Henderson honors father's memory with perseverance
Reliever lost dad to ALS just as he started taking baseball seriously
MILWAUKEE -- If Brewers reliever Jim Henderson takes the mound in Cincinnati on Father's Day, he may pause a moment to remember his father. Neil Henderson was not the biggest baseball fan, but he would be proud to know that Jimmy had made it to the top of the game.
Neil died of ALS -- more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- when his son had just turned 14, so he did not witness any of Jim's long journey to Milwaukee. It included parts of 10 seasons in the Minor Leagues, a major shoulder surgery and a humbling rebirth as a 26-year-old closer in Class A alongside 19- and 20-year-olds. Three years after that career restart, Jim Henderson was in the Major Leagues, and now he is a 30-year-old rookie and a key cog in a Brewers bullpen that has been the strength of the team this season.
Henderson is still battling.
"Losing his father, I think, taught him about determination and perseverance and courage," said Jim's mother, Marilyn Meek. "It made him grow up and face life's challenges, that's for sure."
Henderson was 12 years old when his dad, an auto mechanic by trade who played drums in a band on the weekends, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The neurodegenerative disease attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord, killing cells and robbing patients of voluntary muscle control and movement. Patients in the latter stages of the disease are totally paralyzed, yet in most cases, their minds remain sharp and alert.
As Meek put it, "It strips you of everything but your sanity, your thinking mechanism."
After the diagnosis, father and son spent time at the family's cabin in Water Valley, Alberta, Canada, Neil's favorite place. Meek said that one-on-one time, working at the cabin, strengthened the bond between the two like never before, and, as the disease advanced, Jim became an ever more important sidekick for his father.
The disease advanced quickly.
"I think they tried to keep as much of it away from me at that time as they could, but I did my research and asked a lot of questions," Jim said. "It happened fast. It was only a year and a half after he was diagnosed, which I think is about average. I think you have to mature pretty quickly at that point.
"My dad taught me to drive his standard truck at age 13. He didn't want any help from the people outside. He wanted to keep things within the family. He wanted to fight as long as he could."
The fight ended in 1996. Neil Henderson was 51.
"His father's death was profoundly difficult for Jim," Meek said. "I had started to work full-time, and his brothers are older -- 10 and 14 years older than Jim -- so they had their lives to live. So in some ways, he sort of had to figure this thing out on his own."
Baseball provided an oasis. Mom had turned her son onto the sport at a young age, and just as Neil was losing his battle with ALS, Jim was beginning to get serious about the sport. He joined the Okotoks Dawgs, a touring club founded by a group of fathers including John Ircandia, that canvassed North America and exposed Canadian prospects to scouts.
That experience played a role in Montreal making the 6-foot-5 Henderson its 26th-round Draft pick in 2003.
"He found playing baseball helped him forget his troubles," Meek said. "Anything serious in his life, he could get on the mound and just concentrate on the game. Baseball was good for him, definitely. The Dawgs became like family -- the coaches were like fathers and the teammates were like brothers to Jim."
Henderson rose to the Class A Advanced level in the Expos/Nationals system before the Cubs plucked him away in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft. He had a breakthrough the following season, posting a 1.86 ERA in 42 games for Chicago's Double-A club and earning a promotion to Triple-A Iowa, but he felt some discomfort in his elbow. The following year, Henderson would need a shoulder surgery that ruined his 2008 season. He turned down an opportunity to pitch in the 2009 World Baseball Classic because he felt he needed to be in Spring Training camp with the Cubs, but the day the tournament began, Chicago released him.
Henderson considered quitting baseball.
His former Dawgs manager had other ideas. Ircandia called around, trying to find a club willing to give Henderson a shot, and found traction with the Brewers. Henderson traveled to Arizona for a tryout with Brewers pro scout Dick Groch, signed a contract and headed to Class A Wisconsin, where he was the old man on a club that included a 19-year-old Brett Lawrie and 20-year-old Wily Peralta.
Henderson excelled to the tune of a 1.07 ERA, 17 saves and a promotion to advanced Class A Advanced Brevard County. Three years later, Henderson earned a long-awaited promotion to the Major Leagues at age 29.
All it took was 10 seasons, three organizations and 313 Minor League appearances.
He had support along the way from his mother and stepfather, Gerry Meek, and his older brothers Scott and Wes, all of whom have visited Milwaukee to see Henderson in his Brewers uniform.
But quite often along the way, he also thought of his dad.
"With his attitude, and him staying strong throughout, I just try to do the same thing day to day," Henderson said. "I always try to look forward, never look back. That's what I learned from him."
Since 2009, the 70th anniversary of Gehrig's famous "luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech at Yankee stadium, Major League Baseball has teamed with charitable organizations in a program called "4 ALS Awareness." It aims in part to raise funds toward a cure for a disease Henderson has witnessed firsthand.
"I watched his battle. I think he had to be strong for a young kid like myself," Henderson said. "That's what I remember about him -- having a good attitude all the time. I try to live the same way."