As a kid, Gunnar Henderson spent hours on the homemade field outside his house in Selma, Alabama, taking drill after drill after drill with his brother, cousins, father and grandfather.
It was never a question of if, only when he would make it onto the sport’s biggest stage. He burst onstage last year, making his debut for the Orioles in August 2022, then 2023 quickly picked up steam after a slow start.
On Monday, a few feet from those fields that shaped him into a major leaguer, Henderson learned he unanimously won American League Rookie of the Year — the first Orioles’ player to take the award since closer Gregg Olson in 1989.
The Guardians’ Tanner Bibee placed second with 67 points, followed by the Red Sox’s Triston Casas with 25 points. The Diamondbacks’ Corbin Carroll won the National League Rookie of the Year, also unanimously.
“It’s pretty cool just having my name etched there with Cal [Ripken Jr.] and Gregg Olson,” Henderson said. “To be able to say that, especially being from a small town, it’s something that was on my mind but I just wanted to go out there and play as hard as I could every single day. Felt like I had a good shot if I just went out there and did that.”
His family sat around Henderson as he heard the news. They witnessed and took part in hundreds of those backyard sessions. Now, they had a front-row seat for what they hope will be the start of many national awards.
Last week, Henderson won a Silver Slugger award at the utility position.
“They supported me from the very first time I started playing baseball, took me all over the country doing travel ball and stuff,” Henderson said. “Being able to have them at my side winning this award is pretty special. Just really glad to be able to celebrate with them.”
To get here, though, Henderson had to exercise great patience. He was hitting only .201 with five home runs at the end of May, his first major league season off to a bit of a snag. But he stayed the course, relying on the expertise of his veteran teammates and his family back home.
The Orioles didn’t option him. They let him figure it out in the majors — a place he’s always felt he’s belonged — and they were soon rewarded. He ended the season hitting .255 with 28 home runs, tied with Anthony Santander for most on the team.
“Being able to get through that little struggle in the beginning was honestly the biggest thing for me,” he said. “Some guys can get caught up in that and have a really hard time getting over it. I’m just thankful that the Orioles let me go through it and make it through it.”
When he looks back on his season, it’s not the personal accolades that stand out. It’s the game on Sept. 17 against the Rays, when the Orioles clinched their first playoff spot since 2016. Henderson went 0 for 5 that day.
But for the Orioles, it signified the start of a new era, one that includes Henderson at the helm.
“It was one I won’t forget,” he said.