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Monday, August 27, 2012

Dan Henley Interview, Part 1, That Dream

Glendora High School baseball coach and English teacher Dan Henley in July 2012. Henley played six seasons as a pro, but never made the majors. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: That Dream | Part 2: No Regrets 

LA VERNE, CA - The Bakersfield Dodgers were heading into a double header that day in 1988 without a healthy catcher, Dan Henley recalled.

The manager's solution? Ask for a volunteer.

Stepping forward was Henley, regularly an infielder. Henley had caught previously, nevermind that the last time he did so was back around Little League.

The result: "It was the longest double header of my life," Henley said. "My heart goes out to catchers."

"But," Henley added a short time later, "you'll do anything to play because of that dream."

Henley's dream, like any other player in his shoes, was to make the major leagues. To achieve that, he had to stay on the field, playing, whether that be in his regular slot in the infield, or in an unusual spot, like catcher.

For Henley, though, his dream was one that was never realized.

But it was a dream that led into another path, that of a high school English teacher and baseball coach. For the past two decades, Henley has taught teenagers the value of reading and writing, and done it with a nod to the game he played professionally for six seasons.

Henley spoke to The Greatest 21 Days in late July at a La Verne, Ca., Chili's, a few miles from the high school where he now works, Glendora High School in Glendora, Ca.
Members of the Bakersfield Blaze at Sam Lynn Ballpark in July 2012. Dan Henley played for Bakersfield at Sam Lynn in 1987 and 1988. (G21D Photo)
Over lunch, Henley covered his career in the game, growing up with a minor league manager and a scout as a father. He also spoke of going off to college at USC, then signing as a pro with his hometown team, the Dodgers.

He then spoke of how injuries threatened to derail his career early on, then finally did in the end. And how he's worked with high school players, trying to pass on the lessons his father taught him, and the lessons he learned as a pro, to his young players.

Henley grew up in Southern California, son of longtime Dodger scout and minor league manager Gail Henley. The father had been a player himself, getting one brief major league shot, 14 games, with the Pirates in 1954.

Some of Dan Henley's earliest memories are of going to games his father managed or scouted. One time he even remembered seeing the legendary Casey Stengel at Stengel Field in Glendale. Dan Henley was old enough to know who Stengel was.

When his father was a manager, Henley got to spend time with him and the team. When he was about 14, his father managed in the Pioneer League, in Lethbridge, Alberta. The son got to spend time with the team, getting to experience life in the minors.

Part of that life was the bus travel, including the 14-hour bus rides. One such ride was from Great Falls, Mont., to Idaho Falls, Idaho. On that trip, Henley was given a special job to do: Keep the bus driver awake.

When it came time for Henley to get on the field himself, he recalled learning by watching, and then doing.
Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark in July 2012. Dan Henley played at Sam Lynn in 1987 and 1988, catching one double header for the team. (G21D Photo)
"I was able to spend a lot of time watching my dad do his thing," Henley recalled. "As far as direct instruction, mostly it was watching and then replicating."

The replicating helped when his father was away on his scouting trips to the East or Midwest.

His desire to play professionally, and make it to the biggest stage, was always there. He met his wife Pam in the 10th grade. He recalled relaying that dream to her early on, responding to her question about what he wanted to do for a living.

"I said 'I want to be a professional baseball player. I want to play in the big leagues," Henley recalled. "And she laughed."

She wanted to be a school teacher. They've been married for nearly 25 years now, with two boys. Henley eventually joined her in the teaching ranks.

But Henley did play baseball professionally. He did so after going through USC.

Heavily recruited out of high school, Henley accepted a scholarship to be a Trojan. It was also the same school his father went to and played ball at.

There, Henley got to play for the legendary USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux. Henley ended up being Dedeaux' last team captain in 45 years as USC coach, something Henley said he was blessed to be able to say.

Henley also got to play with some other rising stars. Mark McGwire was a hear ahead of him. Randy Johnson was there, too.

Fiscalini Field in San Bernardino, former home to the San Bernardino Spirit. Dan Henley played at Fiscalini in 1987 and 1988 as a member of the visiting Bakersfield Dodgers. (G21D Photo)
"That's when it became more of a reality," Henley said of realizing he might have some talent himself, "because you're surrounded by some pretty good players."

Early on at USC, Henley struggled with injury. He'd already had one knee surgery from a high school basketball injury. Then, in his sophomore year, came another injury on an attempted double play.

"It was at Arizona State, I was playing second base," Henley recalled, "and had no fear. I tried to turn it and it was ugly."

Of the injuries, Henley said they just hardened his resolve to get back onto the field.

"It builds character, makes you stronger, you get through it," Henley said. "I didn't think about the ramification. It was just another obstacle.

By his junior year, Henley was back and good enough to get drafted. The Mets took him in the sixth round. Henley then had a tough decision to make. He really wanted to go pro. But he also wanted it to be on the right terms.

Before talking contract, Henley turned to his father the scout for advice. His father did know the Mets scout, after all. Gail Henley, though, said his was on his own.

Henley looked for a certain number from the scout, $40,000. When he didn't get it, the negotiations went on but Henley went to play summer ball in Alaska.

"That was really hard," Henley said of the talks, "because I really wanted to go out and play professional baseball. It's a real lure."

In Alaska, Henley played baseball almost every day. He also experienced the nearly 24-hour light of the Alaska summer, sleeping with the blinders on at first. One time he remembered even going out on an off-day hike with some teammates, starting at 9 p.m.

Talks with the Mets finally broke down and Henley returned to USC for his senior year.

After that final season with the Trojans, another team came calling. This time it was Henley's hometown Dodgers, the same team his father scouted for.

Go to Part 2, Dan Henley, No Regrets

Part 1: That Dream | Part 2: No Regrets

Note: This is the sixth of 10 interviews picked up on The Greatest 21 Days' late July trip to central and southern California. Links to other interviews are on the righthand column.

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