Yankees Magazine: The ties that bind

While Drew Henson scouts for the Yankees, a former Michigan classmate tries to make peace with a tough decision

July 11th, 2016
Drew Henson still looks every bit the pro athlete, even as he hides in plain sight in choice seats behind the plate. He never expected to be doing this kind of job at age 36, but he loves that he still lives inside the game, working from the best seats in the house. (New York Yankees)NEW YORK YANKEES

He rolls downstairs and out of the hotel's elevator into a lobby filthy with convention-goers. He's any other guy on a business trip.

This afternoon's game will be his fifth in St. Louis; then he is on to Kansas City. He has developed something of a routine. He knows his way into the ballpark, where to get his press notes, where to find a small cubby in which to spread out and get some work done. He knows where he can grab a quick bite to eat before the game. He's not asking a whole lot of questions, and he's not attracting any attention.

By the first pitch, he has settled into his spot behind the plate -- Row 10, Seat 5 of Section 150. This is his life now; scouting for the New York Yankees, circling the country to file comprehensive reports on hundreds of ballplayers at all professional levels.

The end of a professional athlete's playing career can be cruel and certainly confusing. For many, it can be a jarring descent into hidden-in-plain-sight anonymity. And scouting, coaching, announcing -- any one of these is the type of bar a retired star grasps for, a means of hanging on to the only thing they've ever known professionally.

Drew Henson has tried plenty at this point. He has been the hotshot prospect. He has taken a turn behind a microphone. He has coached young players. And now he's scouting. It's not just that he's young, or that he still looks like he could send a fat fastball over any outfield wall. It's not even that he doesn't immediately fit in with the clique of baseball lifers surrounding him. It's that he's not even a baseball lifer. Henson has been around a few different blocks. Now he's here. And he has no complaints.

We Can Work It Out

Henson and I first met the previous afternoon in the Marriott St. Louis Grand's lobby before we walked over to Busch Stadium together. But he has been a part of my life for longer than he could possibly know.

I was a freshman at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1999. Henson was our quarterback of the future, splitting time with Tom Brady. The next year, his junior season, Henson steered one of Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr's most impressive offensive units, and he guided the team to a dramatic road win over the hated Ohio State Buckeyes, still the most recent Michigan victory in Columbus. Even with a ton of offensive talent leaving Ann Arbor, my fellow fans were over the moon with anticipation for what Henson's senior year could offer. The Heisman Trophy wasn't out of the question. Neither was the national championship.

But there were forces beyond our control. In addition to being a potential first-round NFL draft pick, Henson was a stellar baseball prospect, having set a national record with 70 home runs for Brighton (Michigan) High School. The Yankees selected him in the third round of the 1998 draft, and he only lasted that long because teams knew that he planned to play college football. But the Yankees signed him anyhow, allowing him to play football in the fall and head to the Minor Leagues in the summer.

The Yankees sent Henson to Cincinnati in a 2000 trade that brought back Denny Neagle, but then reacquired him eight months later. This time, Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner wanted Henson all to himself. The club signed him to a $17 million deal, dashing the hopes of Michigan fans who were dreaming of big things. In March, after months of stating his intention to return for his senior season, Henson announced that he was leaving Ann Arbor and giving up football. He would be a full-time baseball player.

Old flames die hard. Michigan lost four games that next year, and each one stung a bit extra, thoughts drifting toward what should have been. I'd be lying if I said I didn't carry some resentment, some (admittedly pitiful) anger toward Henson in the years since.

It's not a good look, and if I'm not over it yet, I'd better get there. After all, we're going to be spending the next four days together.

Watch and Learn

Football and baseball. Ask most people and they'll insist that there's much more to see on the gridiron. But in 2010, The Wall Street Journal determined that the average football game contains just 11 minutes of action.

A baseball game, despite its sometimes-plodding pace, contains nonstop drama in comparison, especially for the scouts charged with recording every single data point. The average game in 2015 featured 288.8 pitches, which means that when Henson began scouting before that season, he had to learn a detailed routine that barely lets up from the first pitch to the final out.

He balances an iPad Pro on his left wrist, a stopwatch in his left hand. When he's scouting in a Minor League park, he'll often use his own radar gun, but here in the Big Leagues, he trusts the stadium's gun. Using an Apple Pencil, he tracks everything that happens. The pitch speed, type and location, the pitcher's arm angle and release point, the time it takes him to deliver his pitch with a runner on base, the outcome -- and all before the next pitch is thrown. A ball on the outside corner is easy enough to track in the 30-some-odd seconds between pitches. But when the ball's in play, his eyes are all over the field. "Double down the left-field line," he says, "and you're looking at the way the player fields it, but you're also taking a peek to see if the right fielder backs up. Your game speed in your head is going along with the game speed on the field."

It took time for him to learn the processes and to develop his own. He's the only scout in sight who's working digitally; the rest take written notes. But the biggest thing was learning how to see the game like a scout does, where every action is relevant. He says his whole first season was a learning experience.

"Spring Training, it was like a game I had never seen before," he says. "It was going so fast. Every scout will tell you that you're kind of swimming at first because you're trying to gather data on every pitch, you're trying to make your notes, you're trying to get your eyes up before the next pitch comes.

"After year one, you look back at your first month of reports, and it's like, 'Geez!' Everyone I talk to says that, and it's true."

We're watching the Cubs and Cardinals, Jake Arrieta versus Carlos Martinez. Henson, like most pro scouts, works in five-day bursts, following a team for five games to make sure that he sees each starting pitcher. Today, he's scouting the Cardinals, but he always files a report on the opposing starting pitcher, as well. This is the fifth day with St. Louis, so the observations that he's making carry a bit more weight in the report he will file than those he noted when he first arrived in town, when he was just feeling out each of the players.

So he tries to play along. What is Martinez using when he's behind in the count? What's his go-to pitch? How does it change over the game? Is he consistent with his delivery and rhythm, an indication that he's in control?

Baseball success in the short term is results-based, but Henson is studying process. Martinez allows six runs in the second inning, but there's still plenty for Henson to scout in the ensuing frames. How did he respond? Did he get his location back? Did he get back in sync? Similarly, shortstop Aledmys Diaz makes an incredible, rangy play early in the game on a ball hit by Kris Bryant. His throw is shockingly accurate, but a tad late, and Bryant is safe. But Henson is quick to point out that by getting to the ball, Diaz saved a run -- Jason Heyward, who had been at second base, had to hold at third. The box score correctly called it an infield single, but by seeing the whole board, Henson is able to view it as a positive for Diaz.

Henson is young enough to understand both the statistical and the visual sides of baseball prognostication pretty well; he's as comfortable talking about his own perception of a play as he is throwing around numbers and data. And he's able to see that an infield single can actually be a feather in an opposing shortstop's cap. "Subjectively," he says, "I'm trying to make an objective evaluation."

A Life on the Move

Were you a pro athlete? a Cardinals fan sitting in front of us asks.


You played for the Yankees?


Do you enjoy this?

Of course! Get to watch the game from the best seats in the house.

"The best seats in the house" might be relative when you've been in Henson's shoes. He has stood in the batter's box at Yankee Stadium. He's been under center on an NFL field.

Henson spent much of his Minor League career listed among the Yankees' top prospects, but for three years, he was playing for the Triple-A team in Columbus, where a Michigan man, even one playing for the home team, is bound to be Public Enemy No. 1. He was selected to two All-Star Futures Games, and he finally received his call to the Bigs in 2002. But in between, he was booed regularly by his supposed home fans. He appeared in three Big League games in 2002, twice as a pinch-runner, once as a pinch-hitter. His one at-bat ended in a strikeout, always Henson's biggest weakness.

He picked up a bat eight times for the Major League club the next September, finally knocking his first hit in the third inning of his last game. It would be his only Major League hit; at just 23 years old, with three long years at Triple-A, he decided he was done with baseball, a pretty crushing blow for a one-time sure thing. Even still, Henson holds on to good memories from his short time in the Bronx.

"It's not so much the at-bats -- getting in the game and hearing your name announced by Bob Sheppard is a dream that everyone has -- but more the experience of taking the subway to the Stadium," he says. "You're on the Yankees. Going down the tunnel, following the blue line, being around that atmosphere. Those are the memories I take, more than the stuff that actually happened on the field."

Earlier in 2003, the Houston Texans had taken a flier on Henson, selecting him in the sixth round of the NFL draft with the thought that if he someday returned to football, they would own his rights. His baseball career petering out, Henson decided that he would give his other sports love a try. The Dallas Cowboys traded for him, giving Houston a third-round pick, and Henson was back on the gridiron. On Thanksgiving 2004, he started for an injured Vinny Testaverde, struggling through the first half before Testaverde returned after halftime. It was his only NFL start; he would move on to the Vikings' practice squad, and then to the Lions, before retiring in 2009 having appeared in just nine NFL games and throwing one touchdown.

After he put away his cleats, he worked for ESPN3, calling football games for two years, then spent two years coaching for the Yankees in the Gulf Coast League. He was hired as a Yankees scout soon after the winter meetings in 2014.

Nearly a decade after his last professional game, Henson doesn't feel like he's straddling the line between two sports anymore. Asked whether he feels more like a former baseball or former football player, he says, "Neither. Or both at the same time." He recalls fondly the excitement and anxiety that came with every football game from his previous life, but he also says that there's nothing that can compare to the exhilaration of hitting a baseball on the screws. But he also admits that scouting for the New York Yankees isn't what he planned to be doing at 36 years old.

"I was expecting to still be playing one sport or the other," he says. "But in the last 10 years, you get older, you get to a different angle of life. You start to mature and have perspective. It became, 'OK, I've had these experiences. Now I'm in my early 30s. What can I use these experiences for in my next part of life?'"

But what about his answer to that fan in the stands? He scouted about 115 games last year, about 85 days on the road, away from his wife and young daughter and two dogs. Does he really love this?

"I do," he says, smiling genuinely. "My office is Row 10, behind the plate."

A New Team

We drive across Missouri after the game, about 250 arrow-straight miles between St. Louis and Kansas City. Like usual when he's on the road, Henson rented a Jeep Cherokee -- he drives one at home, and he likes knowing where everything is.

Much like the learning curve he had to master for the actual scouting, the daily routine took some time for Henson to learn. The Yankees have a handbook for scouts with details on everything from how to book road trips to how to grade a slider. It's the logistical details that matter the most when you spend so much time on the road; when they get together off the field, scouts are much more likely to discuss practical minutiae of travel than they are a pitcher's cut fastball.

"The joke that I was told when I first came on was that you'll meet a scout, and the first thing they'll say is, 'Where are you staying?'" says Henson, who sheepishly admits that he still only has gold status with Marriott Rewards. "Because that's a big part of our thing, getting the best rate you can, getting a good location. Do they have free breakfast? These are important things in a scout's life.

"We're all traveling; we're all away from families. We understand the grind. So there is a camaraderie. … The scout I most recently had a conversation with asked about my family. I asked him how he balanced it when his children were young, any tricks or things that he found helpful with scheduling, where to see teams play. There are certain places that are really good to scout, other places where the tickets may be higher, or off to the side, or the vision lanes just aren't as good. Tips like that."

Otherwise, it's just about maximizing efficiency. For a 10-day trip, he'll plan on doing laundry once, and most days, he wears fishing gear that washes easily and dries quickly (he calls it his "scoutfit"). He'll stop at a CVS or supermarket to stock his hotel room with healthy-ish snacks and sparkling water, and he'll do his best to avoid one huge meal after another.

As for the reports themselves, it takes him about 30 minutes to write up a pitcher using the notes and data that he put together on his iPad during the game. Position players take a bit less time. His reports are filed into the Yankees' system, used for advance scouting and by General Manager Brian Cashman's group as it considers ways to improve the organization's personnel. Usually, he sits at the desk in his hotel room, working with two iPads at once to limit how many screens he has to flip through. Between all the reports and trying to exercise and stay sane, there's not much free time on the road.

"Time management is a lot of it," he says. "There are never enough hours in the day between taking care of yourself, eating, doing reports, and then spending six or seven hours at the ballpark."

So when a gloom covers Kansas City all day, with weather reports straight out of The Wizard of Oz, Henson decides to wait before heading for the park. The teams aren't going to take batting practice in a thunderstorm, and he doesn't want to waste time driving out to the stadium only to have the game called. We wait and wait, rain pounding the hotel windows, until finally the Royals postpone that night's game against the White Sox.

Given a night's reprieve, we head to a nearby restaurant to watch Steph Curry and Klay Thompson's Golden State Warriors take on the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.

The Long Game

The rain finally clears just in time for the next night's game. Henson has never been to Kauffman Stadium, which means that the routine that he had mastered by his fifth day in St. Louis needs a reset. Where can he park? Where does he get his tickets? How does he get to the press box?

Mostly, these are questions easily answered before the game starts. But there can be challenges when he's working, too. For instance, he spends a good portion of the first inning trying to find the stadium radar gun. There's one on each baseline, and one on the iconic Kansas City scoreboard in center field. But the speed flashes quickly and then disappears.

Royals pitcher Danny Duffy is pounding the zone so hard that Henson runs out of room on his screen's strike zone. Duffy is perfect into the sixth inning, and Henson, despite busily scribbling after every pitch, is clearly also enjoying the performance with a fan's eye. But then Avisail Garcia gets a hit, and Duffy implodes. A game that had been on a two-hour pace crawls along for the last few innings.

"It feels like we watched a doubleheader," he says afterward. "The first half of the game, and then the second half."

During the game, he uses whatever free time he has to explain to me what he's doing, what he's looking for in this first game with the Royals. I do everything I can to listen to him, to try to see the game the way that he does, but mostly I just try to stay out of his way.

Meanwhile, a Cubs scout sitting in front of us is getting his ear talked off by an overserved fan who first showed up to his seat in the sixth inning. The scout is polite and calm, but Henson notes that he immediately put in earbuds, the universal scout sign for "leave me alone."

"Half the time, you're not even listening to anything," he explains to me.

An Unfinished Story

The first time Henson's and my paths diverged, he was heading on to fame and glory and maybe the Hall of Fame. I was on my way to a cultural anthropology lecture. I can't recall anything I studied in that class, but it couldn't possibly have been as unsatisfying as the lessons Henson spent the next seven years learning.

But even as I tee him up, he won't bite. Sure it can be frustrating to spend all of his time in the seats instead of on the field, but the past is the past. "It's been enough years where I'm totally at peace with everything," he says. "I have a wonderful life.

"I love the idea of putting the puzzle pieces together. But as far as career arc, I spent so much of my first 25 years trying to get to that next thing, trying to get the next challenge. I don't know where this will go."

So once more, Henson and I go our separate ways, now and forever bound by a shared past and present. I'll return to the Bronx, to my desk at Yankee Stadium. Henson will serve the team out on the road, scouting players at all levels, from the Dominican Summer League to the 30 Big League fields that dot the country. He has trips coming up to Miami, to New York, to any number of small cities within driving distance of his year-round home in Tampa, Fla.

And earlier this week, he was in San Diego, scouting the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, the same showcase that he played in twice. He won't appear in the lineup or make any new on-field memories; more likely than not, the game will come and go with few, if any, fans even knowing he was there. Henson, four years short of 40 years old, never became a Major League All-Star in his past, but there's nothing he can do about it now, and he doesn't seem all that interested in trying. His future is an open book. And he's plenty happy to go wherever it leads.