Sumter Henderson

So I started telling y’all about growing up a fan of the Tennessee Smokies and I guess I got all distracted with some of the stuff that was going down with Joyce.  Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to the Smokies…and one player in particular.

Smokies Jersey

Sumter Henderson was only with the Smokies for two seasons, but they were probably my two favorites growing up: 2009 and 2010. The Smokies made it to the South Atlantic League championship series both years, although they lost to Jacksonville both times. I was 16 and 17 those seasons. Believe me, those defeats hurt way worse than watching the Dodgers give up the World Series last year.

When I turned 16 in November, 2008, Dad and Mom got me a 2001 blue Toyota Camry, on the condition that I share it with Melanie Kate when she turned 16 the next year. It wasn’t the coolest car in the Maryville High parking lot…but I was 16 and I had a ride.

Since I had that car those two summers, my buddies and I spent a lot of time at Smokies Stadium. I even went to a few games with just my score book for company. The team was playing great, and they had a shortstop who was killing it game after game.

That shortstop was #23, Sumter Henderson.

There was no question by the time I was 16 that I was a natural shortstop, and, if I was ever going to have a career, it would be at short. So I kept my eye on the shortstop whenever I was watching a game. And Sumter Henderson was the best defensive shortstop I’d ever seen play live. He made all kinds of incredible catches and crazy throws – there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to make a play and he wasn’t letting no ball get past him if he could humanly help it. And if there was a double play, it was like the guy at 2nd had the ball before he knew what had happened.

I thought I knew a lot about playing my position before Sumter got to the Smokies in 2009. He got me to see possibilities that I didn’t even know were there.

From the name, you’ll probably guess that Sumter Henderson was a Southerner like me. He hails from Yellow Bluff, Alabama…and maybe the town’ll become famous as the birthplace of a legendary major league shortstop. If you can even call it a town: it’s got less than 200 people living there. So the next time y’all think I’m from a small town, think of Yellow Bluff lol. The Smokies are like any other ball club today, and have players from everywhere, from Yankees all the way to dudes from the Dominican Republic. We even had a couple guys from Japan when I was growing up. But imagine yourself a Southern boy who plays shortstop and your favorite team’s got a Southerner playing short…

So Dad and I were at the first home game of the 2009 season, and I was very curious about the new shortstop from Alabama. He was officially 6’1” – somewhere between the regular (my size) and super tall (Corey Seager) kinds of shortstop – and the program had him at 215#. Solid. Probably hit with a lot of power. When he took the field, I thought he looked like he listened to Chris Young (and maybe a little Skynrd) in his truck.

He doubled and walked once in that first game (I know that because I made Dad go up to the attic and look it up in my score books before I wrote this), but what I remember about that game was a crazy catch he made and his totally insane throw to 1st. The ball was a bouncing grounder and they had the shift on, so he was alone on his side of the field. He had to run towards 3rd to scoop up the ball, and I was sure he wasn’t going to make it. He did. Then he threw it to 1st without breaking his stride. I’ve seen shortstops turn on a dime and make a throw in a split second (that includes me lol), but doing it without stopping and practically without looking…that was like the most incredible play I’d ever seen. Maybe I’m remembering it better than it was…but it was still one of the great baseball moments of my life.

It still is.

He batted .282 that summer (and .316 the next) and had 29 home runs. So I was right about the power. Those would be fantastic numbers in the majors, but remember this was AA – so he was only facing AA pitching.

2009 had been an incredibly exciting summer, even if I was totally crushed when the Smokies lost the championship. Totally crushed means I couldn’t talk about it with anyone – even my closest buddies – for a week.

My birthday is on November 8. You always got to pick the menu for your birthday dinner, and I chose (like I always did) deviled eggs, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and Meemaw’s coconut cake. I was excited about dinner (what 17 year old Southern boy isn’t going to be excited about his mom’s fried chicken and his meemaw’s coconut cake?), and when I took a look in the dining room, I saw that there were 8 places set. But there were only 7 of us – me, Mom, Dad, Meemaw, Melanie Kate, Cordelia and Portia. Nobody knew who the extra guest was, except Mom…and she wasn’t telling me.

Dad usually came home from work around 7, and we had dinner at 7:30. (You did not miss dinner at the Block house. You got there on time and you stayed at table until you’d had dessert and Mom said you could be excused.) When Dad got home on my 17th birthday, he said that he’d brought someone home from work and that I should let him in.

I guess y’all have guessed already who it was.

Sumter Henderson.

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