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Mudville: October 23, 2021 11:15 pm PDT
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Mike Henneman

"I don’t regret a thing. I gave 110% all the time."

Mike Henneman was a damn good pitcher for the Detroit Tigers from 1987-1995.

How good was he?

Consider this: The Tigers played their first game in 1901 and have had 851 different pitchers take the mound for them in the ensuing 120 years. Among Tigers pitchers who pitched at least 600 innings for the franchise, Henneman ranks first overall in Adjusted ERA.

That’s better than Jack Morris, Hal Newhouser, Jim Bunning and Justin Verlander. Hell, it’s even better than Mark Fidrych and Dizzy Trout.

The All-Star closer joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin.’

If a newfangled stat like ERA+ isn’t something you fancy, Henneman has the traditional stats as well.

When he retired, Henneman was the franchise saves leader and he still stands second on that list. If you dismiss Dead Ball Era pitchers, Henneman’s 3.05 ERA in a Tigers uniform is second only to John Hiller. Any way you slice it, when Henneman was on the mound for the Tigers, he got the job done.

Before his time with the Tigers, Henneman pitched two seasons at Oklahoma State on their great 1983 and ’84 teams. He helped the Cowboys to a Big Eight title, NCAA Regional championship and College World Series appearances in each of those seasons.

In 1993, he was inducted into the Oklahoma State Athletics Hall of Fame.

“But now it’s about velo and spin rate. It’s about how many times the ball rotates before it gets to the plate. I look at it this way: Did he get him out? Or did he not?”

Henneman played for Sparky Anderson during his time in Detroit and was traded in 1995 to the Astros during the final season of Anderson’s Hall of Fame career.

He would play one more season, registering 31 saves while serving as the closer for Johnny Oates and the AL West champion Texas Rangers in 1996.

The Rangers fell to the Yankees three games to one in the ALDS that season, right at the advent of the last dynasty in The Bronx. As the ALDS was in its final inning, Henneman came on to face one batter in the top of the ninth, striking out Jim Leyritz to close the frame.

It would be the last batter he would face in a Major League uniform.

Henneman retired at 34 years old but stayed connected to the Tigers as a coach and in other roles ever since.

Somewhere in Baseball Heaven, Sparky is calling for the righty, so it’s time to go Spitballin’ with Mike Henneman.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Henneman. Looking forward to hearing about your experiences. Let’s start at the beginning. Can you talk about your childhood and baseball? How did you get your start playing and did you have a favorite team growing up?

As a kid I pretty much played every sport I could. We grew up in Missouri and the Cardinals were my dad’s team. I grew up listening on the radio to Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, all the bigwigs. As things progressed, I continued to play and eventually got a scholarship to Oklahoma State. I went to junior college first for basketball and baseball. Then stuck with baseball at OSU.

I wanted to ask about your time at Oklahoma State. You were there two years and made the College World Series both times. You were elected to their Hall of Fame too. Can you talk about your experience at OSU?

It was awesome. Coming from a small town like Festus and then hitting the campus at OSU was a culture shock. My coaches Gary Ward and Tom Holliday were great guys, and our team was just loaded with guys who ended up being professionals. There was a lot of success there and a lot of great times. It was just a great atmosphere. The coaches were fabulous, and they made you feel welcome and wanted.

Mike Henneman of the Detroit Tigers pitches during an MLB game versus the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Getty Images North America)

At OSU you worked as a starter and reliever. How did it come about that you became a full-time reliever?

Well, I was told that I was going to be a reliever. I think it was Billy Muffett in instructional ball who told me my best chance was to be a reliever. I was like, “OK, whatever.” It was no big deal. I just wanted to pitch and compete. Whatever they asked, just give me the ball. I didn’t care what inning, let’s just get it on.

You got called up to the Majors for the first time in May of 1987. Can you take us through the details of that?

It was very interesting. I thought I should have been on the club breaking camp in Spring Training. I got called into Sparky Anderson’s office and he told me they were sending me to Toledo, but I wasn’t going to be there long. I was like, “OK, he tells that to everyone to make them feel good.” I left with an attitude and went to Toledo and did things the way I wanted to. I would just stay in the clubhouse and only come out if the game was close.

I started out really good though. We came back from a road trip and Leon Roberts, the manager, called me in. I’m thinking to myself, “OK, you were a dick and you’re gonna get shipped out.” I thought they were gonna let me go. He said, “Sit down, I got some news for you.” I thought, “OK, here it is. Just let me have it.” He asked me if I had a car. I said I didn’t, and he told me I had to find a ride to Detroit because I was going up to the Tigers right now.

I said, “Get the hell outta here!” He told me he was serious. He said to find a starting pitcher who wasn’t scheduled to throw that day and have him drive me to Detroit immediately.

That’s incredible, I love it. What was it like going into that Big League clubhouse as a Major Leaguer for the first time?

I walked in the clubhouse, and we were playing the Angels. It was the eighth inning and there was about an hour and a half rain delay. When we came back out, I went down to the bullpen and Billy Muffett called and said, “You’re in the game.” I thought, “Oh shit! OK, here we go!”

First hitter was Dick Schofield. I hung a slider and he hit it about three feet from going over the fence. Off the bat I thought, “Atta boy Mike. First pitch you throw in the Major Leagues and you give up a home run.” Kirk Gibson caught it on the warning track, and we got out of the inning. I thought, please score and let’s go home.

After the game, we got on the plane to go to the West Coast and we got our meal money. I was like, “Wow, meal money? Holy cow, this is more money than I made when I was in Toledo. I kinda like this!” Then I just went on from there.

That ’87 Tigers roster was just loaded. You had Hall of Famers Alan Trammel and Jack Morris, plus Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, Darrell Evans and so many more guys. What was it like being a young guy around all those stars?

I have no idea, I just shut up and stayed in the locker where nobody could see me. I’m just BS-ing. It was just loaded with veterans. They were welcoming, but I was like, “Man, oh man. That guy’s been here ten years, he’s been here twelve, he’s been here nine years.” I gotta shut my mouth and learn as much as I could.” It was awesome having them around. They taught me a lot.

Aside from being great players, all those guys are known as incredible leaders. What made those guys such great leaders?

They were great players, but they were really great people. They knew how to win. When I got up there, we were 11-14. I remember Darrell Evans came in the locker room and told us that we just had to go out and win each series. Take two out of three, three out of four, even two out of four is fine. We do that, we’re gonna end up where we want to be and, by golly, we did.

With all of those great players, you also had a Hall of Fame manager in Sparky Anderson. He was your manager your entire time in Detroit. What was it like playing for Sparky?

He was just awesome. He was great to me. There are several stories. After I’d close out a game, I’d turn around and walk to the outfield to high-five the guys and he’d scream, “Michael! Michael! Get over here, I can’t walk that far.” So, I’d have to turn around and go shake his hand first and then proceed with the other guys. Eventually I knew not to run off; I had to meet Sparky at the line.

That’s great. Do you have any fun stories you’d like to share about him?

Well, I had been there several years, and I had a stretch where I pitched a lot. We were playing a Sunday day game. We get a phone call down in the dungeon, the Tiger Stadium bullpen. Nobody said a word. Then this vendor came to the bullpen and yelled out my name. I’m like, “What the hell is this going on?”

The vendor had a little cooler with a six-pack of beer and a pizza. It had a note on it. The guy says, “This is from Sparky. Enjoy it, you get the day off.” I was like, “Oh man, this is a trick. Sure, I’ll drink a beer in the bullpen and then they’ll probably ship me out.”

After the game, Sparky asked if I got my present. I told him I did, and he asked what I did with it. I said I gave it to the fans behind the bullpen. I said, “You ain’t gonna trick me.” He said, “No, I wanted you to have a good time. Watch the game and enjoy it.” I said, “I was just fine the way I was, skip.”

Amazing. I wanted to ask again about that ’87 pennant race. That was incredible. You and the Blue Jays were the best teams in baseball and in the era before the Wild Card, one of you was going to be out. You guys played them the last series of the year. What are your reflections on that series?

It came down to three games in Detroit and we had to sweep them to win the division and that’s just what we did. Let me tell you something; that place was rockin’. I remember driving to the park early and I’d never seen so many barbecue pits; people hootin’ and hollerin’. When the games started, there wasn’t a seat to be found. They were even buying seats behind the posts that held up the stinkin’ stadium. It was crazy.

The first game of that series you had a huge performance. You came into a 4-3 game with no outs in the ninth and runners on first and second and George Bell up. That was the year he hit 47 homers and won the MVP. The best run producer in baseball. Do you remember that situation?

I don’t remember a lot about it because I think I was in a coma. We had just come so far from when I first got there. Our team was on fire, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. I knew how big of a game it was. I just had to focus on getting George out, somehow, someway. Lo and behold, I got him out and we got out of it. We won that one, then the second game was kinda crazy.

Then the last game was unbelievable. We won 1-0 and Frank Tanana threw a complete game and was just battling. He was making people look sick. He threw this curve that was about 40 MPH then his fastball was maybe 80, but it looked about 120 because it came after the curve. He was just dealing.

I remember getting up in the bullpen but saying, “No, no, no. Frank is going nine.” My arm was sore as all heck, but after a while you block it out and I was ready if needed. But it was just a super game. Unbelievable.

That’s something you won’t see today. Jimmy Key was the Blue Jays starter and he and Tanana each pitched complete games with the season on the line. They both left it all out on the field. What are your thoughts on the way the role of pitchers has changed over the years?

The game has changed way too much. I’m still involved with baseball and now everything is on a computer. Everything is tracked. It’s like, you should just pick up your glove, ball and bat and just go play baseball. Where did that go? Now they analyze everything and it’s all on computers.

What if the starting pitcher is married with kids and he’s having a tough time at home? Maybe he’s getting an earful at home and the kids are screaming and now he’s gotta go to the park to start that night. Where does that show up on the computer?

There’s a human side of the game. That doesn’t show up, but it’s a big factor. But now it’s about velo and spin rate. It’s about how many times the ball rotates before it gets to the plate. I look at it this way: Did he get him out? Or did he not?

Henneman with the Texas Rangers. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

We at BallNine couldn’t agree more. I wanted to ask you about the 1989 All-Star Game. You were picked by Tony LaRussa for his bullpen. Where were you when you found out?

I pitched that day. I was like 8-0 out of the bullpen at that point. If I would have went 9-0, I would have set some record that hadn’t been broken in 70 years. I was pitching at Yankee Stadium and threw an outside fastball to Gary Ward. He hit an opposite field home run and we lost the game. I was like, “Man, that sucks.”

I came down into the dugout and they said, “By the way, Mike, you made the All-Star team.” I was in the pits and then just had this high when I found out I was picked. I just lost the game though and didn’t really feel like an All-Star.

The 1989 All-Star Game is a historic one too. Can you talk about your experience at the game?

Well to lead off the game you had [Wade] Boggs and Bo [Jackson] with back-to-back home runs. I was in awe when I looked around. I was like, “Wow, this is cool.” I was in the bullpen for those home runs. That shot by Bo was a bomb.

You had a career-high 31 saves in 1996 and were just 34 years old, but you retired after the season. What went into that decision?

It wasn’t a rough thing for me. I knew I was going to retire. I knew my body and my arm was worn out. I wasn’t gonna just hang around and bleed it and look like a fool the next year with a worn-out arm. It was tough because my last game was a loss in the playoffs against the Yankees. I just sat in my locker and said, “Well, that’s it.” Then President Bush came up to me and said, “Thanks for everything.”

That’s right! He was the owner at the time. What was he like as an owner?

He came around the locker room once in a while. He’d say, “What’s up guys? How you doing? Keep up the good work.” All that kinda stuff. It was really neat. The All-Star Game was really neat too because Ronald Reagan came into the clubhouse. I got a picture somewhere of me, Steve Sax and President Reagan. Very special.

That’s really special for sure. You have so many great stories. Do you have one last one you’d like to share?

Yeah, Kirk Gibson cheated on 21 every time I played him. That’s the game where you play catch and have to hit your target. Your opposing guy has to stand still, and you throw the ball to him. It’s one point if you hit the target between the shoulders and waist and two points if the guy catches the ball right in front of his face.

Kirk, for some ungodly reason, could never stand still when I threw the ball. His head would move when I’d throw the ball. I’d throw it right at his head and I’d say, “That’s two points, man.” He would say, “Nope, you missed it outside.” I’d say, “You’re fricking moving your head everywhere!”

He kept score of course. We would do it several times a week out in left field before anyone got out there. As soon as he’d hit 21, he’d take off screaming, “I got you! You’re not a pitcher!” I’d say, “Gibby, you’re a cheating ass!” We had so much fun; that’s just the ways the guys were.

This has been great to hear your stories. I really love talking to the guys I watched when I was growing up because I feel like I get the behind-the-scenes stories about these moments I watched as a kid. My last question for you is open-ended. Do you have any final reflections you’d like to leave for our readers?

I was blessed and fortunate to do what I did. I came from Festus, Missouri. If you’ve ever been to Festus, don’t blink because you’ll miss it. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would accomplish what I did. I don’t regret a thing. I gave 110% all the time. I enjoyed the camaraderie, and I had the best managers ever in Sparky Anderson and Johnny Oates.

I remember one time my dad was cooking pork steaks underneath the porch in our basement. We were listening to the Cardinals game. I was relatively young. I said, “Dad, where do these guys come from? The players? Where does God make them? Another planet or something?” Looking back, maybe I was born on that same planet.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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