An All-Star at 23: Gunnar Henderson’s time is now

Gunnar Henderson has reached a significant junction on his road to baseball stardom. And this week crystallizes the transition he’s about to make: From regional delight to national star, from Baltimore Orioles favorite to a regular on the game’s biggest stages.

On Wednesday night, Henderson was named to his first All-Star Game as the American League’s starting shortstop joined by teammate Adley Rutschman.

On Friday, tickets will go on sale for an Aug. 5 ‘Meet The Birds’ event at Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, where fans can take photos with Henderson, buy raffle tickets and indulge in one of the more than two dozen menu items featuring Maryland crab.

Henderson, who just celebrated his 23rd birthday, for the moment sounds more bullish on the seafood feast than the prospect of his first All-Star Game. Jimmy’s, he says, has been ‘so good to me and my family,’ no small matter for a kid from Alabama whose No. 1 pastime beyond the diamond is pulling fish out of the water.

Yet Henderson’s greatness on that diamond is about to take him higher.

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He’s arguably the best player in the AL, with his 6.2 WAR leading the major leagues and giving him an objective edge. While others argue that crown belongs to New York Yankees superstar Aaron Judge until someone takes it, Henderson’s 26 homers to Judge’s 32 and .988 OPS to Judge’s 1.158 are buttressed by the fact he’s producing those numbers while playing shortstop at a Gold Glove level.

Henderson, Orioles ace Corbin Burnes says, is simply ‘electric on both sides of the ball.’

Now, he’s set to restart a Baltimore tradition.

Cal Ripken Jr. set an All-Star Game record by getting elected via fan balloting 17 times – from 1984-87 and 1989-2001. The latter span covered the early, peak years of shortstop superstars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, a testament to the love fans had for Ripken leading up to and in the aftermath of him breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak in 1995.

This spring, Ripken joined the Orioles’ new ownership group, and has watched more games from his field level perch this season than recent ones. Naturally, there’s one player he probably fixates on a little more.

‘I love watching him play shortstop,’ Ripken tells USA TODAY Sports. ‘He’s a big, strong guy but many times the style of play it’s almost what the small guys develop – being able to throw on the run, to go out on the grass and throw a dart to throw out a runner. I love watching him develop. He’s great right now. But he’s going to continue to get better.

‘We don’t know what his full potential is. We don’t know what the ceiling is.’

Nowadays, online balloting and widespread access to advanced statistics means we likely won’t see another Ripken-esque streak at the ballot box. Yet given Henderson’s youth, skills and health (knock wood), something close to perennial candidacy certainly seems reasonable.

Right now, he’s the guy putting on for the seafood shack and the regional outdoors supply store with his teammates. Might always be that guy.

Yet as Henderson only continues taking huge steps on the field, his renown off the field is steadily increasing.

‘Kind of a freak, physically’

The bat will go, says Henderson, in a special place.

He received it two weeks ago, when Philadelphia Phillies superstar Bryce Harper fulfilled his request and sent him a signed piece of lumber. That both stars share agent Scott Boras as their representation didn’t hurt.

Yet it’s those little steps toward stardom that keep leading toward a more prominent destination.

Sunday, Henderson was mic’d up for ESPN’s ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ broadcast. That same night, he announced he’d participate in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game.

And on his feet, he wore a specially designed pair of Under Armour spikes featuring actual Legos, another of his quiet time passions.

Baseball is increasingly a younger man’s game, seen in the oft-whimsical way emerging stars express themselves. Yet Henderson recognizes his time is precious, that to be the total player he is – he’s stolen 13 bases in 14 attempts and runs the bases with aggression and efficiency – requires management.

Even if his burgeoning mustache, which is finally acquiring some heft, confirms that yes, he’s still not much older than the kids clamoring for his autograph.

‘I just feel like I’m going into each day with a good idea of what I want to accomplish,’ says Henderson. ‘Whether it’s in the cage or on the field, just really being aware of what I want to do. Working with the hitting coaches and infield coaches, I’ve been able to accomplish that.

‘And monitoring how much I’m doing per day to give my body a rest, especially playing every day. I feel like that’s the biggest thing.’

Henderson played in the Orioles’ first 65 games before manager Brandon Hyde gave him a day off. Not that he needed a boost, but in 18 games since, Henderson batted .338 with a .417 OBP and 1.038 OPS.

No, he won’t come close to Ripken’s Iron Man streak, not in this load management era. But he’s threatening to replicate another of Ripken’s feats – winning AL Rookie of the Year and MVP in consecutive seasons, as Ripken did in 1982-83.

It’s simply continuing a progression his Orioles teammates have witnessed since he was chosen 42nd overall in the 2019 draft, perhaps taking his largest leap forward in 2020, when the minor leagues were shut down but he faced much older competition at Baltimore’s alternate site camp.

‘They say from the alternate site on, it felt like every year he showed up he got better and better,’ says rookie outfielder Colton Cowser. ‘Based on what I’ve seen this season, it seems like it’s still true to this day.

‘He’s the same guy every day. He knows what he wants to feel before he goes out there. There’s not really any deviation. He’s just kind of a freak, physically. And he loves the game. That’s what you see out of him every single game.’

The believers are all over the American League. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora says Henderson is ‘going to be a pain in the butt in the AL East for a while.’ That belief was inspired beyond Henderson’s game exploits.

‘He’s very physical. He’s a good athlete. He has a great swing,’ says Cora. ‘I saw him working before the game and every rep was game like. He seems like a humble kid, that he just wants to play baseball.’

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais stared out one morning at Camden Yards’ redesigned left field, where the night before, Henderson drove a pitch 410 feet the opposite way, scaling the now 13-foot wall for a solo homer.

The new dimensions were supposed to prevent those kinds of blasts, which had Servais in a throwback mood.

‘I’ve only seen a couple left-handed hitters hit the ball like that the other way. Josh Hamilton was one,’ Servais said of the former Texas Rangers slugger who once hit four home runs in a game at Camden Yards. ‘I played with Barry Bonds. He could do those type of things.

‘It’s very unique to see a left-handed hitter hit the ball that hard the other way.’

A star among stars

When the All-Stars convene in Arlington, Texas, for the July 16 game, Henderson’s head might be spinning a bit, as can happen to first-timers. The endless procession of Hall of Famers and surefire future ones, and peers expressing their admiration is a lot for a period of barely more than 48 hours.

There will be wide-eyed kids wanting a glimpse of Gunnar, too. When he was a kid, Henderson admired not a hitter but rather 6-foot-10 flamethrower Randy Johnson, simply for the intimidation factor.

As he grew into the dynamic talent he is, reigning World Series MVP Corey Seager became something close to a player he thought he might try to replicate.

Yet Henderson, at 6-3 and 220 pounds, is an inch shorter than Seager. He stands eye to eye with Jeter and A-Rod, stronger than the former, not as bulky as the latter.

Ripken has considered this concept, as a 6-4, 200-pounder built like a rock yet revolutionizing the shortstop position as one of power, where the glove is paramount but not at the expense of the bat.

And he feels Henderson is almost a hybrid of himself and 13-time Gold Glover Ozzie Smith – capable of making ‘the boring play’ and hitting the ball out of the ballpark, but also inspiring awe defensively.

‘When I look at Gunnar, he almost has the styles and abilities of someone smaller. I’m not sure how he does it,’ says Ripken. ‘He’s got tremendous power, steals bases, very athletic.’

He also nearly stands even with the 6-4 Ripken, whose increased presence around Camden Yards includes very occasional clubhouse appearances, where he’s taken time for chats with his heir apparent.

‘He’s been really helpful on my end, telling me what he went through, and what’s to come,’ says Henderson of the two-time MVP and Hall of Famer, who clutched the last out of Baltimore’s most recent World Series title, in 1983. ‘Very glad he’s able to come do that.

‘His playing career speaks for itself. Hall of Famer, the best to ever do it at short. Just glad he’s on our side and available for us.’

Someday, they might say the same about Henderson. Ripken says he cherished his time at All-Star Games, where he made a point to chat with Yankees great Don Mattingly, along with his shortstop contemporaries. After gracing that stage and winning a World Series, he suddenly would get recognized, be it a deliveryman in New York telling him the Yankees would ‘beat his butt that night’ or fans clamoring for a glimpse of the Iron Man.

The game doesn’t quite have a grip on the nation as it did in Ripken’s days. Nonetheless, things may soon be changing for Henderson – even if it won’t change him that much.

‘You went from your name and accomplishments being there to it starting to change, starting to recognize you outside your uniform,’ remembers Ripken. ‘I don’t think it’ll change Gunnar much. He’s a gamer, he wants to play every day, be in the thick of things and at the plate when game is on the line.’

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