by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
If any ball team deserved a break, it was the Elk River Pioneers and their hard-working manager Ken Ott. And they got one this year when former big league pitcher Ben Hendrickson fell into their laps
The 6-foot-4 right-hander, three years removed from a nine-year pro career that included 12 starts with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2004 and 2006, has struck out 67 batters in 41 innings. He’s been strong in six of seven starts although his record is a misleading 2-2 with a 2.19 ERA. He shut down Anoka 2-1 in the playoffs last Sunday and his previous start was a 1-0 loss to Howard Lake. The Pioneers (16-9) have won three other games he started.
“It’s good to be back out playing again,” said Hendrickson. “I had not really competed in three years, since the spring training when I got hurt. I’m just playing for fun now. Baseball should be fun.”
His peak year was 2004 when he joined the big club for eight weeks after earning International League Player of the Year honors with Indianapolis in Triple A.
“Greatest 55 days of my life,” smiled Hendrickson, who was 23 then. “You didn’t even have to carry your own luggage in the big leagues. My first game was in Dodger Stadium. The first person to wish me luck was Vin Scully. It was a great time.”
This was the Sammy Sosa-Barry Bonds home run derby era.
“Sammy Sosa hit a homer off me and did the little hop. I never faced Barry Bonds but we played against them. An unbelievable athlete.”
Hendrickson, whose career ended with a shoulder injury at spring training with the Twins in 2009, stopped by Hales Field last summer to watch a game after golfing at Elk River Golf Club with his dad. He wound up chatting with Ott and the manager quickly signed him up. In a relief appearance the next game, against Blaine, Hendrickson lasted just five pitches because “something popped” related to scar tissue. But he kept the Pioneers in mind over the winter by throwing a lot and getting back in shape. He worked with Elk River kids at the invitation of Pioneer teammate Jim Brown.
“I was throwing 86, 87 in the middle of the winter, and everyone said, you’ve got to play,” said Hendrickson, who threw about 93 in his best days.
Hendrickson is not the only reason the Pioneers are winning in 2013 after six seasons below .500 (five starters have pitched well), but he’s certainly the marquee thrower.
“His two-seam fast ball has a lot of life to it,” said Pioneer catcher Brien Geerdes. “He has what I imagine a big-league curve ball and big-league change-up looks like. He’s a lot of fun to catch!”
Ott, a retiree who puts in a huge amount of time looking after the ball club, is elated to have Hendrickson.
“He’s been through it all, at the highest levels. He’s a big asset to the whole team.”
Hendrickson, 32, lives in Plymouth, works as an account manager for a Fridley firm, and coaches his son Kambryn’s baseball team. His wife, Tanya, a physical therapist, was working with major leaguers and PGA players in Arizona when they met. She now has her own clinic in Eden Prairie and helps get her husband ready to pitch.
In high school, Hendrickson starred for Bloomington Jefferson and the Bloomington Blue Legion, which reached nationals, and was captain of the Jaguar basketball team that fell one game short of state in 1999. He was set to join the Gophers when the Brewers drafted him in the 10th round.
In nine minor league summers, Hendrickson had a 75-62 record with 3.70 ERA, including 47-37 with a 3.95 ERA in four Triple-A seasons. He was 11-3 and 2.02 with Indianapolis in 2004, and got a ring in 2006, helping Nashville win the Triple A World Series.
“I always pitched great in Triple A, but I could never get over the hump in the majors,” he said.
In his Dodger Stadium debut he went five innings and lost 5-2 to LA’s Edwin Jackson. That was a spot start on June 2. He was back for good on July 19. He wound up with a 1-8 record, 6.22 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 46.3 innings. The victory came against Cincinnati, 7-3 (six innings, two runs) with 26,059 fans on hand Sept. 4 at Miller Park. He had a good outing (six innings, two runs) in a 4-2 loss to St. Louis.
He was back at Nashville the next year. The Brewers brought him up briefly in 2006; he was 0-2 with a 12.00 ERA in three games. A free agent after that, he played in the Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Twins chains. He won six starts in a row in 2007 with Omaha and was hopeful, but didn’t get a call-up to the Royals.
He avoided injury until his luck run out early in spring training in 2009 in Fort Meyers. “It wasn’t even from throwing a pitch,” he groused. While spinning for a pickoff move to second base, he got his spike tangled, and his shoulder blew out. “It felt like somebody took a knife,” he recalls, “and jammed it the back of my shoulder, repeatedly.”
Hendrickson said the Twins doctor didn’t handle it right. He got a second surgery from Dr. James Andrews, who fixed up Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson among others. But at 29 there would be no comeback for Hendrickson. “Worst feeling the world,” he said about the end of his career.
Married with a son by then, with no education to fall back on, Hendrickson enrolled in an online college, Grand Canyon University, to study accounting. He just finished last month, but he’s been working all along for an uncle at the company in Fridley.
And now he’s playing ball again, just for fun.
“I’d like to be back next year if they’ll have me.”
Pretty sure they would.
THE HENDRICKSON SCORECARD
Personal file — Age: 32 … Family: wife Tanya; son Kambryn, 7 … Sport: baseball … Hometown: Bloomington … Residence: Plymouth … Occupation: account manager; formerly pro baseball
Favorite stuff — TV show: “Necessary Roughness” …. Movie: “For the Love of the Game” … Food: Tanya’s Greek lasagna …. Drink: milk … Team: Vikings … Athletes: “Dennis Rodman, and my dad” …. Kickback activities: Hunting, ice fishing, coaching his son’s team … Wants to visit: “Dodger Stadium. I want to go back and pitch again!”