“He has not cried in this journey at all. He’s never cried,” Kristi Hendriks said Monday, describing her husband. “Even when he rang the bell (after completing his chemotherapy treatments), he (only) got a little choked up.”
And yet the first time White Sox fans got to welcome Liam Hendriks back to Major League Baseball, the tears came.
Hendriks strode out for a pregame ceremony Monday at Guaranteed Rate Field, in full uniform and part of the White Sox’ active roster for the first time since defeating cancer — just about a month and a half after he rang that bell. He stood next to his wife and presented a giant check for more than $100,000 raised for the Lymphoma Research Foundation.
As his smiling face hit the Jumbotron in center field, he had to continually wipe his eyes.
It was the first of several ovations throughout the night, fans standing and cheering on the victorious Hendriks during that ceremony, when he made his trip from the dugout to the bullpen in the middle of the game and of course when he entered to pitch the top of the eighth inning, his usual light show and music mash-up right where he left it.
For someone who didn’t get very emotional during what he and his wife kept referring to as a “journey,” Hendriks was routinely overwhelmed Monday as he made his triumphant return.
“It was definitely emotional,” Hendriks said of his day. “It was nerve-wracking going out and having that going on. It was humbling going out there and walking out there and seeing the amount of people wearing my shirts and the amount of people having signs or flags, the amount of people that were chanting when I came into the game. It was a very humbling and sobering moment, just realizing the impact my wife and I have had around this city with what we’ve been able to do.
“Walking around downtown, I parked and walked over to see Kristi and my parents over at a place, and (there were) three or four (people) in the space of 100 yards saying good luck and congratulations. The outpouring of love, not only online and in social media but in person, has been huge.
“I want to thank the city of Chicago for embracing us in this way, and hopefully we have and can still continue to move forward and represent this city well.”
Hendriks has obviously done that in his time in a White Sox uniform, through countless philanthropic efforts that started the day he signed and have continued — and evolved — with his recent battle against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In addition to all the charitable work feeding first responders, the work protecting animals and his stepping up to support the LGBTQ+ community, that aforementioned journey has opened new avenues of giving, exemplified by he and Kristi’s quest to provide financial assistance and raise awareness for young people going through the same cancer fight he did.
But as much as Chicago loves someone who loves their community, they equally love someone who fights for it. And Hendriks fought, not just to defeat the disease but to make it back to the mound at 35th and Shields.
“I knew Liam was going to be on a mound before we started chemo. That was his saving grace,” Kristi said. “He said, ‘I’m going to play again if it takes me four rounds, if it takes me six rounds, if it goes more, if it goes less. I’m just going to do that because I need to do that for myself.’
“And then when all the fan support got behind him, it was 100 percent a moment of, ‘I’m doing this for the city of Chicago.’”
Chicago said thanks Monday.
But it wasn’t alone.
Hendriks received support from across the game, whether on the other side of town — earlier this month, he spoke of a particularly inspirational message from Cubs pitcher Jameson Taillon — or the other side of the border, the Blue Jays sending a special video congratulating him on his comeback.
The same support that raised him up during his battle back, however, might have had the reverse effect of dragging him down Monday night, when he pitched his first inning of the season in the White Sox’ 6-4 loss to the visiting Angels.
“I saw them and then quickly tried to glance away,” Hendriks said of the ovation coming from the Angels’ dugout. “As I said (after the opposing team greeted me with an ovation during a minor league rehab assignment), it’s great and I truly really appreciate it and everything. But it’s very hard to get into my right frame of mind knowing that they’re actually good people. So I have to trick myself into thinking that they’re terrible and that don’t deserve to get anything.
“But that’s just the way I pitch and the way I am.”
Hendriks’ return from cancer in such rapid form is nothing short of incredible, but for as unique a moment as this was, there was a lot of normalcy to watching Hendriks go to work Monday. No, the two runs he gave up on three hits and a walk in the eighth inning were hardly vintage Hendriks. But with some struggles came the audible cursing, the high intensity and a complete focus on the results of the game in his postgame media session.
He needed to be reminded to separate the baseball for a second.
Of course, he can’t, which is why he is where he is.
“It’s truly a testament to his hard work and commitment the fact that we’re even having this conversation in May,” Rick Hahn said before the game. “When we initially got the initial prognosis, I don’t think anyone would have been shocked if the response to a Stage 4 lymphoma diagnosis was we weren’t going to see the guy pitch this year. Or if we initially announced he’s going to be gone till at least the All-Star break, I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye with that timeline.
“Truly a remarkable accomplishment by Liam and by Kristi and by all those involved in the rehabilitation to getting him back.”
As Hendriks would be the first to tell you, he obviously wasn’t all the way back Monday night. If he was, he would have pitched in the ninth inning, not the eighth.
Pedro Grifol outlined a sort of plan before Monday’s game, one in which the White Sox will get Hendriks’ feet wet by keeping him away from his usual ninth-inning role. They want to see how he responds, obviously, to pitching and the adrenaline rush that comes with a return of this magnitude. Grifol wasn’t sure whether that would come after just one outing or after a few, taking the same “we’ll talk and see how he feels” approach the team did during Hendriks’ rehab work.
But make no mistake, Hendriks wants to be back in the ninth inning. He wants to do what he said when he signed with the White Sox and pitch as much as he possibly can.
He wants to do it for his teammates. He wants to do it for his city.
“I’ll never be OK with mediocrity. I’ll never be OK with not being at the back end of the bullpen,” he said. “But in saying that, I need to earn it. I don’t want handouts. I need to work. I need to earn it. The guys have been throwing well out there. But at the end of the day, that’s mine. But as I said, I need to earn it. There’s no freebies, there’s no handouts. I will get there, and I will earn it myself.
“God no, there’s no space (needed between outings). I wouldn’t have come back if I needed space. This isn’t a ‘rehab while I’m in the big leagues’ kind of thing. This is when I came back, I was planning on being available for these next three days.
“If the phone rings tomorrow for me, the phone rings tomorrow. And I’ll be ready.”
That’s the kind of emotion we’re used to seeing from Hendriks: the drive, the competitive spirit, the downright (if sometimes fabricated) anger.
Monday, we also got to see some emotion we haven’t seen from Hendriks.
When he finally got to the mound, the Angels batter and the home-plate umpire gave him all the time he needed to soak in the scene. He turned in a complete 360-degree circle on the rubber. He was breathing heavy. He was amping himself up, but differently than before. Because, hey, this time he had some help.
The person who knows him best knew what was coming.
“I think that he’s going to have a moment out there where he’s in shock that so many people are on his side,” Kristi said a couple hours earlier. “All I kept saying to him the whole time was just, ‘Do you see how loved you are? You are loved by fans, your teammates, the community, the city of Chicago, the cities you played for previously. They are all supporting you. You are going to have to find aggression in a different way.’
“I think he’s more in an aggressive way of: ‘F cancer. People shouldn’t have to go through this anymore. We should find a cure.’
“I think he’s going to find his hunger there.”
After being there for his community, fighting for his city and sharing the love Monday night, is there any doubt that the Hendriks of old, the All-Star closer, is right around the corner?
“Usually, when I get two strikes, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that I’m punching them out, in my eyes at least,” Hendriks said after the game. “I didn’t quite have that today.
Of course it will.