A NEW BEGINNING: Vicksburg native Henry moves into coaching after playing career ends

Published 7:06 am Sunday, July 12, 2015

COACH HENRY: Justin Henry, a former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss star, high fives a teammate during a game with the Greenville Drive this season. Henry is in his first year as an assistant coach with the Boston Red Sox’s Class A affiliate. He’s transitioning to the dugout after an eight-year career in the minor leagues.

COACH HENRY: Justin Henry, a former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss star, high fives a teammate during a game with the Greenville Drive this season. Henry is in his first year as an assistant coach with the Boston Red Sox’s Class A affiliate. He’s transitioning to the dugout after an eight-year career in the minor leagues.

Justin Henry swears he did his best to put baseball in the rearview mirror. He really did.

He made peace with a solid minor league career. He peeled off his dirty uniform and traded it for a suit and tie, his bat and glove for a briefcase and keyboard. He was ready to settle down in his hometown of Vicksburg and take a 9 to 5 job.

Then the phone rang, and he was sucked right back in.

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The call came from the Boston Red Sox, the organization Henry had spent the last two years playing for. They had a job offer for him — not as a minor league player, but as a coach. The former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss star anguished over it, prayed about it and discussed it at length with his wife.

In the end, baseball’s siren song was too alluring to resist. Henry accepted the offer and returned to the game he loves and has played for nearly a quarter of a century. The 30-year-old has spent the last four months as an assistant coach with the Class-A Greenville Drive in South Carolina.

“It was one of those things, I thought I wanted to get away from it and do something different,” Henry said. “Then once you get away from it, you realize how much you love it. I feel like it’d be a waste to have that knowledge and then don’t do anything with it just because you think you should do something different.”

Last summer, while another season in the minors dragged on around him, Henry made peace with the fact that his pro baseball career was coming to a close.

He’d done well. In eight seasons in the minors with the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox organizations, he’d compiled a career batting average of .280. He played at the Triple-A level for four years, and had seemingly been within a whisker of getting a call-up to the big leagues several times.

It never happened, though, and by August of 2014 Henry was a 29-year-old utility player with an expiring contract. In baseball terms, he was past his prime and he knew it was time to move on with his life.

“The last month of the season, I’d decided that was going to be it,” he said. “It was definitely a sad thing. I was trying not to make a big deal about it. In the moment, it didn’t seem completely real. It didn’t hit me that that was it. It’s definitely tough. That’s something you’ve done your whole life. But there also comes a time when you know you need to move on.”

The decision to retire at season’s end might have lifted a weight off of Henry’s shoulders. He hit safely in 11 of his last 15 regular-season games to raise his season average from .220 to .251. He helped the Pawtucket Red Sox win the International League championship for the second time in three years.

In Henry’s final game, the Triple-A championship against Pacific Coast League winner Omaha, he went 1-for-3 with a single as Pawtucket lost 4-2. Henry’s final at-bat was a ground out in the seventh inning, his final hit a single in the third.

It was a fitting final highlight for a player who had 824 hits in 839 career games in the minors — 655 of them singles.

When it was all over, Henry said he was able to look back on his career with a lot of satisfaction. A major league call-up was about the only thing missing from an impressive resumé. In addition to his hit total, he scored 426 runs, stole 140 bases and drove in 292 runs.

“I’m very proud of it,” Henry said of his playing career. “I feel like with a break here or there I might have gotten to the majors, but that doesn’t take away from it. Maybe my name would be in a book somewhere if I got two weeks in the big leagues. But that wouldn’t change anything. I got to live the dream of playing professional baseball for eight years. It’s not something that keeps me up at night. Certain things aren’t in the cards.”

In years past, Henry had gone to Arizona and Venezuela to further hone his craft. This winter, he returned to Vicksburg and took a job as a financial adviser.

He was happy to be home and spending more time with his wife Bonnie and children Ava and Analise, but wasn’t feeling comfortable settling back into the real world of 9 to 5 drudgery.

“I was trying to decide what I wanted to do, and wasn’t sure if this was it,” Henry said.

Even so, it took a lot of thought before he accepted the Red Sox’s job offer. Having spent nearly a decade living a life of road trips, time away from the family, and the ever-present possibility of a sudden roster move uprooting everything, Henry was reluctant to jump back into it after making a clean break.

In the end, with his wife’s support, Henry accepted the offer.

“It was some thinking involved. I lived this lifestyle, and to go back into it you have to think about the family,” he said. “I would not have done it without my wife on board. She’s lived that lifestyle, too. She felt like it was what I should be doing.”

Even after taking the job, there was some uncertainty on where Henry would be working. He reported to the Red Sox’s spring training camp without an assignment. Those were handed out at the end of spring training, and he landed with the Drive.

Boston’s South Atlantic League affiliate is in “High-A,” one of the lower rungs of minor league baseball but also a jumping-off point for prospects. Greenville’s roster is comprised mostly of second- and third-year players who have survived the meatgrinder of rookie ball and are starting to make their way up the organization’s ladder.

Unlike the players, Henry doesn’t have to worry about suddenly uprooting his family. Minor league coaches often change teams in the offseason, but are rarely shuffled during the season.

“It is a little more stable,” he said. “You know when you start the year, you’re going to be in one spot all year.”

Working through the minors one level at a time is a trek Henry knows well, and one he said has been beneficial in his transition from player to coach. After he was picked in the ninth round of the 2007 draft by the Tigers, he played at least 67 games in every level of minor league ball.

“The first few months, I was thinking like a player. I think that’s helped the coaching staff,” Henry said. “Sometimes you have coaches that forget how tough the game is, and I never try to lose sight of that.”

While his playing experience has largely been an asset, Henry said it has also been an occasional hindrance. Trying to teach advanced concepts he learned long ago to guys with far less game and life experience can be difficult, he said.

“With the younger players, I’m not sure how advanced to get with them. I find myself assuming they know certain things, and they don’t,” Henry said.

Henry has taken on several roles with Greenville’s coaching staff. He works with the baserunners and is the first base coach when the team is batting. When it’s in the field, he controls the outfielders’ positioning.

Much like when he was first drafted, Henry is starting from scratch in the minors. He’s trying to figure out what coaching job he’s best at and how to turn it into a steady career. He might get the call to the majors one day, or he could spend another eight years in the minors.

“There’s so many different things that go into that. Certain guys, their styles work well at certain levels and not others,” Henry said. “It’s a lot different path than it would be as a player. It depends on your skillset. To say I knew what my niche would be would be ridiculous right now.”

Wherever he ends up in a few years, Henry is working hard now to be a success. He admits he still misses the thrill of playing, but staying in the game has eased the sting. Now it’s time to get back on the bus and make headway in a new career.

“I still miss playing. You see guys on TV that I played with, and hear their stories and think about how that could be you. But I’m trying to be all-in on what I’m doing,” Henry said.

“For the most part, I’ve done well. I haven’t been trying to jump in there and take batting practice or anything like that,” he added with a laugh.


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 reporters in the paper's 140-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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