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Tom Henke turns 61 today.
The Blue Jays got Henke as compensation for the Ranger’s signing of Jays free agent Cliff Johnson. At the time teams that signed another team’s free agent gave up a player to the original team. A team would protect some players and the team that lost the free agent would choose someone. It turned free agency into a trade. Generally the trades worked better for the team signing the free agent. In this case it worked out very badly for the Rangers. The Jays got the better player and a few months later the Jay’s traded a few players, who would never amount to anything, to get Cliff Johnson back. Basically the Rangers traded Tom Henke for 82 games worth of Cliff Johnson.
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Henke got the call up to the major league team at the end of July of 1985. In the final couple of months of the season Tom got into 28 games and earned 13 saves and had a 2.03 ERA in 40 innings pitched, one heck of a start to a career. Still it seems strange that Henke would receive MVP votes and some votes for Rookie of the Year including one first place vote. How does anyone figure that a guy that pitches 40 innings could be MVP or Rookie of the Year?
In 1986, Henke had his first full season as our closer and he was terrific, setting a new team record with 27 saves, winning another 9 with a 3.35 ERA in 91.1 innings in 63 games. He and Mark Eichhorn made a great pairing to end games for the Jays. With Eichhorn throwing slow junk with a submarine delivery, Henke coming in after throwing heat, he looked that much faster. The next season Henke broke his own mark for saves getting 34, pitching 94 innings in 72 games, with 128 strikeouts and giving up only 62 hits. No closer throws 94 innings these days. He earned MVP votes again coming in 13th in voting. That was the season George Bell won the award. He also made the All-Star team that year and pitched 2.2 shutout innings in the AL’s 13 inning loss. If a team’s closer threw 2.2 innings in an All-Star game now, there would be screams from that player’s team. This was also the season we blew the division lead at the end of the season against Detroit. Henke wasn’t blameless, blowing a save against them, but then he pitched 2.2 innings in that game, and only gave up the one run.
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But before the season began, Henke had decided he would hang up his spikes at year’s end. In fact, Henke and his wife Kathy had discussed him retiring after a tough 1994 season with the Rangers in which he’d dealt with a back injury before players went out on strike in August.
“I told Kathy, I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m done. I’m tired of all the politics in baseball and all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.’ I said, ‘I’d just as soon go home and be with the family,’” Henke told Sporting News in a phone interview from his Taos, Mo., home.
Only a call from the Cardinals in the months before the 1995 season changed Henke’s mind. Teams would call Henke for two to three years thereafter, trying to coax him back, with Tony La Russa particularly keen. But Henke knew he was done. For one thing, he didn’t want to become another player who hung on too long. He went out on top.
“It’s nice to be remembered in that light,” Henke said. “People remember your last year and they remember how dominant and how good you were that year. They attribute it to the rest of your life, almost. That’s a nice thing, it really is, instead of having people say, ‘Well, you hung on too long.’”
It’s funny, though. Henke’s decision might have cost him a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Cooperstown chances: 10 percent
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Why: Both traditional and sabermetric measures suggest that just three or four more effective seasons in the majors might have vaulted Henke to near the top of the list of closers in baseball history.
Henke’s 12 Wins Above Average for his career are tied for 11th-best among relievers, according to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool. With a few more good years, Henke could reasonably have risen as high as Goose Goosage at third on this list with 16.4 Wins Above Average.
Among Hall of Fame relievers, at least in terms of sabermetrics, Rivera at 32.9 Wins Above Average and Hoyt Wilhelm at 26.9 are more or less in a class by themselves. Otherwise, it’s very much up for debate.
With a few more solid seasons, Henke also might have risen significantly up the list of save leaders. At the time of his retirement, Henke’s 311 saves ranked him fifth on the all-time list behind Lee Smith, Jeff Reardon, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. Since then, he’s tumbled to 22nd. But if he’d gotten to 400 saves, a reasonable goalpost with three or four more good years, Henke would be seventh on the all-time list.
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Saves are a flawed measure for relievers (they’re team- and situation-dependent), though they still determine much about how relievers are viewed in terms of all-time greatness.
Saves show Henke to have been among the best closers in baseball history. But there are plenty of other ways to measure his effectiveness. Debuting with the Rangers in 1982, he struggled with control in the early part of his career before the Blue Jays picked him up before the 1985 season.
With Toronto, Henke would go on to have some of the best years of his career and become renowed for his strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“I think it had to do with good mechanics,” Henke said when asked about this ratio. “I think all good pitching starts with delivering the ball properly to the plate with the least amount of effort.”
He added, “I was very fortunate to have some people in Toronto and Texas — but mainly in Toronto — that kind of tweaked and adjusted my mechanics and really got me in the strike zone (more) than I’d ever, ever been in my career. I know (Blue Jays pitching coach) Al Widmar told me at one point that for a power pitcher, I had as good of control as anybody he’d ever seen.”
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Henke was the centerpiece of one of the first deep bullpens in baseball history.
“In ‘92 when we won everything, we had myself and Duane Ward, David Wells, Mike Timlin, David Weathers,” Henke said. “You could go right down the line. We had a pretty sound bullpen all the way through and then we had a strong starting staff, too.”
But aches began to chip away at Henke — a groin injury in Toronto, his back ailment with the Rangers and all the wear that accumulates on pitchers over the years that fans might never fully hear about. Henke recalled a visit to famed arthoscopic surgeon Dr. James Andrews.
Andrews told Henke, “Every time you throw a pitch, you tear your rotator cuff muscles. There are microscopic tears that go in there every time you use your arm like that.”
These tears could be repaired through a restful offseason, though Andrews’ words stuck with Henke. He could also see his physical ability beginning to fade.
“I just couldn’t do it much longer,” Henke said. “I understood that and I accepted that.”
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He admits that he almost certainly would have played a few more years had he not won a World Series ring with the Blue Jays in 1992. That’s what everyone plays for, after all.
“If we hadn’t won it, I might be coaching somewhere trying to get that ring in,” Henke said.
Henke is somewhat diffident on whether he belongs in Cooperstown.
“I don’t know,” Henke said. “I did the best I could when I played. I didn’t cheat, I didn’t use anything. I did it on natural ability. I worked hard every day. I think I represented the game.”
He added, “Tony La Russa, somebody asked him if I deserve to be in and he said, ‘Absolutely. Tom had everything you want in a Hall of Famer — longevity, helped the team win, represented the game the way it was supposed to be represented.’ I don’t know. I don’t dwell on stuff like that. It’s out of my control. Is 311 saves good enough? I don’t know.”
But Henke said he hasn’t rued his decision to walk away from baseball when he did. He’s maintained some involvement with the game, attending Cardinals fantasy camps, and said he’s happy to do things with the Blue Jays and Rangers when asked. He remains something of a celebrity every time he goes north of the U.S. border.
“They treat you so good, my wife said she has to shrink my head down when I come back home after I’ve been to Canada for awhile,” Henke said.
Over the past 22 years, Henke’s life has been about more than baseball. He’s gotten to watch his four children grow up, including a daughter, Amanda, who has Down Syndrome and still lives at home.
Working with Amanda has helped inspire Henke to run a golf tournament every October that has raised more than $1.3 million for charity, much of it for the Special Learning Center, a Jefferson City, Mo.-based school that benefits disabled children.
When he’s not running a 1,000-acre farm in Taos, close to where he grew up, 59-year-old Henke is going to Little League baseball games and other events with his seven grandchildren and spending time with his mother and father. In October, Henke and Kathy will celebrate 37 years of marriage.
“It was a good time to walk away,” Henke said of his retirement. “I know people say, ‘I guess you regret it.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t regret having all these years with my parents and seeing my kids grow up.’ I said, ‘How can you regret that?’”
In 1988 he dropped to 52 games and 25 saves, with newly acquired Duane Ward getting 15 saves and doing a terrific job as setup man. Henke also dropped under a strikeout an inning striking out 66 in 68 innings. In 1989 Henke had his best ERA as a Jay at 1.92 he had an 8-3 record in 64 games and 20 saves and Ward had 15 saves. They were a tremendous duo closing out games, clearly the best pair of relievers the Jays ever had. We won the AL East again that season, but lost out to the Oakland A’s in the ALCS in 5 games. Henke pitched in 3 of the games had 2.2 perfect innings.
In 1990 Henke got the lion’s share of the saves getting 32 while Ward got 11. Tom had another terrific season, finishing with a 2.17 ERA in 74.2 innings in 61 games striking out 75. In 1991 Henke spent some time on the DL in April and he finished with 32 saves while Ward had 23. Ward showed that he was in line to take over the closer job. Henke had a 2.32 ERA in 49 games. The Jays won the AL East again but lost out to the Twins in 5 games in the ALCS. Henke pitched 2.2 perfect innings in two appearances.
!992 was Henke’s last with the team, and that was the year we won our first World Series. Henke was a big part of it matching his franchise high of 34 saves during the season with a 2.26 ERA. He saved 5 more games in the playoffs, 3 in the ALCS against the A’s and 2 more in the World Series against the Braves. Though he did have a blown save in the last game, giving up a run to allow the Braves to tie the game in the 9th, but we won the game in the 13th.
After the season Henke was allowed to leave as a free agent and he signed with the Texas Rangers. He was 35 and we did have Duane Ward to take over his role on the team. He played two seasons with the Rangers saving 40 games in 1993 and then finished his career with St. Louis in 1995, saving another 36 games and getting MVP votes again. He finished his career with 311 saves, making him 24th all-time in saves.
Henke was the first real closer the Jays had and lived up to his name The Terminator. A big guy, 6’5”, imposing looking even with glasses and of course the hard fastball, forkball and slider he threw added to the scare he put into batters. To put it into perspective Henke’s strikeouts per 9 innings of 10.29 was better than Nolan Ryan’s (9.55).
He played pretty much at the end of the era of closers who would average more than an inning an appearance. I’d love to see that come back. I I don’t see why would shouldn’t have the best arm in the pen go a couple of innings when needed.
Tom is still our career leader in saves, 217. Duane Ward is second at 121. Roberto Osuna made it to third at 104 before being sent away. Ken Giles is the active leader at 14, good for 24th spot (23 more would get him into our top 10), so Henke’s record is safe for many years to come.
Henke really should be up on our ‘Level of Excellence’. There are few guys I liked watching more.
Anyway, Happy Birthday Terminator! I hope it is a great one.