A Canadian who never played organized hockey, Jim Henderson is an anomaly.
His friends laced up the skates and scurried off to the local frozen lake but not Henderson. The son of working class parents, he became enthralled with the national pastime of his neighbors to the south.
“Hockey is pretty expensive,” Henderson said. “We didn’t grow up too wealthy. So I kind of just stuck to the baseball glove and bat.”
Apparently he made the right choice. In the middle of his 10th professional season and his second stint with the Nashville Sounds, the tall right-handed closer is enjoying his best season to date. He ended the first half in dominant fashion on Sunday with his team-leading 11th save.
Now comes his second professional all-star game.
Henderson, who played at Tennessee Wesleyan in Athens, will be the Sounds' lone representative when the Pacific Coast League takes on the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game on Wednesday in Buffalo, N.Y.
“It means a lot,” the 29-year-old from Calgary said. “I got off to such a bad start last year so I put a lot of focus on getting off to a good start this year. Any all-star team is a special moment. It’s nice to put on my résumé for sure.”
His fourth stop at the Triple-A level — he played with the Iowa Cubs in 2007-08 — Henderson adjusted his approach this past offseason in an attempt to reach that next and final step.
In 2011, the 6-foot-5, 190-pounder started with the Sounds before a demotion to Double-A Huntsville. In 20 games with the Sounds he posted a 5.93 ERA and gave up 24 hits and 23 walks in just 30 1/3 innings pitched. Frustrated with the results he decided to scrap his windup and work out of the stretch.
“I had some control issues,” Henderson said. “I just wanted to focus on the one delivery to home plate. I tried to raise my arm slot a little bit. I think both have helped out tremendously in my command and making pitches when I need to.”
The modification has done the trick so far.
In 29 games, Henderson has a 1.70 ERA with 47 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 42 1/3 innings pitched. His stability at the back end of the bullpen has helped the Sounds (40-51) shake off a rocky start and climb into sole possession of second place of the American Northern Division — still 16 games behind the Omaha Stormchasers.
“He has done a magnificent job coming out of the bullpen,” Sounds manager Mike Guerrero said. “His command has improved and he is being aggressive in the strike zone going after hitters. Hopefully he gets an opportunity down the line.”
A big-league call-up would cap off a career that began in 2003 when he was drafted in the 26th round by the Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals).
Having played in the outfield most of his life, Henderson realized his best shot professionally was on the mound. So he became a full-time pitcher during his junior season at Tennessee Wesleyan and in 2003 he was named the Appalachian Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year.
“When you have a tall lanky guy who can throw in the 90s it is hard for scouts to say, ‘Oh, that guy is going to be a position player,’ ” Henderson said. “When I first started off playing professional baseball I was disappointed some times just sitting and watching. I’d be out there during batting practice running around like a position player. Now I’ve kind of grown out of it and tried to hone my skills on the mound and concentrate on that.”
Professional baseball, however, provided a rude awakening.
Originally slotted as a starting pitcher, Henderson mulled through three straight losing seasons with the Expos/Nationals orgnization. In December of 2006, he was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, which allows clubs to draft minor leaguers with at least four years under their belt who are not on the 40-man roster.
He spent two seasons bouncing back and forth between Double-A and Triple-A as a shoulder injury ended his 2008 season just eight games in. That offseason the Cubs released him and he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers two weeks later.
The effects of the injury quickly wore off in 2009. He worked his way up the ladder, starting at Low-A Wisconsin and finishing in Huntsville. Along the way, he picked up 21 saves, the Canadian Baseball Network dubbed him the Canadian Minor League Pitcher of the Year and he played in the Midwest League All-Star Game.
Three summers later, he hopes his second mid-season honor leads to a bigger stage.
“I feel close this year,” Henderson said. “I feel this is the closest I’ve ever been. It is tough to break through. No matter how good of a season you’re having it is tough to break through as an older guy. You don’t see too many 29-year-old rookies up there. Hopefully I can have a feel good story at the end of the season and get up there at some point.
“I’m just looking for that opportunity. Right now I just want that day in the big leagues just to experience it. That’s what I’m playing for.”