Fresh off a defeat in the Class 6A state tournament, Free State High baseball coach Mike Hill was sitting in his office with a group of good friends when Mike Hensley, father of two promising young athletes then living in Lawrence, said he needed to talk to him.
“Here he is, about 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, and he was in tears,” said Hill, recalling a four-year-old memory. “I feared the worst, thought maybe something happened to one of the boys. He paused for what seemed like an eternity.”
Considering where Hill’s mind had gone, the news came as more a relief than a bummer.
“He said, ‘We’re moving,’” Hill said.
After the news sank in, Hill could have been forgiven for shedding tears of his own. The news meant that Ty Hensley, star quarterback, hard-throwing right-hander, hard-hitting, switch-hitting catcher, would not be enrolling in Free State that fall. The family moved to Edmond, Okla.
Ty Hensley, now 6-5, 220, was selected in the first round of the June draft by the New York Yankees. As the 30th pick, he was slotted for a $1.6 million signing bonus, but the Yankees lowered the offer to $1.2 million after detecting an abnormality in his pitching shoulder. Hensley made the most of his move to Edmond, where high schools play longer baseball seasons. As a senior for Santa Fe High, he went 10-0 with a 1.52 ERA and had 111 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings. Whatever the abnormality, it didn’t keep Hensley’s fastball from getting clocked at 97 mph and didn’t soften the bite of a curveball many scouts considered as good as any high school pitcher in the nation.
As an eighth grader bound for Free State High, Hensley was one year behind good friend Cody Kukuk, a seventh-round draft choice of the Boston Red Sox in 2011, and Colin Toalson, a two-time All-Sunflower League selection who pitched and played short in high school and now pitches for Kansas University. Hensley was two years behind Wichita State left-hander Albert Minnis, who lived in the Free State district until he and his father moved into the house of friends who lived south of Bob Billings, the dividing line. Minnis led Lawrence High to the state baseball title.
Surely, Hill’s mind must wander to a high school version of the ’27 Yankees that he could have coached had things fallen into place differently.
“You know, honestly, not a lot,” Hill said. “People bring it up from time to time, and you can’t help but spend a tad bit of time thinking about it. But the reality is you think about who’s in the building, not who left. But it would have been pretty special.”
Hensley didn’t get a chance to team in high school with Kukuk, as they both hoped, but if all goes well for both of them, they could face each other on a bigger stage.
“It’s kind of weird that he got drafted by the Red Sox and I got drafted by the Yankees,” Hensley said by phone from Edmond. “I went to a Yankees-Red Sox game for my 12th birthday. It was at Fenway Park and fights were breaking out everywhere. It was nuts.”
Hensley and Kukuk teamed on the Texas Sun Devils last summer before Kukuk signed with the Red Sox.
“He looked good,” Hensley said. “He’s changed a whole lot, in a good way, from when we were kids. He throws absolute gas from the left side and his offspeed pitches were developed a lot more.”
Hensley has shed the baby fat he carried during his days as a participant in football, basketball and baseball, although according to him, he was “garbage in basketball.” He played right tackle for the Hurricanes and quarterback for Southwest Junior High.
Hensley was recruited by Kansas University in both football, as a quarterback, and baseball, but he signed a scholarship to play baseball at Ole Miss, an opportunity he bypassed to play for the Yankees.
Ty Hensley’s father, Mike, pitched in the minor leagues in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, his career ended by an arm injury. To the benefit of Ty’s career, Mike became a pitching coach, working for Oral Roberts and Kansas State.
From Day One, Ty not only had strong genes, he had good mechanics, taught to him by his father, but Ty wanted more attention from his father than a coaching career allowed. When Kansas State changed baseball coaches after the 2003 season and Mike lost his job, Ty asked him to be his full-time coach, wanting him to get into a profession that had more flexibility. His father obliged, going into pharmaceutical sales.
“That was a blessing in disguise,” Ty said of his father losing his job at Kansas State. “Everything has a positive side. It was good for me and it was good for our family.”
It was then that the family moved to Lawrence and reunited with friends from early years in Tulsa.
“Tyler Self and I have known each other since we were 2 years old, when both of our dads coached at Oral Roberts,” Hensley said. “When we moved to Lawrence, our families became good friends again. Jake Johnson (former Lawrence High basketball player and pitcher) is one of my best friends in the whole world. Tyler, Jake and Cody were my closest friends in Lawrence.”
Hensley said it hurt to leave his friends behind, but his father’s plan to move the family to a state that played far more baseball games than Kansas allows worked out well, as evidenced by his selection in the first round by the winningest organization in baseball.
“I was excited I was going to get to play with Cody, and at the time of the move I was kind of bummed out,” he said. “As time went on, I started realizing things worked out best for me, and I’m happy with it.”
Lawrence lost more than one great athlete when the Hensleys moved to Edmond. Ty’s brother, J.R., is 6-5, is creeping up on 250 pounds and is a hard-throwing left-hander who also plays left tackle.
“I don’t mess with him anymore,” Ty said. “He outweighs me by 30 pounds and I think he’s going to be a stud pitcher.”