WASHINGTON -- Bob Henley went back to Grand Bay, Alabama as he does each offseason once the games end.
The place is small, just 3,672 residents as of the 2010 Census, and Henley is one of its most famous residents. He surfaced from this place about 26 minutes southwest of Mobile down I-10 to make it the major leagues in 1998 as a catcher. He was 25 years old. The 41 games he played marked his first and last season in the majors before a bevy of injuries shifted him to coaching. Montreal drafted him in 1991. He’s been attached to the organization since.
So, when Henley went back to Grand Bay this offseason, he was finally World Series Champions Bobby Henley. And, championships change everything. Even in tiny towns for lifelong residents. In Henley’s case, it meant a new title and directive from his mother: he was to be the Grand Marshall in the Grand Bay Christmas Parade, which is filled with floats, flying objects and an unusual sleigh for Santa.
“Which is a BIG deal back home,” Henley said. “Not so much the Grand Marshall, but the Christmas parade. Santa Claus on top of a fire truck and somebody’s got to lead the pack. So, they asked me -- well, through my mother -- they said, ‘Bobby, we want you to be the Grand Marshall.’ And I said, ‘Well, mama what is that?’ She said that means you sit on a car out there in front, the convertible and whatnot, and you lead the parade.
“I said, ‘I’m not sitting on a convertible car, momma. I’m not doing that.’
“She goes, ‘Oh, you’re doing it.’
“I said, wait a minute....I’ll do it, but I’m not sitting on the car. She goes, ‘Well, we’ll talk about that.’”
Henley, 46, was trapped by two mighty forces: his momma and the town’s desire. Dec. 9, he joined the front of the parade through town. The first float was essentially a hay ride with “four or five” kids who are Nationals fans. Each float decides what to throw into the crowd. These kids threw oatmeal pies.
“And I basically just walked around -- it was only two miles -- hugged everybody’s neck, wore my uniform top,” Henley said. “I think they just wanted to say we watched. Even though it’s kind of an Atlanta area and it’s a little bit close to Houston, boy, they were watching every pitch.
“They said, ‘We were nervous at this point. We were excited at this point. I couldn’t even watch, I had to turn it off, put it on record and the next day it was like, ‘Yeah, they won!’ So they were super-excited.”
Henley spends his time between leading parades and teaching young outfielders in the nation’s capital on his property. It’s three acres with a well-stocked pond which continues to expand and has him wondering if it now qualifies as a lake. His son rejiggered the netting on a backyard trampoline so he could use it as a launching pad into the water. The trampoline is now on the other side of the yard.
But, the hometown parade, much like the one in the District or when wading through fans at Nationals Winterfest, provided Henley a chance to say thanks back. The odds of his journey are low. Yet, he’s now a World Series champion, in charge of most of his life until his momma calls with a directive.
“I just wanted them to feel part of it,” Henley said. “When I came from that town and had an opportunity to play professionally -- going to the major leagues from a town that small is like going to the moon. You know this is a goal, but it’s just so far-fetched. When that happened, then all of a sudden your career is cut short because of injury, and they ask you to coach. It’s either go to the shipyard or coach, I said, well, let’s try coaching first.
“And now to look back at the journey and to win a World Series title -- been here for so many years -- and you see how many people it impacts throughout the area and the organization, all the families and the kids and people who will probably be Nats fans forever and how excited they are, it just makes you feel wonderful.”
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