TAMPA, Fla. — Drew Henson has watched Wil Myers swing on occasion. He has seen the stats, read the reports. A decade removed from his life as baseball’s Mr. Can’t Miss who did just that, he understands the pressure involved with a high-profile call-up. A cautionary tale is part of his history.
Henson has advice for Myers, the Tampa Bay Rays’ prized outfield prospect who made his major league debut Tuesday at Fenway Park: Block the noise. Ignore it all. Trust your talent. Believe in a process. When the time is right, if your head is ready, results will follow.
Accept the challenge, but be realistic as well.
“I’ve had a bunch of years to think about my situation coming up,” Henson told FOX Sports Florida on Thursday. “At the end of the day, it’s a bigger stage, and there’s a spotlight and more recognition. It’s the same game you’ve always played. The things that he has done pretty successfully to get him to this point, he shouldn’t change.
“You just continue to trust yourself and trust your talent, and you’re ready when you’re ready. It seems like the time is right now to enjoy the experience and really make a point to take the pressure off himself, to have fun.”
Henson has formed that perspective through experience, of course. Now, he is a 33-year-old hitting coach for one of the New York Yankees’ two Gulf Coast League teams here, far removed from his days as one of the majors’ most unforgettable rise-and-fall cases in recent memory.
Life has changed for the former two-sport star whose legend formed growing up in Brighton, Mich. He announced his retirement from baseball in February 2004. Then he pursued an NFL career that included three teams (Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions) in five years.
For the most part, Henson has stepped from the spotlight. He lives within a world of instruction where he molds young minds at the Himes Complex who dream about the majors like he did. Like Myers now, Henson’s ceiling in baseball once appeared high.
He had the sterling pedigree: A Michigan quarterback, a third-round draft pick by the Yankees in 1998. He had the money: A six-year, $17 million contract. He had the expectations: Someone seemingly guaranteed a lucrative future as a high-potential third baseman within one of sports’ most storied franchises.
But the perfect life in pinstripes never occurred. Reality happened, and there were hard lessons. For Henson, Myers and everyone else who makes the climb, no promotion from the minors includes a script, let alone the promise of a pleasing ending.
Henson debuted in the majors in September 2002, and the results were anemic: A .111 batting average (1 for 9) with three strikeouts in eight games over the 2002 and 2003 seasons. The former Mr. Can’t Miss, the former one-day star, became an answer to the question, “Whatever happened to ….”
The early drive, the early promise, led somewhere else. A detour.
“I was always highly motivated, always ready for the next challenge, wanted to get out of Triple-A and get to the big leagues,” said Henson, who was hired as a minor league coach last October. “I probably put more pressure on myself than I needed to. I was always my harshest critic. Some of the things that helped me get (to the majors), I didn’t have the patience to know when the time was right, the time was right, and trust the process.
“I don’t know (Myers) personally, but it seems to me that the numbers he has put up and the fact that even though he didn’t break with the club this year, he understood when the time is right, they’ll bring him up. He has played great for the first three months (in the minors), and the time is right, and they’re making that move.”
Certainly, there are differences between how Myers and Henson were groomed. Myers hit .300 with 498 hits, 78 home runs and 316 RBI in parts of five years in the minors. Meanwhile, Henson hit .248 with 460 hits, 67 home runs and 274 RBI in parts of six seasons in the minors. Myers was the more productive prospect, the better-seasoned talent.
Since his arrival in Tampa Bay, though, Myers has remained a fascination. The Rays must be cautious to nurture, not stunt the 22-year-old’s development. On Sunday in his office, manager Joe Maddon said, “We’ll try not to place the expectations too high, although I know it’s going to come from the outside.”
Sitting nearby behind Maddon’s desk, Andrew Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, said, “I think him having the recent success he’s had … will just aid in him being able to come up here and exhale.”
“I’m just trying to put that aside right now,” Myers said of the attention Monday. “The game changes once you get to the big leagues. It’s all about winning.”
But as Henson knows, the big leagues are also about managing the present. They are about working through struggle, hardship, inevitable slides. The best overcome, persevere, evolve. The others ask, “What’s next?”
The burden of expectation binds Myers and Henson. Like Henson then, Myers will be presented with his own challenges as he tries to grow within the game. A decade later, Henson looks back on his career with a mature eye.
“I had such a unique experience playing the two sports — playing for Michigan and playing for the Yankees,” Henson said. “There was a bit of attention, especially when I transitioned to playing full-time baseball. I probably had unrealistic expectations of the timeline for myself, with the limited number of minor league at-bats that I had, when I was 21 in Triple-A with barely a full season of minor league at-bats under my belt.
“But that was the challenge that I embraced. I wanted to get (to the majors) so bad, I think, that I didn’t trust the process. When the plate discipline was right, when your swing mechanics were right, then you’d be ready to go. … For a guy’s whole career, it’s a constant learning curve. You just want the highs to be higher than the lows being low.”