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Sunday Morning Chat: Key West Manager Ralph Henriquez

HSBN spent their first-ever weekend in Key West a few weeks back when the Conchs hosted Gulliver Prep in an HSBN Game of the Week. During the trip, I sat down with Key West Manager Ralph Henriquez to find out a little about the baseball culture down near the Southernmost Point. Enjoy!

Anthony: Alright, so let’s start with your history here at Key West. You graduated from here in 1975. You’ve been a coach here three different times. Put into words what Key West baseball means to both you and this city.

Coach Henriquez: Well, this is where, when I finished my playing in junior college and couple of years in professional baseball, and I came back here; this is where I got my start coaching baseball. Most people, when you play in the minor leagues, you think you should play in the big leagues and when you don’t get there, you kind of are lost. I had the opportunity to start coaching here and I felt that if I had ever had the opportunity to teach that I had a vision on what I wanted to do with this program, which was to build it to be the number one program in the country.

I developed a personality for the program of working very hard, preparation, and putting in a lot of hard work, making kids believe that no matter who we play, we can be the best, understanding that geographically where we are at, people might not notice our ability, and stuff like that. And before long, we had kids going to college. All of a sudden, Key West was beating teams in Miami that, in the past, we were non-competitive and we went through the stages of being competitive to winning to being ‘Hey, you better be ready when you play down there.’ That’s the reputation that we created with a lot of pride and playing the game the right way.

The big key was challenging our kids. Because, we will spend a lot of hours here year-round molding our kids and working with our kids and getting them to understand that ‘Hey, you know what? You want to get off this island, you better work hard and better do things the right way and we are going to help you go to school.’ That is our main focus. And, the community has bought into this and this community is so supportive. We have, in the few years I have been back, my second year, we have been able to build this baseball program into a $100,000+ a year program. And that is pretty special for high school. How many programs do you know of that could do that?

But, it takes a group of people to do that, you know. I am blessed where I just have to go and work hard and focus on baseball. We have people that do the scheduling; the business part. We are flying to Phoenix next week. That trip is going to cost us $40,000 to go to show what Conch baseball is on the West Coast, help us prepare for the state playoffs, help these kids travel to see things they don’t see on this little chewed up island. But, there is a tremendous amount of pride on this island for baseball and Conch baseball.

Anthony: So, even with your ties to the program, you left the manager’s position twice before coming back a third time last year. What stopped you from staying all the way through from the start?

Coach Henriquez: Well, I started building conch baseball in 1994 when I moved here from Homestead with my family. I helped as an assistant coach while I was finishing up my business degree and had some tough challenges, some tough times. Thank God we got through that and then people told me, “Ralph, could you stay here and become the head coach and build a program?” So, I applied for the job in 1994 and the program was in a tough way. It was not competitive with Miami, and I came here and began the Key West Winter League where we started working with the kids in the summer, weight training and teaching them how to play the game, worked in the weight room and we got our lumps. We got our butts beat by a lot of the Miami schools and I said, “Be patient. Listen to what I am saying and it’ll happen.”

People saw how I ran the program and what I did in my brief background as a minor league player, two or three years in the minor leagues, and said, “You really have a knack for coaching and doing what you do. It’s a lot to have that “it” factor. Would you be interested in coaching professional baseball?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. I have had some colleges ask me about coaching in college.” And, I thought about it and then I had the opportunity to go to a training program with the Atlanta Braves called “The Braves Way of Scouting”. I went to that and things kind of fell into place. I was offered a job to go coach with the Atlanta Braves when the Braves were at that point, were at the top. And, at the top of player development. So, I went to this program and came back home, and decided to take a shot coaching professional ball. So, I did that with the Braves for nine years and then there was a change with the Braves. And then the Yankees offered me a position. And I worked with the Yankees for a couple of years.

After that, I had some family health issues and then I didn’t coach for a year. Then, I took a job at Belen Jesuit and I really, really enjoyed Belen tremendously. I loved the Jesuit schools and going to mass every day. I mean, I go to mass everyday here in Key West but I love that Jesuit setting and I loved Belen. Them my wife got pretty ill and I had to come back home. And when I got back home, I was just here working with the kids. And the program, in the meantime while I was gone it wasn’t the way it was. It didn’t have the glamour. It didn’t have the people that had come out here. It didn’t make money. It just didn’t have what they thought I could bring to the program and then they said, “Hey, you have to come back and build this. This thing is falling off the map for six or seven years now. It doesn’t win. Nobody comes. There is no money being generated.” And I said, “God, Again?” (Laughs).

So, I talked to Deedee, and she said “Ralph, you love doing this then go and do it.” So, we did and thank God. Last year I had my challenges but we had a great season. We were 26-4 last year. We started gradually building people back into the ball park. And then this year, it has been the same thing. And our community is our tenth man. They are awesome and there is so much importance on this program.

Anthony: That actually leads me into my next question. Being down here for the first time, it is easy to see that you guys kind of have a “Friday Night Lights” thing going on with the program in the community. It is almost as if the community considers you guys the entertainment on the weekends. Instead of going to the movies or out to dinner, they come and they catch baseball. Tell our readers what that experience is like.

Coach Henriquez: Well, it is just the atmosphere that is here. One, it is pretty damn good baseball for high school baseball. I mean, when we played Stoneman Douglas, you have Rich Hofman, who assistant coaches there now, God knows how many wins are there between him and Coach Fitz-Gerald. Rich says, “Ralph, what an environment you’ve got here! The only bad thing you have here is umpires.” He says, “Ralph, what an environment you have here. You’ve got 700-800 people.“ Key West baseball is probably one of our last identity pieces.

We know that our community has changed a lot. We are very business oriented; motels, tourist industry. We have tourism year-round here. But, Key West Conch baseball is one of the last true pieces of the history of our island. Because, baseball goes back to the days in 50s and going to Cuba and playing in Cuba and the Cuban teams coming here. You know, that is why I feel, that wherever I go, we have to win and I play a certain way. That is why people can’t wait for Friday nights, Saturday nights, and the food they have in these cafes. Like tonight is lobster enchilada with black beans and you’ve got Jack (Niles) that provides the music, and the fans that come out here and get all over these umpires and all over these coaches and players. They are not going to have that anywhere else. But, this is what identifies us. It is big for a little island. It’s big and the kids love it. And you see even kids from school come out to ball games where they could go tot the movies or do something else.

Anthony: That brings me to another point. You guys are known to have a rowdy, aggressive fan base at games. But give me a time when the fans did something so outrageous that even you said, “That was too far!”

Coach Henriquez: Well I think that in 1996, we were the number one team in the country. We played Coral Gables. They had a great ball club. They scored three runs in the first inning against us. There must have been 1500 people here that night. You couldn’t sit down here. And, something crazy happened with a couple of the people from Coral Gables and a couple of our “you gotta kill ‘em” type fans. They said that people had gone at each other and one guy even threatened to take a gun out or something like that. And, when the time came, the guy did not have a gun, but it stirred up a hell of a mess. But, you will see some crazy things with people.

I think one of the bigger ones was a very close play that went against us. We had won 44 games in a row and we had just beat Bishop Moore out of Orlando Friday night, 10-0. We came back and got in a dogfight with them on Saturday afternoon. We hit a ball up the middle. The shortstop made a hell of a diving play and flipped the ball over his shoulder and the second baseman was there waiting to get the force out. Well, we had first and third. The guy at third base would have been the tying run with two outs to tie the ballgame up. And, the kid slid, he just got there in time. And the Key West umpire rung him up and we ended up with a 44 game win streak snapped. They had to keep the umpire in the outfield and wait for the the crowd to clear out of here. People waited for about an hour because they wanted to get to this guy. And they had to wait and take everybody out of here and get him escorted out of here because I thought they were going to kill him!

That is the kind of stuff that this place brings out, but it is harmless. These people are great people. We feed the teams between games, after games. After the games are over with, some of the fans will stay here and heckle with the coaches whether we win or lose. But, for it to be anything with malice or stupidity, when we play other teams do we say, “OK, come beat us”? No, we play to beat you. We are going to get on you. And if you beat us, well you beat us, but you better be ready to play. And that is the mentality we have and I think it rubs off on the fans. But, when it is over and done with, “hey Coach, great game. You’ve got a great group of kids.” And our fans are the same way with the other people. It is loud, it is energized, and I tell you what, it would be hard for me to coach high school baseball anywhere else.

Anthony: I have been talking to some of your former players and others within your program. It seems like ex-players all come back. They go off to college but it seems like a large majority come back down here continuing tradition and rooting on the next generation of players. It’s almost as if the reach is so strong that they can’t get away or they don’t want to get away or they want to come back obviously to Key West. Talk about that a little bit.

Coach Henriquez: The players are the reason we have what we have down here. During practices, we coach them up. But in games, I basically leave them alone to play. I may be involved with the strategy, but the coaching is done during practice. We don’t really say much, unless it is one of those times we need to get their attention. For instance, One game, we were playing uninspired baseball into the sixth inning, so Danny (assistant coach) comes to me and says, “Coach you want to get these kids together?” And I say, “You think it’s time?” We were down 6-1 going into the sixth inning and he says, “Yeah, I think it’s time.” And he knew where I was going and I knew what he wanted. And, he says, “Hey, (whistles), everybody here in this dugout” and I used some unlavish words and told that them that if we didn’t kick this thing in gear and finish up strongly, win or lose, that we were going to run for a couple of hours and practice until 2:00 in the morning, which I have done before.

Anthony: And you had the support of the parents for something like that?

Coach Henriquez: Well, I really don’t care about the parents in regard to how I run the program. I don’t communicate much with the parents. I stay my distance from them. My job is the kids. And I do what is best for the kids in this program, which exemplifies Key West High School and this community. I am sure that I do things that some parents don’t like. But, I don’t care. I do what is best. My job is to prepare these kids to go to college and I’d give everything I got for these kids to go to school and I make sure they do go. But, if I say we played terrible and we are practicing after this game, we will. And last night some of the people told me, “Coach, we were betting in the bleachers that you were going to have practice until 2:00 in the morning.” And I said, “You know what? If we wouldn’t have stuck those six runs up on that board, your damn right we would have been here until 2:00 in the morning practicing.”

Anthony: Alright, just a couple more. Tell me something that you do away from the field that readers would be surprised or, people would be surprised, that you do?

Coach Henriquez: Well, honestly, I think, since I have been back, I have been pretty boring because we have been working with these kids. Our season ended last year when we lost to North Broward Prep and I gave the kids a week off. And then we started in the weight room, getting kids bigger, stronger. We worked on hitting. We worked throughout the summer and you just get caught up in this routine. And when you realize, “God, I am spending six days a week with this kids working over the summer, weightlifting three days a week. I have the pitchers going to the junior college swimming and running in the pool, there is not much time for anything.”

I don’t play golf. I don’t go down on Duvall Street. I think, for me it is church and baseball. Other than that, I think I am pretty boring. And that is really being truthful. What would I like to do? I would like, one day, to go out on the boat and go fishing and enjoy Key West. I mean, people come to Key West to retire; to be here to ride their bikes around the island to go fishing or snorkeling or ride a jet ski. You know what? I would love to do that? I just don’t have the time to do that. And, if I did do that, I would think I was cheating the program out of not getting better. Because one of my beliefs is: whatever you put into it, you get out of it. So, the only thing I put before this program is my faith and my church and my family and then this program. That is kind of where I am at. I am not too exciting to read about. (Laughs).

Anthony: And that leads me into my last question. Give me your perfect day. From the time you wake up, your ideal day, up until the time you go to bed at night.

Coach Henriquez: My day, once again, it is very boring, very routine. I get up at six in the morning because my wife gets up at six in the morning. She’s a tax collector and she is already in her work at 6:15-6:30 in the morning. I get up, because she wakes me up. I wouldn’t get up; I am so tired. I get up; I go to church every morning at St. Mary’s. I love going to my church every morning. I get there and there are maybe one or two people there because mass starts at 7:30 AM.

Then I go to school, get out of school, I get here about 3:30 in the afternoon and I am here until about 9:30 every night, go home, pass out, 6:30am the next day, do the same thing again. So, I am a pretty routine guy. Just always figuring how to make the program better. How can we make the facilities better?

There are two things left that I’d like to do. I mean, I am not getting any younger and I enjoy doing what I am doing, but there are two things left that I’d like to do. At one point, be able to win a national championship where we came very close and then I would really like to see our facilities really, really, really upgraded more because of the support that we get and the money we make and I would like to put a big,nice, good size, nothing crazy, but a nice TV screen, get a jumbo screen on top of that new scoreboard. This is our entertainment here on the island, so I want it to be the best experience our fans, and opposing players, coaches, and fans can have on a weekend night.

Anthony: Thanks coach, and good luck the rest of the season.

Coach Henriquez: Thank you for everything you guys do.

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