Still in the game

Published 9:29 am Friday, February 7, 2014

Justin Henry, a former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss baseball star, stands in the batting cage at Halls Ferry Park earlier this week. Henry signed a one-year minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox this offseason. He played for their Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket, R.I., last season. Justin Sellers/The Vicksburg Post

Justin Henry, a former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss baseball star, stands in the batting cage at Halls Ferry Park earlier this week. Henry signed a one-year minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox this offseason. He played for their Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket, R.I., last season. Justin Sellers/The Boston Red Sox minor leaguer Justin Henry hits baseballs off a tee in a batting cage during a workout at Halls Ferry Park earlier this week. Justin Sellers/The Vicksburg Post

 Henry returning to Red Sox, hoping for bounceback year

The end of the 2013 season brought Justin Henry to a crossroads in his career, and his life.

The former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss baseball star endured the worst season of his professional career. At 28 years old, his chances of making it to the major leagues were fading. With a wife and 3-year-old daughter at home, another child on the way, and an expiring contract, Henry faced a tough decision whether to keep pushing ahead with baseball or begin the next chapter of his life.

For now, baseball won out.

Henry signed a one-year contract with the Boston Red Sox in December and will report to their spring training camp later this month. It might be his last shot at breaking through to the majors after seven seasons in the minor leagues, but it’s one he felt he had to take whether it pans out or not.

“Last year did not go well at all. I had a bad year. I was really trying to decide what I wanted to do,” Henry said. “Coming off of that and being really disappointed, I was motivated to want to come back and do better. Even if it might be my last year, to put a better foot forward than I did last year.”

Henry has been on a slow, steady march through the minor leagues since being drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the ninth round in 2007. He’s a career .282 hitter, hit .295 or better in four of his first six seasons, and first reached the Triple-A level in 2010.

Then, he got stuck there.

Despite steady production, the major league wheel of fortune never landed on his number. He spent all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons in Triple-A without getting a call-up. The maddeningly whimsical nature of the promotion system has been frustrating at times, he admits, but also gives him plenty of reason to maintain an optimistic attitude.

“I’ve seen too many times in this game how things can change so quickly. I’ve seen too many guys that get hot for three weeks, something fortunate happens ahead of you in the big leagues, and then they get there and they’re there for five years. It’s not far-fetched to see that happen,” Henry said. “We always joke that whatever your situation is in baseball, wait until next week and see what it’s like then, because it changes so often. You just have to look at it that way, and look for the positives in every situation.”

Henry was traded by the Tigers to the Red Sox in December 2012 and started the 2013 season at Triple-A Pawtucket. After hitting .320 in April, things quickly went downhill. A prolonged slump dropped his average to .210, and eventually cut his playing time back to a reserve role. He had 24 hits in April. Over the next four months, he only got 51 more.

It was a mentally draining season that had him questioning his baseball future.

“When the season ended, I was just ready to be done. It was just one of those where I’m tired of baseball. I’m mentally drained. I want a break,” Henry said. “Right then it was maybe I should look to do something else now. The more I got away from it and really started to think about it, and not being sure what my next step was going to be, I was really getting the itch to want to go back and play and do better than I did last year.”

Henry also became a free agent for the first time this offseason. He wasn’t sure what sort of interest there would be in an aging minor leaguer coming off a bad season but, fortunately for him, teams weren’t scared away. Several showed interest, and he ended up re-signing with the Red Sox.

It’s only a one-year deal — the standard for minor league free agents — but it’s a chance to rebound and at the very least go out on his own terms.

“You’re getting to the point now, 28 years old, where not a ton of guys make it that haven’t already made it. But at the same time, it was my first year to be a free agent. So I was interested to see what kind of market there would be,” Henry said. “The overriding factor was that I wanted to end on a better note if it was going to be the end. I didn’t really want to go out that way. I had so many good years prior and last year definitely left a bad taste in my mouth so I wanted to bounce back from that.”

Once he decided to continue his baseball career, Henry changed his offseason approach. He’d spent the last two winters playing in Venezuela, but decided to return home to Vicksburg this time. Live game action was replaced by workouts at Vicksburg and Warren Central High Schools and Halls Ferry Park.

“The last two years I played winter ball, so this was the first offseason I’d been home in three offseasons. It was nice to just get away from it for a while,” Henry said. “In that time, working out in the gym and some other things, I was really motivated to get back out here and start hitting. I think I’ve done more getting on the field and hitting prior to going down to camp.”

In addition to his own workouts, Henry has helped Warren County’s youth get a better grip on the game. He’s given private lessons to young players and this Saturday will host the Justin Henry Baseball Camp at Halls Ferry Park.

The camp for children ages 6-12 is sponsored by the Vicksburg Warren Athletic Association and benefits Vicksburg Family Development. In addition to Henry, nearly a dozen other former college and pro baseball players and coaches will serve as instructors.

“It’s something I enjoy to do. This area has been so strong in baseball, going back to before me. I just want to continue that, and continue to grow the game in this area. Keep baseball as something that kids enjoy doing and want to be successful at,” Henry said of working with young players. “I’ve been blessed to play as long as I have, and to be able to pass some of that knowledge is fun to do.”

Although he still enjoys the game, Henry was quick to add that he doesn’t know how long he’ll continue to play. He and his wife, Bonnie, are expecting their second daughter in April. His first child, 3-year-old Ava, is approaching school age. The family stays together in Pawtucket for most of the season, but splitting time between there and Vicksburg is getting tougher, he said.

The family life of a minor leaguer, with its long road trips, late nights and relatively low pay can also grind on a family. A call-up to the majors would be a dream come true, but might also be short-lived if he’s just there to replace a starter on the disabled list for a couple of weeks.

“As they start going to preschool and things, you don’t want to take them away from their friends and stuff. They still enjoy it, but it definitely makes it tougher when you start adding to the family. If it was just me and (Bonnie) we’d hop in the car. It wasn’t as big a deal. It definitely makes things a little tougher now,” Henry said.

“I love playing, I do. If it was just the playing the games,“ he continued. “It’s the moving somewhere, the finding a new place to live, what if you get moved up or down, moving again. Especially now on a year-to-year basis, it’s hard to plan for the future that way. If you make it to the big leagues, yeah, maybe it’s a different story. But to play the game in the minor league level for that long, it’s tough to do.”

For right now, however, Henry is still in the game. His contract is not guaranteed, so he’ll have to go to spring training and earn his roster spot. Whether he finally gets the call up to Boston or not, he feels he’s put in the time and effort to make the most of his latest opportunity.

“I’m really not sure what to expect. The Red Sox have given me an opportunity, but nothing was really guaranteed. I’m just hoping to go into camp as ready as I can possibly be when I get there and perform well in spring training and see where it goes from there,” Henry said. “If I didn’t believe I still could play at that level and get to the big leagues, I wouldn’t do it anymore. I’ve never set out to be somebody who’s just playing minor league baseball to just play minor league baseball. It’s too hard on my family to do that year in and year out. I still believe I can play at the highest level. I’m just hoping to go out this year and prove that.”

Justin Henry Baseball Camp

The Justin Henry Baseball Camp, a clinic for children ages 6-12, is scheduled for Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon at Halls Ferry Park. The camp will feature instruction from a host of former college and pro baseball players and is sponsored by the Vicksburg Warren Athletic Association.

The cost is $35 per person and includes lunch. All proceeds benefit Vicksburg Family Development.

Online registration is available at sports.bluesombrero.com/vwaabaseball. Same-day registration is also available, but players are encouraged to register online if possible.

 

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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