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Wednesday, January 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

John Blanchette: New WSU Hall of Famer Hendrickson was an uncommon talent

Mark Hendrickson delivers a pitch for the the Baltimore Orioles in 2009. He played for four NBA teams and five MLB teams in his two-sport career. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)
Mark Hendrickson delivers a pitch for the the Baltimore Orioles in 2009. He played for four NBA teams and five MLB teams in his two-sport career. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)

Hours before tipoff, a long line of students snaked around the exterior of Beasley Coliseum, and when he saw it Mark Hendrickson grasped the transformative effect of sports – even beyond what they’d already done for him.

It was the last college basketball weekend of the 1994 regular season at Washington State, and the Cougars needed wins over Stanford and Cal to make their case to the NCAA selectors in those days before a conference tournament.

“And I’d never seen anything like that,” Hendrickson remembered. “Everyone was so hyped.”

Stanford went down, with a fight, and Cal put up a better one, sprinting to an 11-0 head start before the Cougs plugged into the juice of 11,019 fans. Hendrickson remembers the postgame mania and glow even now.

“The only thing that was anticlimactic,” he laughed, “was that we were the second game announced on Sunday.”

Bubble teams need to know right now. But when you’re in, you want to milk the moment.

Alas, that wasn’t possible – 13 seasons would pass before Cougar basketball pulled it off again. By that time, Mark Hendrickson was a decade into his pro career.

His baseball career.

One of the more uncommon talents to pass through Wazzu goes into the school’s athletic hall of fame this weekend, a standout even in a class that includes Rose Bowl participants (Mike Price and Jason Gesser), a Pac-8 batting champ (Marv Chamberlain), the school’s first female swimming All-American (Erin Eldridge) and Pac-10 distance champ (Jennifer Robertson), and a pioneer administrator (Marcia Saneholtz).

Uncommon, but not unique.

Yes, Hendrickson is one of but 12 men who have played in both Major League Baseball (10 seasons) and the NBA (four). But 50 years before, another Cougar, Gene Conley, did it, too – even winning rings in both. That’s quite a market the Cougs have cornered.

“It’s interesting – my wife was asking me if they were inducting me for both,” Hendrickson said. “But other than for maybe a month my junior year, they know me for basketball around here.

“Deep down, I knew I could play baseball a lot longer.”

But not because he was a curiosity or the kind of athletic freak you might presume required to toggle easily between the two games. Yes, he’s 6-foot-9, and had enough skills both around the basket and away to make him the 31st pick in the 1996 NBA draft. But when he made the switch to baseball for good, he didn’t take a flaming fastball with him like most of today’s mound giants.

“I was trying to throw as hard as I could – it just didn’t come out at 95 (mph),” he said. “In that sense, I always had to learn, through a little defeat and adversity sometimes, and maybe that prolonged my career.”

On the subject of rarities, Hendrickson may well own one baseball record: most times drafted. Starting with his senior year of high school at Mt. Vernon, he was selected in six consecutive MLB drafts and might have succumbed the first year if the Braves hadn’t sent a scout who “rubbed my family the wrong way.”

Instead, he threw in with Kelvin Sampson and Cougar basketball, breaking an 11-year NCAA drought in 1994, twice being named All-Pac-10 and knocking on the door of the Top 25. There were two NIT trips, too – one after Hendrickson missed a chunk of his senior year due to injury – but he looks a bit wistfully at momentum that got away.

“Coach Sampson had left and Nate (Erdmann), too,” he recalled. “Seeing the way Nate prospered at Oklahoma, you think about putting him on the wing here with Ike (Fontaine) – two big guards like that – and what might have been. Sustaining success can be tougher than you think.”

Or finding it. Drafted by the 76ers, he played on a 22-win team with Allen Iverson and Derrick Coleman and “horrible chemistry. And the Philly fans – they were all over me and I hardly played,” he said.

Limited NBA horizons led him to sign with the Blue Jays in 1998 and he juggled both for a couple years, until his agent pointed out no one in baseball would think he was serious about the game unless he made time for fall league and spring training. So he did.

Within two years, he was in the big leagues, coming on in relief in the Skydome against the Mariners.

“That was pretty impressive – I didn’t realize how big it was,” he said. “I’m pretty wide-eyed. Sure enough, I strike out the first guy and then give up five runs, thanks very much.”

He pitched five scoreless innings his first start, and won his second. So it got better.

“It had to,” he said. “If you don’t get it turned around quick, you might not get the chance to keep trying.”

Unless you get another chance in another sport. Turns out Mark Hendrickson did have a knack for milking the moment.

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