SARASOTA, Fla. — Gunnar Henderson was uncomfortable.

It was partly because of the tux, yes. He much prefers baseball attire, and oh was his bowtie crooked and a piece of hair falling out of his gelled-back look?

He’s been in the spotlight many times. But this moment was different. Here he was, in a room full of who’s who in baseball, being honored as the American League Rookie of the Year.

And there was just one final hurdle standing in his way before he was handed the award: a speech.

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“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Henderson said. “I didn’t go to college to get that speaking class. That was my first time. I thought I did pretty well.”

Indeed he did. It was another milestone for Henderson, and he handled it with ease, just like every other challenge he faced in his first full major league season. Now, a year older and a season wiser, he’s the face of a team that could be poised for one of the best seasons in franchise history. One that may, perhaps, end with Henderson back up on that podium.

This time, though, it could be as MVP. If so, he would join Kris Bryant, Ryan Howard, Dustin Pedroia and Cal Ripken Jr. as the only players to win the award the year after taking Rookie of the Year.

“Gunnar could be as good as anyone in the game,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s just a really, really talented guy.”

Henderson, the former No. 1 prospect in baseball, debuted at the end of 2022 and broke with the team in 2023. His first full major league season started with a thud. He ended April hitting .189 with two home runs, well below his, and the team’s, standards.

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He had been in that spot before. In 2021, as a 19-year-old, Henderson started his stint in Aberdeen 0-for-31. A private late-night session got him back on track. After a particularly frustrating game, Henderson went back out to the field, fulfilled his boyfriend fireworks night duties by taking a quick picture, then retreated to the batting cages, where he spent the rest of the evening firing away as the sky lit above him.

“He works until he gets it right,” Anthony Villa, now the team’s director of player development, said. “As all the fans are enjoying the entertainment, Gunnar is still sweating and grunting and getting his work in.”

That night got Henderson back on track, and he learned an important lesson from that stint: don’t try to change something every time you’re in a slump. So last year, now two years older than that kid in Aberdeen, Henderson tried to stay as patient as possible during his early-season struggles. He leaned on his teammates and family, but he didn’t do anything drastic to alter his mechanics.

By June, his patience had paid off. A series in Kansas City, when he went 8-for-13, provided the jolt he had been seeking. The rest of the milestones started to come shortly after. A grand slam against the Blue Jays. A four-hit night against the Yankees. Two doubles, a triple and a home run against the Athletics, Henderson going for the second double instead of a single to complete the cycle because, he said, it wouldn’t have been right to stop.

“This past year, I learned not to try to be too perfect,” Henderson said. “If you failed trying 110%, then eventually sooner rather later it’s not going to continue to do that. Just go out there and play your butt off and eventually things will start going your way.”

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His goal for this year isn’t to win an award — although he figures to be in the conversation for MVP and perhaps a Gold Glove now that he will primarily be a shortstop. His objective is simple — to grow, and to use the skills he learned last year to limit the inevitable low points that come in a 162-game season.

He’s not the 19-year-old who tried to change everything the second something went wrong. He’s 22 now, with a full year of major league experience under him. And, although he’s still on the younger side, he knows his standing on the team and spent his spring helping the next ones up prepare.

“It’s definitely cool to see some younger guys knowing I was in that position not too long ago,” he said. “It’s pretty cool seeing that [and] being able to help.”

Danielle Allentuck covers the Orioles for The Baltimore Banner. She previously reported on the Rockies for the Denver Gazette and general sports assignments for The New York Times as part of its fellowship program. A Maryland native, Danielle grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Ithaca College.

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