Bob Henley is the Washington Nationals’ bastion of big league coaching stability, the one coach who has been able to withstand the steady beatings that come with heartbreaking playoff losses and two manager changes in three years.
The longtime third base coach is an emotional man, who spoke passionately and in guilt-riddled rambles after sending Jayson Werth to his home-plate doom in the Nationals’ Game 5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers two years ago. He is a positive man, who hardly says a negative word. He doesn’t know much about cellphones and retreats to a secluded home in Alabama each offseason, one of the few people in this age who not only wants to escape the game each winter but succeeds in doing so.
Henley has been with the organization since before it moved from Montreal, managed many of the Nationals’ homegrown stars in the minors and seen two coaching staffs coalesce — then disintegrate — around him. In baseball — an everyday, all-the-time sport that builds relationships at lightning speed because of its unique grind — people come and go constantly, and good friends go with them.
“I just considered it a blessing to be asked back,” Henley said. “ . . . But it’s tough, to be honest with you. It’s tough.”
The Expos drafted Henley in 1991, and save for a brief stint in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system years later, he has been with the organization ever since. He began his coaching career in 2003, when he managed the Expos’ Gulf Coast League affiliate, managed at the lower levels for years, served as the Nationals’ field coordinator and was then promoted to Matt Williams’s big league staff as a rookie third base coach. No one knows the organization better than Henley, no one has seen its progression firsthand quite like he has — so no one feels its ups and downs the way Henley can.
“I’ve been here when I was a kid, and I am still growing up, I think. I’ve never matured to an adult to a full extent, whatever that may be,” Henley said. “ . . . I’ve been here so long that it feels like family to me. I think whenever there’s a decision made to keep you, it feels good.”
Henley is a fixture in the Nationals’ clubhouse and at third base. His face graces T-shirts players made to honor his aggressive coaching style. He is one of the first men out for batting practice each day, the one who helps the catchers through defensive drills whenever they need them, or hits fungos to whomever needs them. But this season, the former major league catcher will take on new duties for Manager Dave Martinez — those of the big league outfield overlord. Henley never played a big league game in the outfield.
“He had asked me, and I go, ‘Really? Okay. All right,’ ” said Henley, who said he called all his outfielders and was able to speak with most of them about the somewhat unexpected change.
Henley was on the minor league staff when Bryce Harper arrived as a teenager. He managed Michael A. Taylor when he began his minor league career as a shortstop, then watched him transform into a Gold Glove outfielder. He has known Brian Goodwin since his first Nationals days. Henley said he spent a lot of time talking to Adam Eaton while he was injured last year, and thinks his fire and fearless outfield fury will translate well to left field.
“You’re talking about an outfield that I believe has a chance to be the best outfield in baseball,” Henley said. “It’s not like I’m going to go out there and teach them the basic 101 . . . they know how to play. You have an opportunity to do outfield things when you’re a field coordinator in the minor leagues. You know all the drills and the philosophies and things. But with them, I’ve had a chance to talk to them and discuss — going through the spring, let’s make sure we do things that are pertinent to you getting ready for the season and winning a championship.”
Henley did acknowledge that most of his role as outfield coach will be to provide players with information, with those vaunted analytics that might inform positioning or strategy from day to day.
“In today’s game, we’re going to take a lot of information about moving outfielders left and right, no-doubles, things like that. A lot of that’s going to come from the manager,” Henley said. ” . . . A lot of that will come from Max [Scherzer] and Stephen [Strasburg] and Gio [Gonzalez] and Tanner [Roark] and those guys. ‘Make sure we’re covering that line. I’m going to give them the gap today.’ Things like that. There’s times where you can have them in a certain spot, but they’re veteran enough players that they can make those adjustments as they go.”
In other words, Henley’s lack of outfield experience as a player likely won’t have much to do with his duties at all. He will be more administrative than instructive, making sure his outfielders get the work they need and the information they need. He will also, of course, maintain his third base coaching duties, which are far more visible. But most importantly, perhaps, Henley will serve as the lone liaison to the Nationals’ coaching past, the one who has seen it all and lived it all, seen his duties change as the faces around him come and go. The only thing left for him to experience with this organization, it would seem, is a title.
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