ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Less than a month before his 39th birthday, the tallest player in the International League walks slowly toward his cubicle in a cramped corner of the visitors clubhouse.
Mark Hendrickson isn’t regaling his Norfolk Tides teammates with tales of being Allen Iverson’s teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s busy concentrating on getting back to the big leagues.
In an unlikely comeback, Hendrickson seems relaxed. His wife and three children, including the infant daughter born two months ago are visiting for the weekend. They’ve driven the two hours from York, Pa. to see him.
The travel is hard. There was the seven-hour bus ride from Norfolk to Allentown, very tricky for a 6-foot-9 inch man.
“The schedule’s been more of a grind than it was last time I was here,” he said.
It’s mostly bus rides with some Southwest flights mixed in for longer trips, but he’s not complaining.
After nearly a decade in the big leagues, Hendrickson was out of work last year, hanging out with his family, playing semipro ball and dabbling in real estate.
After he started experimenting with a sidearm pitch, the Orioles agreed to let him come into spring training. He wasn’t expected to make the team, but stayed until the last week of training camp. He joined a Norfolk team full of veterans.
“I was a little scared the first week to be honest because I thought maybe it would go the other way. When you get a veteran team in Triple-A, it can be a disaster just because you’ve got guys that have experienced the big leagues. Chemistry may not be there. After the first week, we started playing well,” Hendrickson said.
“They’re working and not complaining.”
On Thursday night, Hendrickson rolled through 2 1/3 perfect innings. His manager Ron Johnson called it his best outing of the year. So far, Hendrickson is 0-1 with a 3.43 ERA with one save, when he allowed Syracuse just one hit in three innings on May 12.
He’s been making the adjustment to full-time sidearmer.
“If I look at the first month compared to this month, I think I started to figure some things out probably about three weeks ago. I noticed quite a bit of differences, just getting back to pitching versus throwing,” Hendrickson said.
“Early in the year, I was throwing because I didn’t have a feel for all my pitches. I didn’t have a feel for my delivery. Now, it seems to be more consistent. Now, it’s back to focusing on pitching. I think I’m seeing results as I get more confidence with everything.”
In 2011, Hendrickson spent most of the season with Norfolk with eight Orioles appearances.
“Anything down here, I’m going to try to evaluate it from a big league standout versus maybe what I see as far as results because sometimes you get fooled down here thinking maybe your results are better than what they are.
“The confidence is there. I’m just trusting the process. I just try to work it and believe it and what they’re trying to do. Kind of night and day from what it was in spring training,” Hendrickson said.
On Friday, Hendrickson wouldn’t pitch. Nor would Steve Johnson, who was scheduled to start. Instead Johnson would find out deep into the night that he was getting the call to rejoin the Orioles. There’s a lot of that with the Tides. Hendrickson doesn’t necessarily think that it’s all good.
“Some of them are shorter stints than others, and I think ultimately guys would want a little bit more permanent thing, not that they’re going to complain. Ultimately, it’s the way it is. They give you opportunities. It’s up to guys in this room to take advantage of it,” Hendrickson said.
Can Hendrickson be one of those guys to make it back to the big leagues?
“Everything‘s possible,” Ron Johnson said. “I would think that’s why he’s here.”
Some might think it was a success already, making it back to a heartbeat away from the major leagues. Hendrickson, the rare athlete who’s played for four different NBA teams and five major league teams, is hedging.
“I would say I base it on how good I believe I can be. I’m starting to see potential that this is something we saw in the offseason. Ultimately, my goal is to be as good as I can be at the highest level. That’s why I did it, but if I focus on the process and how I’m developing, if I stick to that, the rest will take care of itself,” Hendrickson said.