The story, as Ian Desmond tells it, goes something like this.
It’s late August at Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Virginia, and Desmond is 19 years old, playing his first full season with the Single-A Potomac Nationals. He commits two errors in the first couple of innings. Starting pitcher Mike Hinckley commits a third. “Sloppy game,” Desmond says.
Potomac loses and the players clear the field for a postgame “Family Fun Fest,” featuring a showing of “Shrek 2.” An inflatable movie screen is being blown up on the field and kids are running through the grass.
Enter Bobby Henley.
Henley, Potomac’s manager at the time, runs up to a team official. “Hold on! Hold on!” he yells in a Southern drawl. “We’re taking infield-outfield!” The official shakes his head. The kids and parents have already bought tickets, he says. “Shrek 2” must go on.
Pfitzner Stadium is surrounded by three softball fields. Henley knows this, and turns back to the players. “Everybody, keep your uniform and cleats on!” he says. “Go over to the softball fields!”
“This is like 10, 10:30 at night,” Desmond says, smiling and shaking his head. “We’re taking infield-outfield in the dark. Players are throwing balls all over the place, just mad.”
Desmond laughs. The story is just one of many, he says. They all have one, from the Washington Nationals players who grew up with Henley in the minor leagues to the coaches who worked alongside him in Viera, Woodbridge, Harrisburg, Syracuse and everywhere in between.
Henley, 41, has been with the organization for more than two decades. He was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1991 as a high school catcher from Grand Bay, Alabama, who had never left the state or met someone who spoke Spanish. Since then, he has spent all but one season with the franchise in one capacity or another.
As Washington’s minor league field coordinator in 2012, Henley was unable to experience the Nationals’ postseason debut and subsequent heartbreak. So when he takes the field as the team’s third base coach Friday, it will be his first major league playoff game.
He will help orchestrate the team’s base-running in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, often sending or holding runners at third, preserving or creating leads one run at a time.
“I just want to make sure that I do a good job over at third base to give our boys the best chance to win,” Henley said. “It’s not about me. It’s really not.”
Schilling, not the shipyard
Henley is a simple-minded man. Always has been. It’s how he was raised by his parents, Bob Sr. and Chris, a pair of longtime teachers. And it’s how he grew up in Grand Bay, a speck in the southwest corner of Alabama that had one blinking red stoplight at a four-way intersection.
Grand Bay is 30 miles outside Mobile and a short drive from Bayou La Batre, where Forrest Gump and Bubba Blue based their fictional shrimp company in the 1994 film. The two towns housed rival high schools. “They were known as the shrimpers and we were known as the farmers,” Henley said. “Neither one of us was very good at football.”
Henley played three sports as a kid but only ever showed promise in baseball. At 13, he decided he wanted to be a catcher and went to a nearby college camp to learn the basics of the position. Bob Sr. watched Bobby improve behind the plate and thought he might have a chance to turn baseball into a college scholarship. There was no college fund, he told his son. The alternative to baseball was to do what many in Grand Bay did: work at the shipyard, or work at the paper mill.
“Not that those weren’t fine jobs,” Henley said. “But I know that they’re not air-conditioned jobs.”
Henley was drafted by the Expos in the 26th round and arrived at rookie camp without knowing how to call a game or defend against a bunt. “I didn’t even know what that was,” he said. After five years in the minors, he made his major league debut on July 19, 1998 at age 25, drawing a walk in his first plate appearance.
The next day, Henley was told he would start at catcher against the Philadelphia Phillies and a budding star named Curt Schilling. When Henley stepped into the box, he told himself he would swing at the first pitch Schilling threw no matter what it was. He got a fastball over the plate and laced it to center field.
“I never really set my sights on the major leagues more so than just trying to be a good player at the level I was at,” Henley said. “When I went to Double-A, I just wanted to be a good Double-A player. When I went to Triple-A, I just wanted to be a good Triple-A player.
“When I went to the big leagues, I felt like I won the lottery.”
Building an identity
Henley hit .304 in his first partial major league season in Montreal. He entered spring training in 1999 with the inside track on the backup catcher job before the injuries hit. First it was his arm, bone spurs in the elbow. Then it was his shoulder, which led to several cortisone shots and eventually surgery.
Henley missed all of the 1999 season. Then while rehabilitating his shoulder the following year, he made a throw to second base and injured it again. Another surgery. Another unsuccessful rehab process. “And that was kind of it,” he said.
At 27, Henley could never throw a baseball the same way again. The Expos released him in 2001 and he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2002. The Pirates sent Henley to Single-A Hickory on the off-chance that his arm would improve, but also to mentor the team’s young catchers. It was his only year outside the Expos/Nationals organization.
In Hickory, Henley discovered he had a knack for coaching. The Expos offered him a job as their Gulf Coast League manager in 2003, and for the next 11 years, he became a staple in the organization’s minor league system, even as the Expos transitioned to the Nationals. He managed rookie teams and Single-A teams, served as the catching and field coordinator, and taught base-running skills from the ground up.
“He was getting them established to the way we were going to do things,” said first base coach Tony Tarasco, who met Henley at spring training in 2006. “The passion we play with over here. The importance of how we play the game. The identity. I think he’s a big part of the Washington Nationals’ identity.”
Ask Henley to name the current Nationals he worked with in the minor leagues and he’ll struggle to name them all. The list stretches from Desmond, the longest-tenured player in the organization, to Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Tyler Moore, Michael Taylor, Steven Souza Jr. and so on. Henley’s fingerprints are throughout the organization. Almost every player at almost every level has interacted with him at one point or another.
“He cares about his guys,” Moore said. “It can be tough down there [in the minors]. Every day is just kind of a grind, and he brought the light out of that. I think that’s what good leaders do.”
Henley eventually settled into the role of field coordinator, spending four seasons in what he said was his favorite minor league coaching job. He roved from one affiliate to the next, teaching the fundamentals of fielding with country humor, patience and an unmatched storytelling ability.
“The reason that he wasn’t a big league coach a long time ago is because he meant so much to us as a minor league coordinator,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He thrived in that job. He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever had at that job.”
Henley sometimes used skits to teach base-running, once pulling a hamstring while demonstrating how to properly round third. He started every morning of workouts with a motivational speech and a booming, “Y’all ready to work?” He’s respected but not feared, a friendly face with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game.
“It’s just an odd gift that he has,” Tarasco said. “He’s able to be a leader without having to wear the stars.”
Crashing the passive party
The Nationals enter the postseason as the best base-running team in the major leagues, at least by one advanced metric. They lead the league in BsR, a catch-all base-running statistic used by FanGraphs.com to calculate the expected number of runs a team would score based on its decisions on the basepaths. Henley is one reason why.
“We’ve been aggressive,” he said. “That’s who we are.”
And who they’ve been. That aggressive mindset goes all the way back to minor league spring trainings, when Henley always challenged his players to try to take the extra base, regardless of past failures. “Who has the courage to do it?” he would ask the players, most of whom lived at a La Quinta Inn in nearby Melbourne, Florida.
If taking that risk led to a player being thrown out during a game, the dugout would yell and cheer. Henley would slap him on the backside and praise him as if he had never been thrown out at all. Passivity, on the other hand, was unacceptable.
“If you want to be passive,” Henley always yelled, “you can have yourself a passive party at the La Quinta hotel!”
That same mentality shapes Henley’s philosophy as a third base coach. Some now refer to him as “Bobby Sendley.” He spends hours studying film and analyzing the arms of a team’s three outfielders, as well as its two relay arms at second base and shortstop. But if it’s a close call? Henley’s sending.
“There’s a million things that go into it,” said manager Matt Williams, who was Arizona’s third base coach for three seasons. “He understands all that, and he’s diligent about his work and obtaining that information. And he has a game plan going in. So it’s not easy. It’s a split-second decision, and I think he’s been absolutely phenomenal.”
Henley has embraced what can be a lonely job. Every runner who scores on a close play is praised for his hustle, but every runner who is thrown out is blamed on the third base coach. In the playoffs, those decisions are only magnified.
“When you get noticed, that’s not a good thing,” Washington hitting coach Rick Schu said. “If you go unnoticed, you’re really doing a heck of a job. And he’s probably one of the best I’ve seen.”
Henley said he’s still had several sleepless nights. He doesn’t regret any of the decisions he makes to send or hold runners at third, but he does try to learn from them. He doesn’t want to let the team down. He doesn’t want to disappoint the players who have grown from scrawny minor leaguers to major league superstars before his eyes. He wants to do his job to the best of his ability, for the only organization he’s really ever known.
“It’s more than just a job. It’s like family for me,” Henley said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”