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Coach Henderson gets second chance with Phils

Buried in an otherwise-routine Phillies press release announcing the 2012 player-development staff this week was the news that "Former Phillies Major League coach Ramon Henderson has returned to the organization as a coach for the GCL Phillies. Henderson had previously spent 27 years with the Phillies as a Minor League player, coach and manager and the Major League bullpen coach (1998-2008)."

That only hinted at what has turned into a remarkable Thanksgiving story. Few are more grateful for what they have this year than Henderson. This story, which first ran on during the All-Star break, explains why.

WYOMISSING, Pa. -- At least once a week, alone in his sparsely-furnished apartment, he flips on the high-definition television and the well-worn DVD begins to play. He watches raptly, as if seeing it all for the first time, even though he knows the script so well he can recite it from memory.

There on the big screen is Phillies outfielder Bobby Abreu at the 2005 All-Star Home Run Derby. There he is knocking 24 baseballs over the fence at Detroit's Comerica Park in the first round, a record at the time. Winning with 41 homers in all, another record. The announcers oohing and aahing. Teammate Jimmy Rollins making a supportive cameo appearance. An interview with Abreu and a replay of one shot that traveled an estimated 517 feet. The crowd chanting, "Bobby! Bobby!"

"It still gives me goosebumps," Henderson said. "I watch it because it gives me something to look forward to. It brings me happiness."

The 48-year-old onetime Phillies bullpen coach takes happiness wherever he can find it these days. He was there that magical day seven years ago. There? He was way more than just there. He was in uniform, the pitcher who grooved the baseballs that Abreu bashed so hard and so far. And the next year, at the All-Star Game at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, he did it again. Ryan Howard won with Henderson on the mound.

As a result, he became a minor celebrity.

"People didn't know who I was until that happened. I used to stop at red lights and people would honk. 'Hey, Ramon. Good job!' Before that they didn't know who I was, because I was hiding all the time in the bullpen. It was quite a new experience," he said with a nostalgic smile.

His future seemed bright. He was liked and respected in the organization. It was expected that sometime in the next few years he'd be promoted to a more prominent role, maybe third-base or bench coach.

Then one day during the 2008 season -- poof!. He disappeared from public view. Only months later would it come out publicly that he had gone into rehab for alcohol-related issues.

Even then he never could have envisioned that he would spend 14 months in prison, being released only this February. That he'd lose his job and his family. That he wouldn't be able to attend his mother's funeral in the Dominican Republic because he'd be behind bars. That his driver's license would have been revoked, leaving him dependent on the kindness of others. That his routine would include Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, visits to his probation officer and random urine tests.

Or that he would watch that DVD over and over and over to remind himself of everything that's been taken away from him, and of what he's hoping to recapture. Even now, he can't understand how he could allow his taste for Johnnie Walker Black to take over his life so completely.

"Baseball didn't become a priority for me. The bottle did. It was my best friend. It was what I loved the most," he said. "I couldn't believe it. It had been my dream to be a professional baseball player. To get to the big leagues (as a coach) and then all of a sudden to be careless about it? It's something very hard for me to swallow right now.

"My losses have been priceless. I can only tell you that people can't understand it unless they were in my shoes. The alcohol took what I loved to do the most, which is baseball, what I've done all my life. It destroyed my marriage. And because of my habits, I wasn't able to say goodbye one last time to my mother, who got killed by a car. Because I was incarcerated," he said without a hint of self-pity.

He blames himself. Nobody else.

"I don't regret my past. I'm grateful that nothing worse happened to me. There are people out there who are worse off than me and haven't been caught. I'm grateful that I didn't kill anybody or kill myself. I'm thankful for that," he said.

"I only regret what I could have become."

And yet Henderson remains hopeful. He's healthy. He's still relatively young. He hasn't had a drink for over a year-and-a-half. He has nearly three decades of professional baseball experience. So he asks for only one more chance, one last opportunity to finally become what he thought he would already be by now.

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes. If I have to start from way below, that's what I've got to do. All I'm looking for is for somebody to give me a chance. I believe I've got a lot to offer. I have a lot of desire and energy to help any organization in any way I can," he said. "I think it's going to be some kind of story if somebody gives me a second chance. I think I'm going to be way better this time around. Because I have the motivation to prove to myself and prove to others that I'm [sober] and that I'm capable of doing even a better job."

Henderson missed the Phillies' 2008 World Series championship and the parade down Broad Street, but he still had a job. He returned as a coach for the Class A Clearwater Threshers in 2009. That lasted until he showed up tipsy at the ballpark one day. He wasn't even allowed to put on a uniform, and was sent back to rehab.

The Phillies went back to the World Series that season, this time losing to the Yankees. At home, Henderson wondered about his future. Then, one day, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and senior advisor Pat Gillick called and asked if they could come to see him. They arrived the next day and told him how much they appreciated the years he had given the organization. They told him how much they hoped he would get himself back on track. And in so many words, they gently told him he was fired.

"I really appreciated those two guys taking their time to come out and tell me face-to-face. They told me they felt like they gave me enough chances and, right now, that I wasn't responding and really needed some time to get myself right. And I agreed," he said.

Things didn't get better for Henderson right away, though. In fact, they got worse. He was arrested for driving under the influence twice in quick succession. His marriage was on the rocks, so to speak. He was living in a halfway house and had been sober for 10 months when, on Christmas Eve in 2010, he drove to deliver presents to his five children. He passed a bar. He thought he could handle one drink. He had several and ended up in a fender bender accident.

A few days later, wracked with guilt, he turned himself in to his probation officer. The man was sympathetic but said he had no choice but to send him to jail, for his own safety and the safety of others.

Berks County Prison was an ordeal.

"We were locked in 21 hours out of 24. Living in a bathroom, because that's exactly what it was. A bathroom with bunk beds, a toilet and a sink. An 8-by-10-foot bathroom. That's where I stayed for 14 months," he said. "There were two people in the cell. One month I spent by myself, and that's no fun, either, because you have nobody to talk to. It was difficult."

In that time he had a dozen different cellmates.

"That's very difficult. Sometimes we got along. Sometimes we didn't," he said. "I consider myself a very patient and easy to get along with type of guy. And I almost got into two fights. It's hard. I mean, not only did I have to adjust to him, he had to adjust to me. Two different personalities and then living in an 8-by-10 bathroom. We're all there. Miserable. Angry. Bitter. You name it. It's very easy to get agitated. And that's why you see a lot of fights."

That, maybe, is why he remains upbeat despite all he's been through. No matter what hardships he's enduring, it's better than where he's been. He's thankful to the Phillies for all they did to try to help him, even having Employee Assistance Professional Dickie Noles work with him after he was no longer employed by the team. He even finds a silver lining in being jailed when his mother was killed, saying he doesn't know what he might have done had he been free when he got the terrible news.

He's hung a sign on the wall of his dinette. "Everything Happens For A Reason," it says.

"I'm just so grateful. God put me into that place to keep me safe," he said. "He put me into a safe place to keep me alive. I could have killed somebody or I could have killed myself. I just don't know what would have happened if I was outside.

"[The Phillies] went out of their way to try to help me. They gave me every chance and every opportunity. I put a lot of people in a bad position."

He understands that this will be a lifelong battle.

"I say, 'I haven't had a drink today.' And I'm going to try to keep it that way tomorrow. I'm trying to live one day at a time. Because it didn't work the other way, thinking too far ahead," he said.

There are long, empty hours to fill. He understands the danger. He has the MLB.TV package and he watches up to three games a day. He spends a lot of time on the computer. He's a volunteer baseball coach at Daniel Boone High School in Amity Township, Pa. Above all, he strives to keep looking forward, believing that better days really are ahead. "I have a lot of dead time right now, and I want to create a schedule so I don't get bored. I don't want to go back to my old habits. I want to keep my mind busy. The less I think about my past, the better off I'm going to be," he said.

On the TV, Abreu hits another home run.

"Ramon Henderson deserves a raise," shouts announcer Chris Berman.

"I deserve a raise," Henderson repeats, happily.

Right now, of course, he's not really thinking about that. He's only thinking about getting a chance. Just one more chance.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for
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