Tuesday night (June 22), Bryce Hensley will walk into a stadium, just like he does every day. Only this stadium will be a little different.
It won’t be the ballpark that he is used to entering as a member of the High Point Rockers, a member of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. Tuesday’s venue will be the football stadium at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio.
And instead of climbing on top of the mound where he is used to dominating hitters as a lefthanded pitcher, Hensley will try to entertain an audience of several thousand who have come to hear country music.
Hensley will be performing in front of his largest audience to date when he opens a concert tour stop for country music star Jake Owen on Tuesday night.
So how did this 6’4″, 215-pound lefthanded pitcher wind up playing country music in front of a star performer like Jake Owen?
Music wasn’t at the top of Hensley’s radar 16 months ago. The former UNC Greensboro pitcher had been drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 22nd round of the 2018 Major League Baseball draft. He started his pro career at the Royals’ Arizona League camp and then was promoted to Lexington, Kentucky in the Class A South Atlantic League. He moved up to Class AA Northwest Arkansas in 2019 and his baseball future was full of promise.
Then the pandemic hit. Professional baseball largely shut down at most levels outside of MLB. Minor leaguers were left without a job that they had prepared for their entire life.
“When we got sent home from spring training (in 2020), I was working construction for my dad,” said Hensley. “I love my dad but I cannot work with him. I was not made to work construction, as much as I respect it. So me and one of my buddies started writing songs together and put one of them up. It got really popular on the internet and my agent called me and said ‘Why would you not tell me about this?’ I said I didn’t really think much about it and he said let’s try and do something with it. Baseball is a really cool sport in the way that the more people you know, the better it works out. It worked out for me because the people I met through baseball supported it.”
During the pandemic, MLB also contracted its minor league system, eliminating about 40 teams nationwide and leaving many young professional players without a home. Hensley landed a contract with the High Point Rockers, a member of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. While most baseball fans are aware of the Major League farm system that includes clubs at the Class AAA, Class AA, Class A and Rookie League levels, many are unaware of independent baseball.
An independent league doesn’t have a working agreement with a single Major League team. Instead, the Atlantic League is a partner of MLB. The eight Atlantic League teams do their own scouting of players, sign the players to contracts and manage their own roster rather than having an MLB club assign players to a team. Should a player perform well for an independent team, their contract can be purchased by a Major League team.
The Rockers operate out of High Point, North Carolina, just minutes from UNC Greensboro where Hensley spent three seasons and won 18 games, leading the Spartans to the NCAA Regionals in 2017. He was the starting pitcher for the Spartans when they opened the NCAA Regional tournament against Clemson.
Independent baseball seems to fit the free-spirited Hensley’s personality.
“I love it,” said Hensley, 25, and in his fourth year as a professional pitcher. “I told them I’m ready to sign a lifetime contract. As long as they give me five to six at-bats a year and one start in right field. I’ve got to show off the athleticism every once in a while.
“This is really high-level baseball. It’s fun. One of the things about affiliated baseball is you have to fit a mold. And here they just let me be myself. I’m an entertainer and that’s kind of what my whole personality is and it’s never about trying to show anybody up, it’s about trying to make people laugh. And if I can do that while doing something I love, it all works out together.”
An independent league team is not just a bunch of young players trying to climb the ladder of a professional baseball career. The Rockers’ roster includes players with multiple years of Major League experience, a lot of guys who have played at the Class AA and Class AAA levels, and a handful of youngsters fresh out of college who were bypassed for one reason or another by Major League teams.
“That’s what’s really cool about this team,” Hensley said. “It’s weird to me to be 25 and to be one of the younger guys on this team. But that’s also one of the cool parts because you learn so much and everybody here has such feeling. I tell people all the time this is the best team I’ve ever played on. Talent-wise and clubhouse-wise. (Manager) Jamie (Keefe) and (assistant coach) Billy (Horn) do a really good job with that.”
On the field, Hensley is tutored by Frank Viola, the former Minnesota Twins lefty who owns both a Cy Young Award (1988) and a World Series Championship (1987) when he led the Twins to victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games while being named the World Series MVP.
“Frank and I are very similar,” said Hensley. “I don’t really look at scouting reports that much, to be honest. I got really lucky having (catcher) Logan (Moore) behind the plate. He just puts down a number and I throw the pitch. I told Frank that and he said ‘That’s what I did the year I won the Cy Young (Award).”
The drive to combine a baseball playing career and a music career is a form of rebellion for Hensley that dates back to his youth.
“When I was 13 years old, I came home from baseball practice complaining about having to run,” said Hensley. “My dad said ‘You know what? Put down the baseball glove, pick up the guitar and go do that for a living.’ I said ‘No, Dad.’ So he said ‘Then quit complaining.’ I said ‘You watch, one of these days I’m going to do both.’ At 13 years old, you say stuff. But it’s cool to actually bring that out.”
Hensley’s first effort in a recording studio produced “Growin’ Up in Me,’ a ballad about a young man’s journey to adulthood and self-realization. The on-line success of that song as well as another, “Duct Tape Can’t Fix,’ led to the upcoming release of a six-song EP.
“We went in and recorded a couple songs and they turned out to do pretty well and had some success,” said Hensley. “One of the things my agent (Mike Martini) is big on is keeping things going so I had this stash of songs that I thought were pretty good. Nowadays, nobody has the attention span to listen to a whole album. Mike wanted to release them all as singles. I wrote this song called “Small Town Dreams” and I thought it encapsulated my whole entire career and my whole entire life. I wanted to put it all together and make it an EP. We got a really good producer and they did a really good job so it will be a lot of fun to see how it does when it comes out.”
Thus far the convergence between professional baseball and country music has been smooth.
“I grew up in a baseball world. My brother played for a long time,” said Hensley. “These guys that are playing in the big leagues right now, I knew them when they were in the minor leagues. I hung out with them and I got really lucky in that aspect. But I never saw music that way until I got into it. Everybody knows everybody and everybody hangs out. It’s not like there’s a higher echelon. That’s what’s cool about Nashville. You go to Nashville and you see these people and you go ‘Dang, these are real people.’ That’s one of the things that’s made me realize no matter where you go, no matter what you do, at the end of the day you’re still a real person.
“I never really tried to chase this dream because I thought country music and baseball wouldn’t mix. I don’t know where I got that from because right now, it seems like they mix really well. It’s really cool to see people supporting both aspects. Going to college here (in Greensboro, N.C.), a lot of friends come out and watch our games. And I’ve got a lot of friends flying up to Akron to see the concert. Being able to do both of them and feeling the support for both of them has been really awesome.”
The appearance in Akron won’t be Hensley’s first concert. He first played in front of a crowd of 25 or so when he was 13 and opened for a local band in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. Back in December 2020, there were maybe 600 in attendance for a show in Texas. But Akron will mark the largest crowd he’s played to thus far in his burgeoning career.
So how did a 25-year old lefthanded professional baseball pitcher wind up opening a concert for Jake Owen who owns multiple Billboard Top 20 recordings as well as a former No. 1 song?
“A whole lot of Jesus, a little bit of talent and a really good agent,” said Hensley. “My agent works with (golfer) John Daly’s foundation, the ‘Heart of a Lion Foundation.’ Jake is really big in the golf world. I got lucky on that one.”
While Hensley has spent his entire life gripping a baseball, he remains a relative newcomer to the music world.
“I don’t know anything about music,” Hensley said. “I just know how to put words together a little bit and I can entertain. When we walked into this, neither (my agent or I) knew what we were doing. We were kind of just, rather, we still are flying by the seat of our pants. It’s a day-to-day process. My agent’s the greatest dude in the world. He’s taken such good care of me. I’ve always had people support this idea (of playing music) but he was the first one to really throw some money behind it and really push it and believe in it.”
As for his future, is there a point where Hensley will need to choose either the professional baseball path or the country music path? He’s still not sure.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” said Hensley. “I get asked that a lot. (Rockers teammate and former Major Leaguer Logan Morrison) and I had that talk. I have this tattoo on my wrist that says ‘Be where your feet are.’ My whole entire life I kind of thought I had, but I never really enjoyed the moment. Now I’m just trying to enjoy the moment and soak it all in instead of trying to get to the next step. Because when you get there you look back and you don’t remember any of it. I just show up every day and see what happens and kind of go from there.”
Up next is the release of his first EP. Asked how he would characterize the songs, Hensley was honest.
“It’s all over the place,” he said. “It’s really cool. It’s six songs that sound nothing like each other and show a whole lot of the different sides of me. ‘Small Town Dreams’ is the title track of it.”
As for his favorite song that’s about to be released?
“It’s a tie,” deadpanned Hensley. “Me and my buddy Connor Sweeney wrote this song ‘Weekend Friends’ about going out to a bar and you wake up and you’ve got 13 numbers on your phone that are best friends that you never met before and you’ll never recognize again. That’s a really good one. Then I wrote this song called ‘The Cowboy in Me.’ I started realizing I’m a redneck but I ain’t no cowboy. There’s a big difference. You put me on a horse, I’m a big boy (6’4″), I like my center of gravity low. You start thinking about all the things people have in common and that’s kind of the moral of the story. I don’t ride horses, I’m not in the rodeo but at the same time, we’ve all got a little bit of cowboy in us. So that’s probably my favorite one.”
When Hensley takes the mound, he’s never alone. It will be a different story on Tuesday night when he’s up on stage in that football stadium in Akron, Ohio.
“Baseball is easy,” said Hensley. “Anytime I step on a baseball field, there’s nine other people on the field. Don’t get me wrong, I love being the center of attention. If I go out there and screw up, somebody else can pick me up. If I forget something on stage, I’m like ‘Uh-oh.’ It’s just me.
“In baseball, as soon as I throw a pitch and it leaves my hand, I have no control over what happens next. Once I get on stage, you just have to roll with the punches and see where it takes you. I think that’s what people enjoy. It’s not supposed to be perfect.”
Hensley won’t miss a start in the Rockers’ rotation as he takes a short leave to open for Owen. Hensley threw six and one-third innings on Friday, June 18, against the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs and allowed six hits and three runs in earning a no-decision. At 6’4″ and 215 pounds, Hensley makes a distinct impression, both on the mound and on the stage.
Hensley and his Taylor guitar will be all alone on stage in a stadium on Tuesday night in Akron in front of several thousand fans.
His next appearance will be on Friday night in Lexington, Kentucky when he will be back on the mound for the High Point Rockers, facing the Lexington Legends. And working hard in front of thousands, facing one batter at a time.