Looking around the packed stands at Morgan Academy in Selma, Alabama, the nerves came to Terry Waters. He pitched in college, but never in front of a crowd like this, with so much riding on each throw.
In those stands were scouts from every team in Major League Baseball. The former Troy pitcher needed to groove batting practice to the player all those scouts were there to see, a 17-year-old named Gunnar Henderson with flowing blonde hair peeking out of his hat and boundless potential.
“That got me a little nervous, I’ll be honest,” Waters said, laughing now with the freedom of one who knows how things turned out. “I didn’t want it to be my fault he had a bad day.”
Two days earlier, Henderson held his first pro day. That one, on a Tuesday, was attended by just one team: the Cincinnati Reds. But word spread like wildfire after the infielder cranked home runs over the fence and onto the football field beyond it with regularity, with no part of the field spared from his power.
So when Thursday came for Henderson’s next session, not one team wanted to miss the rural Alabama teenager who seemed destined to become a star. Waters had seen it earlier that year, when he joined Henderson at various showcase tournaments. In those events, Henderson stood out, even among some of the top high school players in the country.
And while Waters worried about his own strike-throwing performance, there was no need to worry about Henderson. Even then, he seemed unflappable.
“He just crushed the ball,” Waters said. “And then every game he played, every scout was there. It was just unbelievable. And I know he was under super pressure every game.”
Henderson has been ever since, rising rapidly to become the top prospect in baseball, then becoming the youngest player in the majors with the Orioles. But his performances have belied his age, with an uncanny ability to hit for power the opposite way.
On Wednesday, he was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, another feather in the cap of a player whose rise shows no signs of stopping. But before getting here, writing just his first name on the Green Monster at Fenway Park — a signature that will be known to all who come next — he was a little boy in a small town with a baseball glove.
Getting here wasn’t the idea — at least at first. Henderson just had fun playing ball with his brothers and his father, Allen. He hasn’t changed, even if his surroundings and teammates have.
A field of their own
As Gunnar and his mother, Kerry Henderson, rummaged around the house looking for baby photos to use during Gunnar’s senior year, they stumbled on a favorite. Gunnar sat in the dirt, with tears streaming from his eyes and blood on his face.
He was just 4 or 5 years old. But with his brother, Jackson, four years older, Gunnar partook in the same drills. On that occasion, a ground ball off the bat of Allen had kicked up and plunked Gunnar on the face, a startling revelation that baseball — while fun — could also hurt sometimes.
“Made us tough growing up,” Gunnar said. “We’re tough kids, and that’s just how we were raised.”
And they were raised out there, on the Little League field Allen built shortly after they moved into their house in Selma. The transformation was swift, turning a horse pasture into a ball diamond by killing off some grass, forming an infield, laying bases and purchasing a backstop to install.
It was more out of necessity, Allen said. Without many options in Selma for reliable ball fields, he saw the flat patch of grass and felt the solution was to make his own. When coaching city and travel teams for his sons, the Hendersons would host practice. Baseball was all around, from the batting tee and net hung in the garage to the 200-foot fences in the back yard.
“That’s where they lived for quite a few years,” Allen said. “Worked out quite well for him.”
“It was really fun to go from your back porch to your back yard to be able to practice baseball,” Gunnar added.
That’s also where Gunnar’s early development took place, with his father preaching the need to hit the pitch where it’s headed. Allen wanted to divide the plate, noting how young pitchers felt more comfortable pitching away — so Gunnar learned to step in slightly, driving the ball toward left.
With a net in the garage, Henderson would hit balls off the tee set up on the outside, learning how to let the pitch travel deep to avoid rolling over it. There are some “battle scars” in that garage, Allen said, from the occasional mishit balls that found wall instead of net. But that was only to be expected from a daily exercise.
And once Waters began throwing batting practice off the mound to Gunnar as an eighth grader, Gunnar saw more variance, a balance of inside and outside pitching. He always had fast hands, an ability to turn on the baseball; what he learned with Waters is how to react.
“When it’s thrown away, hit it that way,” Gunnar said. “My dad’s big thing: wherever the ball is, hit it that way. I feel like that’s been pretty good for me, it has worked for me, and I feel like that’s been a huge help for my success.”
Early in his time in the minor leagues, Gunnar developed a slightly closed stance. It helped him catch up to the sudden jump in velocity that follows pro ball. But as he rose the ranks in the minors, pitchers began to exploit Gunnar’s determination to hit the ball the other way.
They pitched him inside at Double-A Bowie, requiring an offseason adjustment to develop a more neutral batting stance. And by the time he arrived with the Orioles, his quick hands showed immediately in his second at-bat, as he crushed a thunderous homer to right field.
At Morgan Academy, Gunnar hit all but two or three of his senior year homers the opposite way. He maintained an even split in the minors. In his first month as an Oriole, he’s done the same, with two to right, one to center and one to left.
It’s the same thing he showed four years earlier at his pro day, driving ball after ball over the fence and onto the football field beyond.
“Most kids want to pull the ball and see how far they can hit it,” Waters said. “He’s just as interested in hitting it off the left-center wall on a line drive as he is with pulling it and hitting the ball 50 feet over the fence.”
‘Where it all started’
In that predawn fog, the kind that hovers around ground level in Alabama, Gunnar would drag his father outside for his favorite part of the day. He wouldn’t need to be in preschool until 9 a.m., and that’s also when Allen began work.
So the pair woke up at 6 a.m., went out in the carport and threw the baseball, an early morning warmup before returning to the field behind their house for a more full practice in the late afternoon.
When Gunnar’s eyes glaze over in the visitor’s clubhouse inside Fenway Park, that’s where his mind wanders — to the travel ball practices held at his house, the groundball he took to the face and the throwing and hitting sessions with his father. They all took place there in Selma, the town he still calls home in the offseason.
Shortly after Gunnar signed his deal with the Orioles, he realized he needed something better than a tee in his garage to practice. He helped design and build a 50-foot by 80-foot structure near an old horse barn on their property and down the right field line of the field he grew up playing on.
“It’s kind of like a dressed-up looking barn,” Allen said. “Then you roll the doors back and it’s a full cage with all the essentials.”
That’s where he’ll return once the Orioles’ season ends. For Gunnar, that’s where his love for baseball began, on the little field his father built. And baseball will never wander far from there, even as he becomes a star in the major leagues.
“It’s pretty special to be able to go back there and relive it,” Gunnar said. “Having the batting cage right where it all started, that’s pretty special to me.”