Behind their Selma, Alabama, home, down the left field line of the small baseball field their father built, three boys spend their winter nights inside a 60-by-74-foot batting cage.

There’s Gunnar Henderson, the middle child. There’s his older brother, 25-year-old Jackson, who played ball at Auburn and now dominates a softball league. There’s the youngest, Cade, who’s still in high school and pursuing a path in baseball, too.

And then there’s the competitions between three boys who have competed this way all their lives. Sometimes it’s on the pingpong table tucked away at one end. At other times it’s with a golf club in their hands, putting or chipping at targets throughout the turf interior. But more times than not, they pick up a bat, feed each other batting practice and see who can best the others.

In this way, Gunnar Henderson spends his winters away from the spotlight, back in his hometown around his family and friends. When Jackson visits, the trio of boys feel as though nothing has ever changed, even though their middle brother is the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball and features as a central part of the Orioles’ future.

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In Baltimore, and in every major league ballpark he steps foot in, Gunnar Henderson is a rising star. But in Selma, Henderson is who he always was.

“It’s pretty special to be able to be in the big leagues and then go back home and just train and get ready for it there,” Henderson said. “Just to be able to go back home and be treated just like a normal person when you’re at my house.”

The lawn mowing duties have long been passed down to his younger brother, Cade. But on the whole, life at his family’s house in Selma mirrors what it was growing up. He’ll work out in the morning and head to John T. Morgan Academy’s ballpark to field grounders from his high school coach, Stephen Clements.

Gunnar and his dad, Allen, will go out on their hunting lands to prepare for the season, fixing deer stands or clearing trails.

“The only thing is, ‘Hey, you might not want to sit in this type of tree stand anymore. You might want to sit in this other one that’s a little safer, play your odds a little better,’” Allen said. “Let’s stay out of the climbing stands and stick to more of the ladder stands.”

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Gunnar then spends most afternoons and evenings inside the batting cage he built in 2020, shortly after he was selected in the second round of the 2019 draft by the Orioles.

There were no other indoor batting cages within an hour of the Henderson’s home, so Henderson made the house he grew up in his offseason destination by having one constructed there. The batting cage is all turf, with about 20 spare feet for the pingpong table and speaker system. The concrete paneling on the outside has only needed replacing once, when Cade destroyed a panel shortly after completion with an errant foul ball from the field.

And it’s there Henderson worked on his swing with his dad and his brothers this offseason, preparing to build on his first taste of major league action with a full rookie season that continues Friday at Camden Yards in Baltimore’s home opener.

“The bright lights and fame and stardom hits you in the mouth,” Jackson said. “He handled it well. He has the personality that can kind of carry that weight and not let it get to his head.”

Gunnar arrived in the major leagues with a blast — one so powerful that, as the ball sailed off his bat at Progressive Field in Cleveland, his helmet also flew off. In his 34 games last year, the 21-year-old hit .259 with four home runs, laying the groundwork for what many figured would be a standout season.

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CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 31: Gunnar Henderson #2 of the Baltimore Orioles hits a solo home run off Triston McKenzie of the Cleveland Guardians for his first career hit during the fourth inning of his Major League debut at Progressive Field on August 31, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Gunnar Henderson, #2 of the Baltimore Orioles, hits a solo home run off Triston McKenzie of the Cleveland Guardians for his first career hit during the fourth inning of his Major League debut at Progressive Field on Aug. 31, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Nick Cammett/Getty)

He’s considered a strong candidate for the American League rookie of the year award. He’s a starting infielder for a Baltimore organization that has raised its internal expectations with an eye toward the postseason. Through five games, though, Gunnar has two hits — both coming the same night in Texas, when his long ball helped the Orioles beat the Rangers on Monday.

There’s pressure there, even for one so levelheaded as Gunnar. That makes his time in Selma even more necessary.

“Being able to decompress and get his mind off baseball and just enjoy being outside, just enjoy hanging out with folks that root for him, watch his every game, get to spend weekends cooking out, hanging out in the hunting camp,” Jackson said. “It’s a good way to just fully detox from the stress of day-to-day life in the big leagues.”

In the cages, Gunnar Henderson follows a regimen laid out by the Orioles. He usually faces the pitching machine, with Allen, Cade, Jackson or his girlfriend, Katherine Lee Bishop, feeding balls to fire toward home plate.

“I’m guessing that some guys in bigger areas have some live arms they can face late in the offseason,” Allen said. But the pitching machine can simulate attempts that are more difficult to reproduce for most batting practice pitchers, particularly left-handed curveballs and sliders.

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When Gunnar does want a test, though, Jackson can take the mound. He occasionally pitched at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College in Alabama before playing mostly in the outfield at Auburn. It’s not the same as what Gunnar sees in the majors, “but out of all the options we have here in town,” Jackson said, “I guess mine’s in the best shape.”

Then, naturally, the competitions begin. If he doesn’t barrel up on a ball within three swings, for instance, they’ll wager how many pushups Gunnar must complete. The talk almost never flows to overarching goals, though. And during the season, Jackson stays away from talk of Gunnar’s successes — or struggles. It’s the same for those closest to Gunnar.

Gunnar Henderson (2) poses for a portrait during Photo Day at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota on Feb. 23, 2023. The Baltimore Orioles’ spring training session runs from mid-February through the end of March. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

On the last night before Gunnar left for spring training in Sarasota, Florida, the Hendersons hosted a crawfish boil. They had a backyard bonfire, and Gunnar sat with all those who love him — his friends, family and his girlfriend. He and his brother had gone quail hunting with Gunnar’s new dog, Chief, earlier in the day.

It was the perfect encapsulation of life in Selma, away from the noise and expectations that come as soon as he steps into a major league clubhouse again. It was the perfect send-off before the nonstop baseball season began.

“We appreciate him for who is he,” Jackson said, “not necessarily what he’s done stat-wise. His results don’t determine how he’s treated. He knows he’s loved no matter how well or how bad he does, and that’s just in his identity.”

andy.kostka@thebaltimorebanner.com

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville. 

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