By Mark Jaffee, Republican-American
Todd Hennessey was a sure-handed shortstop and contact hitter during his high school baseball days for coach Joe Bojko at Naugatuck High in the mid-1980s.
In his senior year in 1987, Hennessey not only earned All-Naugatuck Valley League and All-State honors, he was a Connecticut Senior All-Star along with Cheshire native and future major league catcher Brad Ausmus.
Naugatuck’s principal at the time was Ray Legenza, the legendary former Greyhounds’ three-sport coach and the namesake of the baseball diamond, who contacted four legendary college coaches — Andy Baylock of UConn, Dan Gooley of Quinnipiac, Frank “Porky” Vieira of the University of New Haven and Bill Holowaty of Eastern Connecticut State University — on Hennessey’s behalf.
“All four coaches, based on Ray’s recommendation, were more than willing to meet with me,” Hennessey recalled. “I decided to go to Eastern because I just enjoyed the school the most.”
As soon as Hennessey arrived in Willimantic for the Division III national power, he became a favorite of Holowaty, even though he had only three at-bats and four chances in the field as a freshman.
“Todd was a great competitor with great work ethic,” Holowaty recalled. “He was great in the classroom, too. You never had to worry about anything with him. He was so respectful and someone who had such a good demeanor. He was a leader, on and off the field.”
As a sophomore in 1989, Hennessey batted .340 batting with 54 hits and 35 runs scored as a leadoff hitter in 41 games while recording just seven errors in 168 chances. That earned him All-New England second-team honors.
But it wasn’t until his junior year in 1990, 30 years ago, when Hennessey’s impact with the Warriors was realized. It had little to do with his playing ability or eye-popping statistics, but rather how Hennessey handled a radical lineup move made by Holowaty before Eastern’s 1990 regional and national championship run.
Shortstop Jeff Handler, one of Hennessey’s closest friends, came back from an injury.
According to Bob Molta, Eastern’s longtime sports information director, “Todd was struggling (at the plate) after his great sophomore year and coach made a decision that he feels was the key to winning the title. Bill moved Pete Daniels from designated hitter to third base, making Brian Mercado (20 home runs that year) the full-time DH, and then moving third baseman Paul Matachun to second base … This knocked Todd out of the lineup in the postseason. Coach remembers Todd’s great attitude as a bench player that really pulled the team together. Todd could have sulked, but he didn’t. Coach loves him for that.”
Holowaty, now 75, noted “that it was one of the toughest decisions” he ever made in his career.
“Todd’s positive attitude was the difference,” Holowaty said. “That made him our Most Valuable Player of the national championship tournament. His maturity under difficult circumstances and the move to the bench at that time made us a better team. He accepted that. It was such an impressive thing to see.”
Hennessey recalled the exact day he was taken out of the lineup.
“We were on the field during warmups before our home game with Springfield College and I listened to what Coach said and clearly was not happy,” Hennessey said. “But I was on a team and part of a brotherhood. I felt that I had to stay positive. I just nodded and went back to warmups. I figured that was all I could do. I just had to accept it and was happy to be a part of such a great team.”
Molta recalled Hennessey starting a key double play in the late innings against Southern Maine in the 1990 New England regionals. Teammate Pat Murphy of Wolcott won a game as a starter and saved two others to earn MVP honors that helped Eastern advance to the nationals.
Hennessey didn’t play at all in the World Series, but a year later in 1991 he became a captain and returned to the starting lineup and a winning form with a .343 average, recording 62 hits with 43 runs scored and 34 runs batted in in 41 games as the No. 2 hitter. That effort earned him the Coach’s Award.
“After my junior year, I played in a Twilight League on Cape Cod with a lot of good players,” he said. “I cleared my head and thought on what I could have done differently. When I went to school in the fall, things just clicked. I had a great fall and things went from there.”
A 2013 Naugatuck Hall of Fame recipient, Hennessey was a three-year starter for the Greyhounds’ baseball team. In 1986, he batted .437, a single-season record that lasted 10 years.
A Seymour resident, Hennessey, now 50, has worked as a sales and trade marketing representative for British American Tobacco, a manufacturing company based in London, for the past 26 years.
Hennessey’s oldest daughter, Ashley, a junior at Nonnewaug High, enrolled in the Vo-Ag program, helped lead the girls basketball team to the Berkshire League regular season and tournament titles. Ashley earned All-BL honors and Class MM All-State honors.