April 25, 2008
Beware the little guy in baseball.
The David Ecksteins. The Freddie Pateks. The Luis Aparicios. The Nellie Foxes.
Beware the little guy not only for his skill, but for his will, his aggressiveness, his energy, his heart, and his brain.
Beware the little guy, for he'll find a way to beat you. Just ask supporters of Riley Henricks, one of the little guys.
When no other NCAA Division I coach would recruit Henricks, University of Portland coach Chris Sperry offered him a scholarship.
"He's just a good baseball player," Sperry said. "He's a guy you want coming to the plate when you need a run driven in."
Ray Atkinson coached Henricks when he played for the Seattle Stars, an elite youth team. "He's just a hard-nosed player," Atkinson said. "He plays with great focus, great determination, great perseverance.
"He was not one of the best hitters when he came to us, but he became one of the best hitters because of perseverance and heart. He's one of those athletes who refuses to lose."
Levi Lacey coached the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Henricks for two years on the Laces baseball team, watching him hit 16 home runs with a wooden bat.
"Riley's the man," Lacey said. "Some thought he was too small to play Division I baseball, but I knew he was a Division I player and called the University of Portland. His dad taught him to play the game the right way."
Steve Merkley knew he had a special athlete when he coached Henricks at Kamiak High School. "In practice, we had to move him back in the batter's box so he wouldn't lose all of our balls over the outfield fence," the coach laughed.
When he wasn't losing baseballs, Henricks was stealing footballs, setting a Kamiak career interception record with 12 as a defensive back. "He wasn't that big, but he was instinctive," Knights football coach Dan Mack said. "He had an innate ability to concentrate under pressure, which makes him a good hitter."
Now, nearly one year out of high school, Henricks is proving himself to be a certifiable Division I player, batting leadoff and pacing the Pilots in batting average (.347), hits (52), doubles (13), triples (3), slugging percentage (.593), on-base percentage (.431), walks (21) and total bases (89). In addition, he's second on the team with six home runs.
And, no, he isn't crowing "I told you so" to all of those big schools that ignored him. That isn't his style. "He's a humble pie, 'aw shucks' kind of guy," Mack said. "But tough as nails."
"I don't think I have anything to prove," Henricks said when the Pilots played the Washington Huskies early this month in Seattle. "I just want to play and have fun."
Having fun is hitting a ninth-inning home run to put his team ahead of the Huskies in a game last month, though Washington came back in the bottom of the inning to win.
Having fun is blasting two home runs on his 19th birthday and driving in three runs to lead the Pilots to a 6-2 victory over Santa Clara on April 6.
Having fun is simply putting on the uniform and playing the game. "I love it," the soft-spoken second baseman said. "I wouldn't want to be doing anything else."
He could be playing football. Several Division III schools recruited him to play defensive back -- they said he could also play baseball -- but Henricks had a goal -- to play Division I baseball. And when Portland came calling, he accepted.
What sealed the deal for Sperry was watching him play in a series pitting Washington and Oregon prep stars. "He had a very good series," the coach said.
Sperry acknowledges that the professional scouts might not give Henricks high marks for his speed, his arm or, of course, his size, though he has gained 30 pounds in the past few years. "But there are a lot of guys in the big leagues who are short on tools but make up for it with an ability to hit and with their minds and their passion and their heart," he said.
Guys like Eckstein, a 5-foot-7 walk-on in college and the Most Valuable Player in the 2006 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Guys like Patek, who played 14 seasons in the big leagues with an aggressive style that belied his 5-foot-5 stature.
Guys like Aparicio and Fox, the diminutive double play combination for the Chicago White Sox who are both in the Hall of Fame.
Inspirational players all. Just as Henricks is.
When Atkinson gets a smallish player nowadays, he uses Henricks as a model for the kid to emulate. "I'll say, 'Just because you're small, look what Riley Henricks has done,'" he said.
When he had Henricks on the Seattle Stars, the team was loaded with outstanding players, including Cam Nobles and Geoff Brown, both now playing for the Huskies. There's a perception that perhaps because Henricks was on the small side, he was overshadowed by bigger players.
"Being small, it was difficult for him to fit in," said his father, Jim, who recalled that Riley weighed just over 100 pounds as a sophomore. "The fact that he wasn't a big fellow, he didn't get on a lot of people's radars."
His coach at Kamiak did his best to make D-I coaches aware of Henricks. Merkley said he doesn't recommend players to big-school coaches unless they truly have D-I credentials, and he has had just two such players in 15 years at Kamiak, one of them being Henricks. "He (Merkley) said, 'You guys are missing the boat on this kid,'" Jim Henricks said.
In retrospect, Jim admits that maybe it's just as well that not a flood of offers was made.
"In reality," he said, "Portland is probably the best fit for him. He gets on the field and it's a relaxed atmosphere with not a lot of pressure on him."
As for his son, all Riley wanted to do was "come out, work hard and see what happens."
As it turns out, it's Riley Henricks that's happening.