Hendriks strikes it big but never forgets Perth roots
On the pitching mound, Liam Hendriks believes no batter can hit anything he throws and it's that attitude that has seen him sign a record contract with the Chicago White Sox, but off the field he is the same laid-back West Australian who has never forgotten his Perth Heat roots.
The Hendriks story is one of the most remarkable success stories for any athlete Australia has ever produced after he's overcome setback after setback to have now signed the most lucrative contract for a relief pitcher in Major League Baseball history.
Hendriks has built his reputation as a closing pitcher as much for his passion and intensity as much for his ability to throw winning pitches to win games of baseball.
That's a serious attitude he has had to adopt on the field to believe he is the best to get the best out of himself. But get him off the field and he's still that same Perth boy he's always been.
"Off the field I like to go with the flow and be that prototypical Aussie who makes fun of everybody and gets some ribs back, and that's pretty much my personality," Hendriks said.
"But on the mound, I tried doing that and it didn’t work. I wasn’t aggressive enough so I what I found the best mix was to get extremely confident and arrogant, and to that point where I'm on the mound and you could be the best hitter in the world, but I'm better than you in that moment.
"I'm thinking I'm 100 times better than you and I'm going to beat you, and I'm going to do that multiple times. That's the mindset that works for me but off the field I'm a lot more relaxed.
"But on the field I like to get aggressive, to get angry and yell, and to prove to everybody that I'm the best that there is around. Every time there's someone at bat is my opportunity to prove that."
On the back of another standout 2020 season with the Oakland Athletics where he helped lead them to the American League Division Series, he was widely regard as the best closing pitcher in baseball and out of contract.
That made the 31-year-old Perth native hot property on the open market but it wasn’t so much the record contract Hendriks was hunting for, he also wanted to go to a team that had a chance at winning and not just in the short term, but that was built for sustained success.
In the end, it was the Chicago White Sox that had everything that Hendriks was after and the fact it's a record A$70 million deal that is the biggest ever handed to a relief pitcher is just a bonus.
Hendriks was careful about choosing the right new home for him that would give him everything he was after and he couldn’t be happier to be heading to Chicago, and now he knows the pressure is on to show he's worth the investment from the White Sox.
"Take away being an Australia and anything like that out of it, and it's known as the biggest ever annual contract given to a reliever ever," Hendriks said.
"I didn’t even think about that when my agent and I were talking about it all, and we were going back and forth talking to the White Sox.
"I just wanted to get to a point where I felt we both were agreeing on a deal that was fair to both parties for the market value on past reliever-closer kind of pay schedules.
"It was a little bit of an amalgamation of everything moving forward, but when I saw it translated into Aussie dollars, it blew me away and I didn’t realise it was that extreme. But it does have that extra pickle on it for me to make sure I'm worth the money.
"It's all well and good getting the contract, but I now I have to go out and make it look like it was money well spent and earning it, and making sure I do Australian baseball proud."
Hendriks cemented himself as one of the best relievers and now standout closing pitchers in baseball in recent seasons and he'll always be grateful to the A's for the chance they gave him, but the whole package from the White Sox was just too much to overlook.
"This is my first time being away from the A's in the last six years and I'm going to a team who I actually helped knock out of the playoffs last year," Hendriks said.
"I'm really excited about moving forward with this team because not only are they a young group, they are locked in for the next several years. So for my entire contract all these main guys are still going to be there which is one of the things I was looking for.
"I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan of having a contention window of only one or two years. These guys have a contention window of four, five or six years so I have an opportunity to win not only in year one or two but all the way through.
"That was one of the big determining factors to focus on a team that we thought could succeed over the long haul and then the finances would take care of itself."
While Hendriks is now a great success story, it wasn’t always destined to be that way.
Nothing has ever come easy and he was cut from his under 14s team, he had to fight his way up through the minor leagues and even as recently in 2018, he was demoted by the Athletics with his MLB future up in the air.
The pressure was on for Hendriks to deliver in 2019, he did, and now the rest is history.
"Back in 2018, I was sent back to our reserves team at the A's and I was contemplating life after Major League Baseball and what I was going to do," Hendriks said.
"I was contemplating Japan or Korea or any of those Asian countries were a possibility moving forward on my career, and we had no idea what was going to happen.
"I got recalled in September so got back up there and had a good showing, and we took it from there knowing that in 2019 if I didn’t do well, that'd be my last year.
"Luckily it went well and we are here today, but it was a tough time in that period because everything was pretty much riding on every single pitch I threw.
"I find myself doing my best when I am under some stress or pressure, and that's kind of where I'm at in my role on the field now dealing with the pressure of having the game resting on the back of my shoulders. I seem to do my best work at that point."
It wasn’t always a natural for Hendriks to end up trying to make a career out of baseball either. His father was a WAFL star with West Perth and Hendriks did play Aussie Rules growing up and was eligible to be selected by the West Coast Eagles under the father-son rule.
But the further he got into his teenage years, the more baseball became his focus and even now as he's one of Australia's most successful ever overseas athletes, he's never forgotten his roots.
"As a kid from the time I could walk I was kicking a footy around. You can see me in the old Greenwood Knights and Duncraig Hawks stuff kicking the footy around or when I was playing at Sacred Heart or with some of the state teams," Hendriks said.
"Footy was always my focus and baseball was a bit of an off-season thing but all of a sudden it just clicked and I realised I had an opportunity to travel a little bit to pursue this and see where it takes me. The two big ones that shaped me were the Carine Cats and Wanneroo Giants initially.
"I started at Carine and unfortunately they didn’t have a team where I was able to be against the best competition so I moved to Wanneroo where I met some of my best friends in my life.
"I still keep in contact with a lot of the guys and I go down there every time I'm home, and that place has not only humbled me a lot as a kid but I got to play against a lot of guys that shaped the way I want to do things. They shaped the way I push myself because I wanted to make sure I was the best.
"It wasn’t just me going out there being pretty good, I wanted to make sure everybody knows how hard I worked to get to where I am. Then that shaped me with Perth Heat coming into that and I still remember running laps and you want to make sure if anyone sees you, they never question your work ethic.
"You always want to work hard to get better in every single way and in those days it was a lot of fun for me coming through and once I played with the Heat, I wanted to be one of those who went over to the States and had an opportunity to play this game for a living. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Carine, Wanneroo and the Perth Heat."
While never forgetting where he's come from, COVID-19 did mean Hendriks wasn’t able to make it home to Perth this baseball off-season and it meant he even missed his sister's wedding.
"I actually ended up missing my sister's wedding unfortunately and we ended up being able to see it through Facebook Live or Zoom," Hendriks said.
"We do usually get back every other year and we either spend Christmas in Florida with my parents coming over or we spend Christmas back home in Perth with the family.
"It's always exciting being back and I love being home in Perth and being able to go down to the Wanneroo Giants games and the Carine Cats games, and obviously the Perth Heat to immerse myself back into the Australian baseball world. Hopefully we can get that new age of kids coming through."
By Chris Pike.
Images: SMG Images.