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Sports Monday Column: Several angles to consider regarding Yanks, Henson

BY DAVID DEN HERDER

Published March 26, 2001

Drew Henson will not be playing for Michigan next year. And exactly what the hell are we supposed to think about that?

Tough to say.

We, Michigan, haven"t had much time to digest the news. Henson, of course, didn"t have much time to make the decision.

In the end, he said, it wasn"t about the money oh, gosh, how much was it again $17 million?

"I want to make it clear that it is my boyhood dream, not economic factors, that led me to this decision," stated Henson on the pages of New York City"s tabloids yesterday. "Otherwise I would have pursued lucrative opportunities in the NFL Draft."

I can"t imagine the situation is as black-and-white as it appeared on those pages. There"s more to this than football vs. baseball, money vs. happiness, right vs. wrong.

Looking at it from different perspectives makes it awfully easy to experience a spectrum of emotions. But from there, it"s awfully hard to settle on just one.

Consider the Yankees: As the saying goes, if you"re standing still, you"re falling behind.

"It has been clear to me that the opportunity presenting itself at this time will not be there next January," Henson said at his press conference.

But why give Henson a "now or never" ultimatum? Does Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, that rotten Ohio State alum, simply have it in for the Wolverines?

Doubtful. There are at least three good reasons to be so aggressive.

First, the Yanks need a third baseman. Their current man, Scott Brosius, is in the twilight of his career and the final year of his contract. By inducing Henson to quit Michigan and dedicate himself completely to the organization, New York could have a well-groomed replacement to fill the position by the 2002 season.

Second, they can"t risk injury. If the Yankees invest in Henson at third base, they can"t allow him to play tackle football anymore. Period.

And third, letting Henson play out his senior year could potentially make him the No. 1 draft prospect for the NFL, which could potentially create a bidding war for the phenom. It"s something the Yanks would rather avoid.

You almost have to admire the tenacity of the Yankees front office. It"s quite a gamble to put $17 million on a kid that hasn"t taken a single swing in the Bigs.

But why hasn"t this offer come from the Yankees sooner, say before the spring recruiting deadline, so that Michigan might have the chance to find a replacement of its own? Because until last week, Henson"s rights hadn"t been reacquired from the Cincinnati Reds.

Consider the Cincinnati Reds: Here"s a team that, for whatever reason, felt it could not sign ace pitcher Denny Neagle to a contract extension last year, so it traded Neagle to the Yankees. In exchange, the Reds received several players including Henson.

The Reds could not have known then how adverse Henson would be to signing with them.

It may be true that Cincinnati could never have convinced Henson to give up the Heisman Trophy but the question is, could the Reds even afford to try? For that matter, how many teams really can afford to blow $17 million on a hunch?

You almost have to hate the Yankees for being able to drop that kind of cash on a good feeling. You almost have to be frustrated with Major League Baseball for not leveling the playing field, for not capping payrolls to ensure a competitive market.

You almost have to feel sorry for the Reds, who, after the smoke has cleared, are without the services of either Denny Neagle or Drew Henson.

Consider Drew Henson: Money isn"t everything. There"s no doubt that a healthy Henson would have been the top overall pick in next year"s NFL draft. And as the new quarterback of the expansion Houston Texans, Henson"s signing bonus alone could have rivaled his entire current deal with the Yankees.

The question is, would you rather play for the best team in baseball, or the worst team in football?

It"s no secret that Henson"s daydreams include pinstripes and summer evenings at Yankee Stadium. They also included Michigan football and for a while, he had the best of both worlds refusing to obey Steinbrenner"s requests that he give up the gridiron.

But Henson"s wake-up-call trade to Cincinnati apparently made him realize how badly he desired to be a part of the Yankee tradition for many years to come.

"I cannot risk turning it down again," Henson said.

And since his new contract is frontloaded, a possible owners" lockout in the 2002 season (for not leveling the playing field, for not capping payrolls) would only cost Henson about $1 million.

You almost have to feel proud of Henson for realizing his lifelong aspiration.

And you almost have to feel bad that he"s being forced to decide between his two daydreams the Yankees and Michigan.

Consider Michigan: The Wolverines lose their play-making, game-breaking quarterback. Maybe the chance at a special season.

Henson"s one year at the helm did bring the Wolverines a Big Ten title, and gave fans a glimpse at a truly amazing talent.

How might things be different if the Wolverines had known sooner? Might Michigan have landed another big name recruit? A replacement, even?

Tough to say.

You almost have to feel disappointed knowing what might have been in 2001.

But Lloyd Carr knew what he was getting into when Henson signed on the dotted line three years ago.

"In a perfect world, I could have finished my football career at Michigan and then gone on to play third base for the New York Yankees," Henson said.

And you know, somewhere deep down, that Henson"s agonizing decision is probably the right one to make.

But sitting in Ann Arbor these days, you almost wish it were a perfect world.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. David Den Herder can be reached at dden@umich.edu