DOUGLASSVILLE, Pa. - The recliner sits in the far left corner of the basement, shrouded in the shadows cast by the room's artificial light. In front of it, across the room, baseball highlights flicker silently on a big-screen TV. The basement's walls are covered with artifacts excavated from a 26-year career in professional baseball, and on any other day, that is where the story might begin: perhaps with the autographed Brett Myers jersey, or the panorama of Wrigley Field, or the picture of the night that Bobby Abreu set the world on fire in Detroit, when the crowd chanted Abreu's name so loud that his Home Run Derby pitcher got goose bumps.
But to understand the story of that Home Run Derby pitcher, of the man who not long ago was the longest-tenured coach in the National League East, you must start with the chair, and the basement, and the countless nights in which the self-described son of an alcoholic sat tilting at his demons with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black.
"I wasn't a happy person," Ramon Henderson says today, looking in the direction of the recliner, "and my only friend was the bottle - right there, right beside me."
Early this morning, an 18-wheel truck loaded with bats and balls and sunflower seeds will depart from Citizens Bank Park, merge onto I-95, and begin its annual migration south. Over the next week, close to 80 players and coaches and personnel will follow, flocking from across the country and gathering in Clearwater, Fla., for one of spring's most glorious rites. For the first time in as long as he can remember, the 45-year-old Henderson will not be one of them.
Last year, when the team began its stretch run, Henderson was in a Bucks County alcohol-treatment center. When they cruised through the Division Series and the National League Championship Series, he was exiled to the Florida Instructional League. And when they were capping off their first World Series title in 28 years, he was watching on TV, accepting high-fives from his children, yet agonizing about how he had managed to drink himself out of a piece of the glory.
In his days growing up in the Dominican Republic, he had dreamed of such moments. Ramon Gaspar Henderson, the second of five children, was a multisport star in high school, eventually choosing baseball over his first love, volleyball. He signed with the Phillies in 1982 at the age of 18, and left all but $300 of his $2,500 signing bonus with his family as he embarked on the trials and tribulations of minor league baseball.
Unlike many struggling prospects, he realized when his dream of reaching the big leagues was over. In 1989, as a 25-year-old utility man hitting about .200 at Double A Reading, he approached the Phillies about moving into a coaching role. The previous 7 years of his life had not been lived entirely in vain. In 1986, while in spring training, he met a bubbly blonde named Sally Beckman, and 2 1/2 years later they had married while he was playing Triple A ball in Maine. What Henderson lacked in offensive production - he hit .247 in 593 minor league games - he made up for in versatility. He spent time at virtually every position, moving from second base to third base to catcher to outfield. The Phillies found him a low-level spot in the minor leagues, and his climb to the majors started all over again.
As he bounced around the minor league system, coaching teams in outposts like Princeton, W.Va., and Martinsville, Va., and, later, Reading, Henderson proved a valuable resource, particularly when relating to the organization's ever-expanding base of players from Latin America. He also developed a close relationship with veteran coach John Vukovich, who like Henderson had been a light-hitting infielder. In Vukovich, Henderson seemed to find the male role model he felt he had always lacked at home, where he says his father's struggle with alcoholism dominated the family.
"Ramon had a father, but his father was not into his baseball," Sally Henderson says. "His father never went to any of his games. When he met John, he was like a father figure, a mentor. He knew everything."
The Phillies had fallen a long way from their fabled season of 1980, when Vukovich played on the only World Series championship team in franchise history. The Phillies had lost 189 games in 1996 and '97, and had not finished above .500 since 1993.
After Ramon joined the big-league club as a bullpen coach in 1998, he would listen to Vukovich grumble about the losing.
"He kept saying how players approached the game differently these days than when they played back in the '80s," Henderson says. "He'd say, it's not the players' fault. We coaches allow this to happen."
But as the years progressed, so too did the Phillies. They produced winning seasons in 2001 and '03, then opened their gleaming new ballpark in 2004. In 2005, Abreu asked Henderson to pitch to him in that summer's Home Run Derby during the All-Star festivities in Detroit.
On July 11, 2005, with Henderson lobbing batting-practice pitches from in front of the Comerica Park mound, Abreu decimated the event's one-round record by hitting 24 home runs in the first round and cruised to the title.
Suddenly, Henderson became a household name. The following year, he helped coach the Dominican Republic's entry into the World Baseball Classic and served as a coach on a team of All-Stars that traveled to Japan. At the 2006 Home Run Derby - after fielding invitations from Dominican natives Miguel Tejada and David Ortiz - Henderson was on the mound when Ryan Howard became the second straight Phillie to win the title.
But the hectic schedule took its toll on Henderson. He wasn't at home as much. He was stressed out.
"Two-thousand-six was a long year," he says.
And it became even longer when he realized his second father was dying.
Vukovich had battled brain cancer in 2001, and late in 2006 his symptoms re-emerged. When the Phillies gathered for spring training in 2007, the prognosis was grim. And as Vuke's final days slipped away, Henderson's family noticed a change.
"It was right around the time John got very, very sick and at the end, where he refused to see anybody, because he just didn't want anybody to see him like that," Sally Henderson says. "Ramon sort of did a 360."
On March 8, 2007, Vukovich died. Henderson's drinking, which had already begun to worry his family, increased. With five children at home ranging from 2 to 18 years old and a work day that ran from when he left his house at noon to when he returned at 2 a.m., there was plenty of stress. And his second father was no longer there to help him deal with it.
There was never any violence, Henderson and his wife say, never any mistreatment of the family.
"I was - what would you say? - a cool drunk," he says.
But he was a drunk nonetheless. He would hide the bottle in the car in the garage, slipping away to numb himself where the children couldn't see. He stopped playing with the kids, stopped attending their sporting events.
"And the kids are everything to him," his wife says, "so I knew there was a severe problem."
In November 2007, Henderson flew to the Dominican Republic and served as the best man in the wedding of his cousin, Juan.
"I didn't wait for the cake to be cut," he says. "I didn't eat. I got drunk."
His wife wasn't there. But Henderson's side of the family was. And after the wedding, they called home to Pennsylvania.
"Get him some help," they told Sally. "Get him some help."
That's when she called Dickie Noles, a former Phillies righthander and friend of Henderson who overcame alcohol struggles of his own and now serves as the Phillies' substance-abuse adviser.
At first, Henderson resisted. Soon, he had no choice.
On Sunday, Jan. 13, 2008, Henderson's wife was at church. Henderson was in North Philadelphia, sharing scotch and a few beers with some friends. He left around 4 p.m., weaving his silver Lexus ES 350 through the backroads of south-central Pennsylvania, taking care to stay off the main thoroughfare from the city to his home near Reading. He was just a tenth-of-a-mile from his house when he reached down to grab his cell phone and pulled the steering wheel with him. Even today, he shudders to think what would have happened had the car he hit not been parked. Or, worse, had it not been a car.
By the time he went to get his wife and returned to the scene, two police cars were there.
When the Phillies learned of the DUI arrest, Henderson says they called him in for a meeting and demanded he check himself into rehab. Worried about missing the beginning of spring training and raising the suspicions of reporters, he did so right away, taking no clothes or belongings with him.
"I felt like I was in jail," he said. "Being on my own since , and not be able to do what I want to do - that was hard."
Thirty days later he was discharged. He swore he was a new man. He joined the Phillies in time for the start of spring training and did not drink for 2 weeks. That's when it started again.
He told himself he could be a social drinker.
He was supposed to coach third base that Friday in St. Louis, and he had spent all week telling his friends and family to tune in. By nature, a bullpen coach is an anonymous figure, one who spends the entire game tucked away in a corner of the stadium, responsible for readying the relievers when the bullpen phone rings. But Phillies third-base coach Steve Smith was to attend his daughter's graduation, and Henderson had been asked to fill in.
The Monday of that week, June 9, the Phillies had an off day before the start of a three-game series at Florida. Henderson was expected at a meal in his honor at his sister's house in Miami. He would eat and drink and, of course, make sure everyone was watching on Friday.
But he never made it. Not to St. Louis. Not to dinner. Instead of driving to his sister's house that Monday, he spent the day drinking with his friends and never made it out of his hotel room. The next two nights, racked with guilt, he turned to the only medication he knew. After the Phillies' 6-2 loss to the Marlins on June 11, he stayed out drinking until 5:30 a.m. He says he arrived on time, at 1 p.m., the next day. But manager Charlie Manuel called him into his office.
"Charlie said, 'I don't want you to look like that around the players,' " Henderson says. "I just want you to get well.' "
He was devastated. The Phillies went to St. Louis; Henderson went to rehab, personally escorted on a plane flight home by then-assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.
"A first-class move," Henderson says. "They could have sent anybody."
The following afternoon, Noles delivered Henderson to a treatment facility in Bucks County.
Again, he resisted. Early in his detoxification process, he slipped out of the building and had to be talked back in by Noles.
"I don't belong here," he yelled into his phone.
"You stay right there," Noles told him, "or you are going to lose your job.
Gradually, Henderson accepted his fate. During a family day that was part of the 45-day program, he spilled his heart to his wife and five children.
"I told them: 'Listen, your dad makes some bad choices,' " Henderson relates. " 'But that doesn't mean that I don't love you guys. I'm here because I love you guys. I'm here to make myself better and to be a better man for the future.' "
A typical day started with breakfast at 6:30 a.m. From 8 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., he would attend classes. In one of the classes, an instructor asked if anybody in the room had experienced a relapse in their life. Henderson raised his hand, then looked around. Ninety-five percent of the people in the room had a hand in the air.
"There were people there five times, seven times, for different kind of drugs," he says. "I told myself, 'I am not going to be one of them.' "
He says he has not had a drink since.
Henderson puts down his glass of ginger ale and stands up from his seat on the couch in the basement. It is Feb. 1. Spring training is 2 weeks away. He unzips the pocket of his white wind pants and, with a familiar jingle, procures his car keys. Attached to the ring is a quarter-sized copper medallion. Engraved on it are 16 words:
To thine own self be true.
The freedom to be me.
One day at a time.
"I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring me," Henderson says to the two Daily News sports writers who have spent the last hour-and-a-half with him in his basement. "I know today, you guys are here. I don't know about tomorrow. One day at a time."
He puts the medallion back in his pocket and sits back down.
"I thought I could manage this on my own, but I did not understand until I went to rehab for the second time, how powerful this is," he says. "And my message, to those people that do think that they can do it on their own. If they do, I'm proud of it. But if they can't handle it, I recommend, go get some help."
Rehab is a 45-day process. Redemption isn't.
Henderson had hoped the Phillies would reinstate him to bullpen coach for this season. After checking out of rehab in late-July, the Phillies decided to keep him away from the team and instead sent him to work in the Florida Instructional League. That's where he was when the Phillies clinched the NL East, and the NLDS, and the NLCS.
"It takes a man to take that," Henderson says. "I waited so long to be where we were last year, and then not to be there? It was devastating."
But he didn't resort to the bottle. He realized he was fortunate to still be working with baseball, doing what he loved. On the night the Phillies won the World Series, he was sitting in his recliner, listening to his kids go crazy.
"All my kids were giving me high-fives," Henderson says. "I cannot imagine how they felt. I felt so sorry."
At the time of his departure, he was the longest-tenured coach in the division. But after he interviewed for a number of jobs in the organization, the Phillies assigned him to their Class A affiliate in Clearwater. The demotion - and pay cut - stung, but he did not blame the club.
"They saved my life," he says.
The Phillies declined to discuss the specifics of the situation.
Now, he starts it again, the same place he did 26 years ago, at the bottom of the ladder.
"Getting sober was the first part," Noles, who could not talk specifically about Henderson, says of his own situation. "Letting go and growing was the most important part."
Those who know Henderson aren't worried.
"Good guys bounce back," says his good friend Placido Polanco, the former Phillies infielder now with Detroit. "I think we need more like him, not just for me but for all the Latin players, all the guys who want to learn how to play this game."
Says Henderson: "I want people to remember me for all the good things that I've done in the past. Unfortunately, I made some bad decisions, and today, I am paying the price for it."
Well, maybe not today. Today, his wife is upstairs tidying the kitchen. Their 4-year-old daughter, Nicole, is well on her way to preschool. A new BMW is parked in the garage.
"I know I am a good baseball man," he says. "I have goals. I am a better man right now and I am a better coach right now. I know I am a good coach. But now I know I have another tool, so I can help somebody else that has some trouble with this disease."