Tom Henke’s early retirement might’ve cost him the Hall of Fame

In September 1995, Tom Henke capped a triumphant final season.

Pitching a single season for the Cardinals, near where he grew up in Missouri, Henke notched 36 saves with a 1.82 ERA, winning the Rolaids Relief Man Award. His 1.4 Wins Above Average that year are tied with Mariano Rivera for the fourth-best final season by a reliever in baseball history.

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But before the season began, Henke had decided he would hang up his spikes at year’s end. In fact, Henke and his wife Kathy had discussed him retiring after a tough 1994 season with the Rangers in which he’d dealt with a back injury before players went out on strike in August.

“I told Kathy, I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m done. I’m tired of all the politics in baseball and all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.’ I said, ‘I’d just as soon go home and be with the family,’” Henke told Sporting News in a phone interview from his Taos, Mo., home.

Only a call from the Cardinals in the months before the 1995 season changed Henke’s mind. Teams would call Henke for two to three years thereafter, trying to coax him back, with Tony La Russa particularly keen. But Henke knew he was done. For one thing, he didn’t want to become another player who hung on too long. He went out on top.

“It’s nice to be remembered in that light,” Henke said. “People remember your last year and they remember how dominant and how good you were that year. They attribute it to the rest of your life, almost. That’s a nice thing, it really is, instead of having people say, ‘Well, you hung on too long.’”

It’s funny, though. Henke’s decision might have cost him a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Cooperstown chances: 10 percent

Why: Both traditional and sabermetric measures suggest that just three or four more effective seasons in the majors might have vaulted Henke to near the top of the list of closers in baseball history.

Henke’s 12 Wins Above Average for his career are tied for 11th-best among relievers, according to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool. With a few more good years, Henke could reasonably have risen as high as Goose Goosage at third on this list with 16.4 Wins Above Average.

Among Hall of Fame relievers, at least in terms of sabermetrics, Rivera at 32.9 Wins Above Average and Hoyt Wilhelm at 26.9 are more or less in a class by themselves. Otherwise, it’s very much up for debate.

With a few more solid seasons, Henke also might have risen significantly up the list of save leaders. At the time of his retirement, Henke’s 311 saves ranked him fifth on the all-time list behind Lee Smith, Jeff Reardon, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. Since then, he’s tumbled to 22nd. But if he’d gotten to 400 saves, a reasonable goalpost with three or four more good years, Henke would be seventh on the all-time list.

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Saves are a flawed measure for relievers (they’re team- and situation-dependent), though they still determine much about how relievers are viewed in terms of all-time greatness.

Saves show Henke to have been among the best closers in baseball history. But there are plenty of other ways to measure his effectiveness. Debuting with the Rangers in 1982, he struggled with control in the early part of his career before the Blue Jays picked him up before the 1985 season.

With Toronto, Henke would go on to have some of the best years of his career and become renowed for his strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“I think it had to do with good mechanics,” Henke said when asked about this ratio. “I think all good pitching starts with delivering the ball properly to the plate with the least amount of effort.”

He added, “I was very fortunate to have some people in Toronto and Texas — but mainly in Toronto — that kind of tweaked and adjusted my mechanics and really got me in the strike zone (more) than I’d ever, ever been in my career. I know (Blue Jays pitching coach) Al Widmar told me at one point that for a power pitcher, I had as good of control as anybody he’d ever seen.”

Henke was the centerpiece of one of the first deep bullpens in baseball history.

“In ‘92 when we won everything, we had myself and Duane Ward, David Wells, Mike Timlin, David Weathers,” Henke said. “You could go right down the line. We had a pretty sound bullpen all the way through and then we had a strong starting staff, too.”

But aches began to chip away at Henke — a groin injury in Toronto, his back ailment with the Rangers and all the wear that accumulates on pitchers over the years that fans might never fully hear about. Henke recalled a visit to famed arthoscopic surgeon Dr. James Andrews.

Andrews told Henke, “Every time you throw a pitch, you tear your rotator cuff muscles. There are microscopic tears that go in there every time you use your arm like that.”

These tears could be repaired through a restful offseason, though Andrews’ words stuck with Henke. He could also see his physical ability beginning to fade.

“I just couldn’t do it much longer,” Henke said. “I understood that and I accepted that.”

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He admits that he almost certainly would have played a few more years had he not won a World Series ring with the Blue Jays in 1992. That’s what everyone plays for, after all.

“If we hadn’t won it, I might be coaching somewhere trying to get that ring in,” Henke said.

Henke is somewhat diffident on whether he belongs in Cooperstown.

“I don’t know,” Henke said. “I did the best I could when I played. I didn’t cheat, I didn’t use anything. I did it on natural ability. I worked hard every day. I think I represented the game.”

He added, “Tony La Russa, somebody asked him if I deserve to be in and he said, ‘Absolutely. Tom had everything you want in a Hall of Famer — longevity, helped the team win, represented the game the way it was supposed to be represented.’ I don’t know. I don’t dwell on stuff like that. It’s out of my control. Is 311 saves good enough? I don’t know.”

But Henke said he hasn’t rued his decision to walk away from baseball when he did. He’s maintained some involvement with the game, attending Cardinals fantasy camps, and said he’s happy to do things with the Blue Jays and Rangers when asked. He remains something of a celebrity every time he goes north of the U.S. border.

“They treat you so good, my wife said she has to shrink my head down when I come back home after I’ve been to Canada for awhile,” Henke said.

Over the past 22 years, Henke’s life has been about more than baseball. He’s gotten to watch his four children grow up, including a daughter, Amanda, who has Down Syndrome and still lives at home.

Working with Amanda has helped inspire Henke to run a golf tournament every October that has raised more than $1.3 million for charity, much of it for the Special Learning Center, a Jefferson City, Mo.-based school that benefits disabled children.

When he’s not running a 1,000-acre farm in Taos, close to where he grew up, 59-year-old Henke is going to Little League baseball games and other events with his seven grandchildren and spending time with his mother and father. In October, Henke and Kathy will celebrate 37 years of marriage.

“It was a good time to walk away,” Henke said of his retirement. “I know people say, ‘I guess you regret it.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t regret having all these years with my parents and seeing my kids grow up.’ I said, ‘How can you regret that?’”

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