October 7, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Who’s the greatest relief pitcher in Toronto Blue Jays history?
Almost every longtime Blue Jays fan or observer will say Tom Henke.
There’s really no debate.
But if you need convincing, there’s plenty of statistical evidence to back this assertion.
In his eight seasons with the Blue Jays, Henke recorded 217 saves – that’s nearly 100 more than Duane Ward who’s second on the club’s all-time list.
And for pitchers that have thrown at least 500 innings for the Blue Jays, Henke is No. 1 in ERA (2.48), strikeouts per nine innings (10.295), Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP) (1.025) and lowest hits per nine innings (6.570).
So how is it that Henke has not been recognized on the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence at Rogers Centre?
It’s an omission that has bothered me for years, but it’s not keeping the easygoing Henke up at night.
“I did the best I could and the rest of it [post-career honours] is if it happens, it happens, but you would probably see me cry if it happened,” said Henke. “It would be a tremendous honour to be up there.”
That’s the type of humble response we’ve come to expect from Henke. It’s also the type of response that makes me want to see him honoured even more.
You see, if you talk to people about Tom Henke, you’ll soon learn that not only was he an outstanding closer, but he’s a truly decent person.
He has devoted countless hours to charitable work, with much of that time spent supporting organizations that have helped his daughter, Amanda, who was born with Down syndrome.
At his induction in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., in June 2011, in front of busloads of people from Henke’s hometown of Taos, Mo., former Blue Jays bullpen coach John Sullivan, who was known for his gruff demeanor, broke down at the podium while introducing Henke, calling the closer the “type of guy he always wished his daughter would bring home.”
And in the clubhouse, Henke’s teammates loved him.
“Tom Henke is one of the finest people I’ve ever known in my life,” Rance Mulliniks told me in an interview in September. “He’s just a class act from top to bottom and you will never meet a more decent, kind thoughtful person than Tom Henke. He’s a wonderful, wonderful family man.”
So stats aside, Henke is the type of person that should be celebrated on the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence.
But his “excellence” – both on and off the field – didn’t come easily.
Growing up in Missouri
Born in 1957 in Kansas City, Mo., Henke had 10 siblings and as a child was painfully shy, so much so that he had to be dragged out to play for his first baseball team at age 9.
“One of my best friends, Tom Verslues, came over and convinced me to play,” recalled Henke. “I wasn’t going to play. I was a pretty shy kid and I didn’t want to play just because you had to be around a lot of people.”
But once he started playing, his coaches quickly discovered he had a rocket for a right arm. Henke was also fortunate that his father, Fred, was an outstanding catcher. So, from the time he began pitching at age 9 to off-seasons during his professional career, his father caught him.
A hardcore St. Louis Cardinals fan as a child, Henke attended Blair Oaks High School, a small school in Jefferson City, Mo., where he played baseball and basketball and ran cross country.
“I was a late bloomer,” said Henke. “I grew two-and-a-half inches after I was out of high school, so I grew late.”
Henke didn’t see scouts at his games until he was a hard-throwing starting pitcher at East Central College in Union, Mo. In June 1979, the 6-foot-5 right-hander was selected in the 20th round by the Seattle Mariners.
“I didn’t sign because I had met my wife [Kathy] to be and that kept me at home,” said Henke. “I was in love. I didn’t want go and leave her right away. So, I went to college another year.”
The following January, Henke was chosen in the first round by the Chicago Cubs.
“Being from mid-Missouri and a Cardinals fan, you don’t dare sign with the Cubs,” joked Henke. “They were the mortal enemy of the Cardinals. I thought I don’t want to be disowned by my own family. So, I didn’t sign with the Cubs.”
Five months later, the then 22-year-old right-hander was chosen by the Texas Rangers in the fourth round and decided to sign.
Pro career begins
After joining the pro ranks, Henke soon discovered he would need more than a fastball to be an effective starter and in 1981, he was converted into a reliever.
“At first I thought of it as a demotion, but then I embraced it because I thought I want to get to the big leagues, I don’t care what I’m doing,” said Henke.
It was also in 1981 that Henke began wearing glasses.
“I almost broke my catcher’s kneecap in A ball because I couldn’t see the signs,” explained Henke. “I was having trouble reading the signs at night and the catcher used to put chalk on his fingers and make them white so I could see them. One night, the fingers got rubbed out and I hit him right in the kneecap with a fastball and he was looking for a breaking pitch. And that was the time that I decided it might be time to go get glasses, and the Texas organization agreed.”
Sporting his new glasses, Henke thrived as a reliever, collecting 14 saves for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers in 1982. He earned his first big league call-up with the Rangers that season and had short stints with the Rangers the following two years before he was selected by the Blue Jays as a free agent compensation pick for the Rangers signing Cliff Johnson in January 1985.
He was working on a forkball in winter ball in Puerto Rico when he learned he was headed to Toronto.
“I was scared to death to go to Canada,” said Henke. “But then I said to myself, ‘This is how it is, and this is how God is leading me down my path in baseball. So, we’re just going to embrace it and go on from there.’”
And embrace it he did.
Blue Jays’ bullpen savior
That spring, Blue Jays pitching coach Al Widmar worked with Henke on shortening his delivery and the 27-year-old reliever was lights out in the Grapefruit League. But the Blue Jays didn’t have room on their roster and he was sent to Triple-A Syracuse, where he continued to dominate. In 39 appearances, he posted a 0.88 ERA and allowed just 13 hits in 51 innings and was so overpowering that teammate John Cerutti started calling him “The Terminator.”
Meanwhile, Blue Jays closer Bill Caudill was struggling, and on July 27, 1985, the Blue Jays called up Henke. Two days later, manager Bobby Cox summoned Henke into a 3-3 tie in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Memorial Stadium. The hard-throwing righty proceeded to pitch two scoreless innings, and Damaso Garcia homered in the 10th to give Henke a win in his Blue Jays debut.
In fact, in Henke’s four appearances on the road to begin his tenure with the Blue Jays, he picked up two wins and two saves and didn’t permit a hit in eight innings.
“One of my favourite moments in my Blue Jays career had to be when we came back from that road trip, and I pitched for the first time in front of the Toronto fans at Exhibition Stadium and they gave me a standing ovation,” recalled Henke.
Henke’s magical season would continue from there. He posted a 2.03 ERA and recorded 13 saves to help the Blue Jays clinch their first division title.
“Once we brought Tom Henke up, when we had the lead going into the ninth inning, we were going to win that game, whereas in 1984, we battled, but we didn’t have anyone to close the games out,” said former Blue Jays catcher Ernie Whitt.
“It’s a different breed coming in because you’re either going to be the goat or you’re going to be the hero. The game is on the line. Tom Henke was awesome with what he did and how he handled the situation. He was just a tremendous teammate. I have nothing but the ultimate respect for him.”
And, as the 1985 season progressed, Blue Jays fans fell deeper in love with The Terminator.
“The fans made a song about me [The Ballad of Tom Henke (The Terminator)] and for an old country boy from Missouri, it was almost unbelievable — and it still is to this day,” said Henke. “It was a whirlwind love affair. I just loved the Canadians and the Canadian fans.”
And the love affair, of course, didn’t end there.
One of MLB’s best closers
Henke established himself as one of baseball’s best closers. In 1987, he was selected to his first All-Star Game and topped the American League with 34 saves.
During that All-Star Game appearance, he entered the contest in the ninth and pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings. The National League eventually won 2-0 in 13 innings.
“You won’t see that with a relief pitcher now,” said Henke. “It’s a different game. I remember that. And I know John McNamara was the manager and he was Boston’s manager and there was a hubbub between our club and Boston for him pitching me that long. But it wasn’t his fault. He kept coming to me and he said, ‘Hey, Tom. Can you give me another inning?’ And it was the All-Star Game, and it was my first one. I would’ve pitched 10 innings if they let me.”
In 1989, after a rough start to the season, Henke struck out Orioles pinch-hitter Larry Sheets in the ninth inning on the second-last day of the campaign to clinch the Blue Jays’ second division title.
Three years later, Henke was finally able to hoist the World Series trophy. His five post-season saves helped the Blue Jays past the Oakland A’s in the American League Championship Series and the Atlanta Braves in the Fall Classic.
“I still wear my ring to this day,” said Henke. “I don’t wear it every day, but if I’m going out somewhere to where I think people might want to see it, I wear my World Series ring.”
Available every game
Throughout his eight-season tenure with the Blue Jays, Henke was ready to pitch every day.
“I never went down to the bullpen without my spikes on, even if Cito or Bobby said, ‘We’re given you a day off,’” said Henke. “There wasn’t really such a thing as a day off back when I pitched. Mentally, you had to be ready because it’s not that easy to turn that mindset on and off.”
Most remember Henke blowing his 100-mph fastball past hitters, but the hard-throwing righty also looked for any mental edge he could find.
“I fiddled around and messed with a slider for years, even near the end of my career,” said Henke. “Pat Borders would laugh because the last pitch I would throw in my warm-up sequence would be a slider. And he’d go, ‘Why do you even throw that? It’s not any good.” And I said, ‘Well, it’s giving them something else to think about it.’
“And you know what? It worked. There are people that thought I threw a slider my whole career and I can probably count on two hands how many sliders I actually threw in a game.”
Following the 1992 season, Henke signed a two-year deal with the Texas Rangers. It was a painful decision to leave Toronto but he was told by the Blue Jays brass that Duane Ward would be replacing him as closer.
“I was pretty heartbroken because I wanted to finish my career in Toronto . . . I still had some good years left,” said Henke. “But I understand it now more than I did at that time – the business end of it. Duane was 28 and I was 34. They kind of put it that, ‘Tom, you are our past and present and Duane is our future.’ So, it took me a few years to get over that. I really wanted to stay there. And I wanted people to know that this wasn’t a greedy free agent leaving the nest. It was just one of those business deals where it just wasn’t in the cards anymore.”
Went out on top
Following two seasons with the Rangers, he finished his career with a dominant campaign with the Cardinals, close to his home in Missouri. He posted a 1.82 ERA and had 36 saves that season and was selected to the All-Star Game.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better end to my career thinking back on it,” said Henke “My family was able to come up to almost every game in St. Louis.”
At 37, Henke decided to retired while still at the top of his game. He wanted to go home to be with his wife, Kathy, and be a dad to his four children.
“I’ve got a shirt that the kids gave me that says, ‘Dad: The hardest job you’ll ever love.’ And there’s a lot of truth to that,” said Henke. “There’s no perfect book on parenting. You just do the best you can. And I try to emulate my mom and dad a little bit because my dad was one of my heroes. So, I try to do the things he did. Did I always do it right? No. But at least I put in the effort.”
No one would doubt that.
As noted earlier, Henke has dedicated countless hours to charitable efforts, including hosting his annual Charity Classic Golf Tournament, which raises money for the Special Learning Center in Jefferson City, Mo., and diabetes research.
Over the years, he has devoted many of his efforts to organizations that have helped Amanda, who was born with Down syndrome.
“She’s a joy. You can ask anybody around this area,” said Henke of Amanda, who’s now 36. “There are more people that know Amanda than know me. It’s amazing to watch her bring joy to people’s lives . . . I give her a lot of credit for helping me through some tough times in baseball.
“I always tell people if this whole world were made up of Amandas instead of the people that are in this world, you wouldn’t have war. You wouldn’t have all this turmoil we have today. Because she knows no strangers. She loves everybody and it’s the way we should be as human beings.”
Lifestyle still the same
Henke, who owns a hobby farm in Taos, Mo., and will turn 66 in December, says his lifestyle hasn’t changed much since he was a child.
“I stay plenty busy. I’ve got 12 grandkids now and I’m busy going to ballgames . . . and I never say no to my grandkids. That might be a fault of mine,” said Henke. “My granddaughter wore a shirt over here the other day that said, ‘Well, if mama says no, ask Papa because papa gives me everything.’ And I do spoil my grandkids.”
Henke also stays in touch with many of his former Blue Jays teammates.
“Lloyd, Ernie, Rance, Garth, Buck Martinez . . . you know to this day, they’re still some of my best friends in the game,” said Henke, adding he also talks to Pat Borders a couple of times a month. “You can be away from them for years and then you make a call and then it’s like you’re right back in 1985. It’s that kind of a brotherhood. It’s something you never forget.”
In 2011, Henke was officially inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., after John Sullivan delivered his emotional introduction at the ceremony.
“Sully, thanked me to the day that he passed that I asked him to do that for me. And he meant that much to me that I wanted him to be a part of it,” said Henke. “It was very special to me, and I still think of that moment in St. Marys.”
Those of us who were there in St. Marys still think of it, too.
And Henke deserves another moment like this — one on the field at Rogers Centre, surrounded by his family, that would see his name added to the Level of Excellence.