At the end of the second day of WinterFest last month, Washington Nationals’ third base coach Bobby Henley, the only holdover from the previous coaching staff, was the 25th of 26 members of the team that spoke to reporters.
Henley, 44, greeted everyone in the media room with enthusiasm, bringing life to the proceedings in spite of his place as the next-to-last person lined up over a long couple days of interviews in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
“What do we got?” Henley asked as his turn in front of the mics began.
What follows is a mostly unedited transcript of that conversation, which will hopefully give some feeling of the energy he brought to the conversation and brings to his job.
It’s hard not to like the Nats’ coach who’s affectionately known as “Bobby Sendley” for his aggressive approach to sending runners home, though it doesn’t work out the way he’d like it to at times.
As baseball people will tell you, third base coaches have a thankless job. They rarely get praised when a runner is safe at home, and they receive all the scrutiny when someone is thrown out at the plate. Henley will be back in D.C. this season, for his fifth campaign as the Nationals’ third base coach, and his 24th as part of the franchise.
Henley was in the woods in Alabama when he heard the news that Dusty Baker and the majority of his staff would not be returning in 2018.
He didn’t know that he would be asked to return at that point, so he was waiting for word from Washington, trying to decompress after another disappointing loss in the NLDS.
“We live out in the woods, by design,” he explained.
“You know, I was born and raised in the woods and then during the season we’re in these big cities, big buildings, the hustle and bustle of the season, and the intensity and whatnot, and then after the season it’s almost therapeutic to just go back home and just sit in the woods.
“Now, at that time, you just lost a tough series, and I’ve got to tell you, my mind wasn’t thinking about anything other than the series, and the season, as opposed to what will happen, or what might transpire. I wasn’t thinking about those things, and so I think when certain decisions were made and whatnot, it got your attention and you went, “Okay, let’s wait and see how everything plays out and what direction as an organization we’re going to go in,’ and I just considered it a blessing to be asked back.
“So that’s kind of how it unfolded for me, so, but [it was] tough. To be honest it was tough.”
The fact that he was asked back thrilled Henley, who was drafted by Montreal in 1991, debuted with the Expos back in 1998 (in his one major league season), and has been with the organization since 2003, when he was hired as a manager for the Gulf Coast League Expos a year after his playing days came to an end.
What did it mean to him that the Nationals brought him back?
“It means a lot,” Henley said. “I’ve been here so long, I’ve been here since I was a kid, and I’m still growing up, I think, I’ve never really matured to an adult to a full extent, whatever that might be, but yeah, I think there’s a sense where this organization is family. It’s family-owned, and I’ve been here so long that it feels like family to me.
“And I think whenever there’s a decision made to keep you, it feels good. That feeling feels good. At the same time, it’s tough with that, because others weren’t retained, and you have close relationships with them, so, but I’m excited.
“I told the fans out there [at WinterFest] — we had an opportunity to go to Florida a few weeks ago, and get a chance to talk and meet each other, and talk some baseball, and have some dinner and it was great. [New manager] Dave [Martinez] gave us his vision and his direction, and how he would like to go about things, and it was crystal clear. He’s a great communicator. He’s got vision. He wants us to have a fire and passion in our belly when we play. I love the fact he wants to be extremely aggressive on the bases with going first-to-third and whatnot, so I was pumped up about that. So I think we’re all excited. I think the players are excited, I had a chance to talk to them... and I’m in charge of outfield now. Are you all aware of that?
“So, I’m fired up about that. He had asked me and I go, ‘Really? Okay. Alright.’ And I’ve had a chance to talk to everybody, for the most part, on the telephone. I haven’t had a chance to reach Bryce [Harper] yet. I’ve called a couple times. But I’ll run him down.
“He’s kind of like me. I live in the woods, and sometimes it’s hard to get him. But I’ve been with him since he was a kid too.
“When he first came in the minor leagues I was right there to greet him as a teenager and saw him through the development process, not that he needed a lot to be ready, but saw him then and we started that relationship.
“Michael Taylor, had him his first year when he was signed, and was injured and had to sit on the DL. He was a shortstop at the time and eventually became an outfielder, but the whole process of that, and I’ve had a long-term [relationship] with Michael, then Brian Goodwin, and of course with [Andrew] Stevenson, I’m just getting to know him a little bit more, and then we have [Adam] Eaton, who I had a chance to talk to him on the phone, I had a chance to spend a lot of last year with him, even though he wasn’t on the field, we saw him in the clubhouse, and what a valuable part of our team he was, just with leadership, even though he didn’t play, and the time that he did play, how he plays, just with his heart on his sleeve and full speed ahead, and you’re talking about an outfield that I believe has a chance to be the best outfield in baseball.
“It’s not like I’m going to go out there and teach them the basic 101s, zap strides*, looking over and squatting down on line drive, drills and whatnot, this is how you teach it. They know how to play, and you have opportunity to do outfield things when you’re in the minor leagues, as a field coordinator you get to be a part of it, so you get a chance to see the drills and hear all the philosophies and things.
“With them, I’ve already had a chance to talk to them and discuss with them you know, going through the Spring, let’s make sure we do things that are pertinent to getting you ready for the season to play and win a championship. Not about eye wash and not about standing out there to do things for 30 minutes whenever 15 will do what we need it to do. We have guys that I think have a chance to win Gold Gloves in all those positions, so a little bit with me is I’m going to make sure to stay out of their way to a certain extent and I think now in today’s game we’re going to take a lot of information when it comes to moving outfielders, left and right, playing no-doubles and whatnot.
“A lot of is going to come through the manager, ‘Hey, Hen, back him up,’ a lot of that will come from Max [Scherzer] and Stephen [Strasburg] and Gio [Gonzalez] and Tanner [Roark] and those guys, ‘Hen, let’s make sure we’re going to cover that line, I’m going to give them the gap today,’ and then you relay that to those guys, and there are times where you can have them in a certain spot and then they’re veteran enough players to where they see something in the game and they’ll make the adjustment as they go.”
[ed. note - “ * = I have no idea what ‘zap strides’ are, honestly, looked around and did find one instance of a coach referring to them in a quick Google search, after trying to figure out what Henley had said there, so apologies if that’s wrong.”]
Henley has had to adjust to three different managers in his four seasons as the third base coach in D.C.
In responding to the last question he fielded that day, before a lengthy, off-the-record story about his interactions with fans, (basically, he might have scared a young kid doing baserunning drills at WinterFest with his enthusiasm for baserunning), he offered his own thoughts on the Nationals’ decision to hire Martinez to replace Baker on the bench in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve had a chance to follow his career as a coach,” Henley said of Martinez, who will be managing for the first time at any level after serving as Joe Maddon’s bench coach in Tampa Bay and Chicago for the last ten years.
“I remember when he played and how he went about his business, and it was really — as I’ve jogged by third, through the last few years, I’d jog to third and just give him one of those [hand gesture], and he’d always give it back, you know, and so when we had a chance to go to Florida a few weeks ago, it was crystal clear that he’s his own man and he sees things a certain way and that’s what’s exciting to me.
“I think that’s what’s exciting about moving forward now is that I think we have a vision and we have things that he’s wanting to do.
“We had a chance to talk about the schedule a little bit in the Spring as we were down there, a bunch of other things too, but we had a chance to talk about the schedule which is very interesting when you talk about report dates and the first game... you’ve got position players reporting and two days later we’re playing a game. So after the physicals, you’ve got a couple of days and then you’re playing a ballgame, so a little different than in the past where you had a few more days on the field, but he’s aware of it.”
It sounds like Henley is ready for the 2018 campaign to begin....