long way in my delivery and I’m a better pitcher now than I’ve been in a long time. I’m just trying to perfect a new delivery. That’s what I’m doing, and that’s why I’m here.
“My path took me to independent ball last year. I learned a lot there. I’m just going to continue to work and get better at what I’m doing with the goal to get up there and really be successful.”
Hendrickson was willing to swallow his pride, which made it easier to stomach the long bus rides and lousy meals.
“It’s an experience, but you know what, I learned some things even last year,” he said. “I’m open to it. I was humbled by just going back in the minor leagues three years ago for the first time, realizing how many guys are out there, how many guys want just the opportunity. Even independent ball, guys just want a chance to get to A-ball, to Double-A ball, to get back to affiliated ball. I learned lots of things from the guys and the experiences that I’ve gone through, and they’ve just helped me be a better man.
“Even last year toward the end of the year I closed for the first time in my career. At 40 years old I had the opportunity to close. It was something that now I can say, ‘I’ve experienced everything on the pitching staff.’ I think that just adds value to what I can bring to teammates and what I can use for my tool belt when I’m on the mound. That’s just something that it took 18-19 years until I finally experienced it, and that was the last six weeks of the season last year.”
Hendrickson normally wouldn’t get on a mound until Feb. 1, but he needed the tryout to possibly receive an invitation to spring training.
“Obviously I have to come down here with a different mindset to just get on the mound,” he said. “I’m going to still stay with my workouts, my routines because this is the timetable and stick to it. I think for the most part, they’re going to see what they need to see.
“A lot of it for me, the reason I’m tinkering with (the delivery) this offseason is just to create more deception, create more whippyness in my arm, so to speak. That’s just something that’s always going to evolve as a pitcher, and that’s what I’m trying to maximize is what’s going to be the most difficult thing for hitters.”
Hendrickson describes his delivery as being “so much more fluid.”
“I have a better feel for it,” he said. “Kind of like these guys that are down here now, I’m trying to figure out myself and each year it’s gotten better. I’ve seen progress and that’s what I just keep doing. It’s something I enjoy doing. I’m able to do it. I feel healthy and I just continue to progress with my new delivery.
“I’m trying to stay a little more upright this year, and as a result I think I can tinker with my slot. It just feels more comfortable all around and it just looks better. I think Dave and Dom, the first thing they said was it just looks more fluid. Even a scout for the Red Sox last year when he watched me said it was a lot different than the first year I was doing it. It’s just a work in progress. Like I said, trying to get better at it and a better feel for it.”
While the goal remains to pitch for the Orioles, Hendrickson’s future could include coaching in their farm system. He’s not looking that far ahead, but Showalter sees it.
“I’ve learned from a lot of great coaches and a lot of great players, and having experienced a lot of different roles, I think that’s something that I enjoy doing even as a teammate,” Hendrickson said. “I think some of the things I’ve learned over the years, and it’s a lost art, is how many times do pitchers actually talk pitching?
“It’s amazing what people can learn. I’m still learning stuff at 40. It’s something that I think can be valuable to an organization as players is just to talk pitching and get better and learn. That’s the biggest jump that these guys struggle with is just getting to the big leagues and realizing that those hitters are focused for that one at-bat, and then each hitter is focused. So as a pitcher, you’ve got to learn a lot of things. People will pick you apart. That’s their job.
“It’s fun to talk pitching. I think that’s something I’ve learned over the years and I enjoy. I think (coaching) is something that would be interesting. I’m not ready to do that quite yet, but it’s something that I’ve enjoyed over the years and, like I said, I’ve been around a lot of people who’ve taught me a lot of wonderful things.”
Note: The Orioles avoided arbitration with reliever Tommy Hunter, who agreed to a $4.65 million deal. He made $3 million last season.
The Orioles have 10 other players who are eligible for arbitration.