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A Major Step Forward

Former football star struggles at triple A but vows to make Yankees

July 07, 2002|ANDY RESNIK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Drew Henson is sticking with his plan. He wants to be like Mike Schmidt instead of John Elway.

"I'm a baseball player," he says.

Time will tell whether he's a good one.

Henson is struggling in his first full season in triple A since deciding on being a third baseman instead of a quarterback.

But instead of being discouraged by his play for the Columbus Clippers, Henson remains confident. He plans to be in The Bronx next season, alongside Derek Jeter in the Yankees' infield.

"That's the reason I'm playing this sport is for those kind of opportunities," Henson said. "I'm one of the luckiest guys around to be put in such a great situation. The excitement's there and that's what motivates me to keep trying to get better and get up there."

Henson, though, didn't always feel that way.

The Yankees traded Henson to Cincinnati in the summer of 2000 when the team couldn't persuade him to turn in his helmet for a cap. Frustrated by his unwillingness to commit to them, the Reds shipped Henson back to New York in March 2001.

Days later, Henson signed a six-year, $17 million contract that included a provision that he had to skip his senior season at Michigan and could not play professional football.

The money didn't equal what Henson would have made as a top pick in this year's NFL draft, but he thought it was a substantial commitment from the Yankees--a team that doesn't settle for second best.

"It had to be done right then," he said. "The opportunity to play for this organization and fit into their plans down the road wasn't something I could afford to put off any longer."

While Henson struggles to hit .260 and has committed 20 errors this season, Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman is confident that Henson is on course to play in the majors.

Robin Ventura's solid play this season means the Yankees can wait another year for Henson to improve.

"He's our third baseman of the future," Cashman said. "As far as his path and projection, he's like a good book. You want to take it page by page and not rush it. You want to give it time because you know it's going to be a good read."

Columbus Manager Stump Merrill, who's worked for the Yankees for 26 years, likes Henson's intelligence, his work ethic and his willingness to learn.

But there's one thing holding Henson back, Merrill said. "I can sum it up in one word real easy: experience."

Henson struggles with breaking balls and changeups--like most young hitters--and sometimes is out of position in the field.

In a game last week, he committed two errors in one inning, leading to an unearned run in a 10-3 loss.

In football, Henson never seemed to make a mistake for the Wolverines.

In November 2000, he threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns and ran for the clinching score with just over a minute left as Michigan beat Ohio State, 38-26, before 98,568 at Ohio Stadium. His arm and mobility drew comparisons to Elway. Scouts said he could be the first pick in the 2002 NFL draft.

So why is Henson spending the summer in Columbus instead of the Houston Texans' training camp? "It all came down to what I wanted to do," he said.

This year, playing baseball has included getting booed by Clipper fans who seem unwilling to accept a former Wolverine in the heart of Buckeye country. But Henson isn't fazed.

"You've got maybe 2,000 or 3,000 people here (in Cooper Stadium) on average compared to 95,000 like they had at the Horseshoe," he said. "It's no comparison.... I've been booed worse and I will be booed worse."

Henson said he's currently a better football player than baseball player, but that will change.

"You have to put in your time," he said. "It's just putting it together and being consistent for weeks at a time and proving that to the Yankees."

No matter what happens with the Yankees, Henson has no plans to return to football.

"It's really a non-issue," he said. "I love playing baseball and this is what I do for a living. Football is something I did in college and had a great time doing it, but it's nothing more than that."

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