One of the most overpowering relievers of the late 1980s, Henke combined a 95-mph fastball with an effective forkball to average more than a strikeout per inning. After appearing in 41 games over three seasons for the Texas Rangers, Henke was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays as compensation when Texas signed free agent Cliff Johnson. He pitched impressively at Syracuse (International League) before being called up to Toronto on July 28, 1985. In his first month, Henke recorded eight saves; prior to 1985, the most saves by a Blue Jay reliever in an entire season was 11. Henke converted 13 of his 15 opportunities into saves in 1985, and by the time of the 1985 LCS, "The Ballad of Tom Henke" was being played over loudspeakers outside Exhibition Stadium.
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In 1986 Henke's 27 saves set a new Blue Jay record, which he broke in 1987 with a league-leading 34. In 1987 Henke allowed fewer hits (5.9) and recorded more strikeouts (12.3) per nine innings than any other AL pitcher.
The reliever struggled in 1988 and 1989, and was forced to share closing responsibilities with emerging young pitcher Duane Ward. However, Ward fell short of the Jays' expectations in 1989, and Henke was once again the sole go-to man. Henke stayed with Toronto through the 1992 season, limiting his opponents to a pesky .213 batting average or below each year. In 1992, Henke was on hand for the first of the Blue Jays' two World Series victories.
Henke rejoined the Rangers as a free agent after the '92 season, and proved he was still a top echelon fireman the following year, as he notched 40 saves with a 2.91 ERA during the '93 campaign. The following year was a bit more troublesome, as he missed a month with a bulging disc in his back, and posted his highest ERA to date, 3.79. Thinking he'd had enough, Henke chose to retire.
However, the bespectacled reliever didn't want to leave baseball after a poor (by his standards) season, and quickly reneged on his retirement plan. In December 1994, Henke joined the St. Louis Cardinals, pleased to be pitching in his hometown state of Missouri. Though the opposition may have felt that Henke was not the pitcher that he was in the 1980s, he still dominated in his first (and only) year in the National League, earning 36 saves with a 1.82 ERA. As icing on his cake, he also notched his 300th save on April 18, 1995, and took home the Rolaids Relief Award that fall. It was a marked difference from his season before, and Henke chose to retire from baseball on that good note, leaving St. Louis after the 1995 campaign. (TF/AG)
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FROM THE BASEBALL CHRONOLOGY
»June 3, 1980:
The New York Mets select 18-year-old Darryl Strawberry from Los Angeles's Crenshaw High School with the first pick in the annual June free-agent draft. The Blue Jays then pick SS Garry Harris. Lefty Ken Dayley (Braves) is the 3rd pick, pitcher Mike King (A's) 4th, Jeff Pyburn (Padres) 5th, and Darnell Coles (M's) 6th. The Reds pick Danny Tartabull on the 3rd round and Eric Davis on the 8th. On the 16th round, the Twins take Jim Eisenreich while the Red Sox pick Oil Can Boyd. On the 4th round of the secondary phase draft on June 5, the Rangers find gold with Tom Henke.
»August 6, 1991: Toronto's Tom Henke saves his 24th game in 24 opportunities breaking the record set by John Franco in 1988, and tied by Rob Dibble two years later. The Blue Jays edge the booming bats of the Tigers, 2-1, and increase their lead to five 1/2 games over Detroit. Guillermo Hernandez of Detroit saved 32 consecutive games in 1984, but blown saves were not an official stat at the time.
»August 24, 1991: Mariners hurler Rob Murphy sets what is believed to be a major league record by appearing in his 121st straight game without a win, a 7-2 loss to Detroit. Tom Henke had pitched in 120 consecutive winless games from 1986 to 1988.
»December 15, 1992:
The Rangers sign free agent reliever Tom Henke to a 2-year $8 million contract. Henke, who started his career with Texas, had 34 saves in 37 tries with Toronto.