Commentary

A year after fireworks injury, Sky Sox promoter still a fan favorite

Updated: May 12, 2008, 11:51 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The reactions come in three types, depending on age, gender and sensitivity level. Men, true to form, cast a sideways glance at Rai Henniger and divert their gaze, as they might when encountering a panhandler on a street corner. Women respond with Oprah-like tenderness and empathy, mixed with smiles and kind words meant to nurture and encourage.

And children, who have yet to embrace the concept of diplomacy, see his reconstructed face and get right to the point.

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comRai Henniger has been connecting fans and the Sky Sox for 17 years, specializing in birthdays, marriage proposals and promotional nights.

"Mister, what happened to you?" they'll say.

"It's from fireworks," he gently tells them, in his new capacity as a walking cautionary tale.

It's been precisely a year since a 2½-inch spherical titanium shell shattered Henniger's face, turning Security Service Field into a makeshift battlefield scene, and a glance in the mirror is all it takes to remind him that his life will never be the same. For 17 years, he's been the main community link for the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox -- the senior vice president of marketing, on-field master of ceremonies and goodwill ambassador for the franchise.

Now he's a survivor in the truest sense of the word.

The evolving contours of Henniger's face are testament to his ordeal. The doctors recently peeled down skin from his forehead to help form a new nose, which was reconstructed from bone and cartilage from his rib and ear. The bluish-black dots around his nose and mouth come from embedded bits of explosive lodged beneath his skin. "Tattooing,'' it's called. And his skull is a work in progress. When doctors injected saline in his forehead to expand the skin and close other wounds, Henniger appeared to have horns. Now the process has shifted to the back, and he jokes that he's been left with a pair of "Mickey Mouse ears."

His left eye and the surrounding muscle are gone, and beyond the facial wall, the damage is manifested in subtle changes to his behavior. The frontal lobe is the executive center of the brain, and his injuries leave him fatigued, occasionally forgetful and bereft of a stop valve. He's frequently captive to expressing the first sentiment that pops into his head.

Still, Henniger has much to be thankful for. His personal plight has tapped a vein of emotion in his community and minor league baseball as a whole. He has seen how a family can pull together in a way that turns despair to hope and brings order to a sense of chaos.

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger and Steve DeLeon
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.com"I've been around him and the fireworks for 14 years now, and I know how careful he was,'' says Sky Sox groundskeeper Steve DeLeon. "To see him on the ground like that … that was tough.''

He has his personal heroes. The list begins with Sky Sox groundskeeper Steve DeLeon, the first respondent to his accident, who handled such a crisis with cool, clear-headed thinking. And it extends to the two Army sergeants, Christopher Smith and Michael Cordosi, who kept him alive until the paramedics arrived.

The depth of emotion within makes something as superficial as a man's appearance seem almost trivial in comparison.

"A lot of people know who Rai is and they know his story, but they don't tie the two together," Heather Henniger says of her husband. "I want to tell them, 'Gosh, if you knew Rai and what he's been through, you'd just want to go give him a hug.'"


There are roughly 160 affiliated minor league teams across the country -- from Aberdeen, Md., to Zebulon, N.C. -- and their rosters are filled with homesick teenagers, seasoned veterans yearning for a final shot and thousands of prospects and dreamers in between. The players are supported by a legion of ticket takers and receptionists, concessionaires and public address announcers, groundskeepers and operations directors who bond through long hours, meager wages and a shared passion for the game.

In Colorado Springs, home of the Rockies' Pacific Coast League affiliate, the Sky Sox face the usual smorgasbord of challenges. It's hard carving out an identity when the big league club in Denver is 80 miles away, you play in the 93rd-largest media market and the weather is often a coin flip, from snow squalls in April to temperamental winds along the front range.

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comHenniger jokes about his nose: "Look at this -- my nose was like Lon Chaney in 'Phantom of the Opera.'"

Entertainment sells in the minors, and Henniger was a constant when Sky Sox manager Charlie Manuel gave way to Brad Mills, and the Cleveland Indians left town and the Rockies took their place. Players come and players go, elementary school national-anthem singers grow up, graduate from college and join the work force, and the perpetual link is Henniger, sunny-side up, salesman extraordinaire.

Sky Sox general manager Tony Ensor says Henniger is the only person in Colorado Springs who has never said "no" to anyone. If a birthday celebration or marriage proposal isn't on the list of nightly events, or a sponsor calls with a late change of plans, he finds a way to make it work.

"I've seen hundreds of on-field hosts and MCs who explain the game to the fans, and I've never seen anyone who can communicate the way Rai does," Ensor says. "Whether there's a hundred people or 9,000 people in the stands, he finds a way to make you feel special."

Even by the best raconteur standards, Henniger's flair for storytelling and zest for life are contagious. He spent most of his youth in Hawaii, in a family of architects. His father named him Rai (pronounced "Rye") after a coworker who was half-Japanese, half-African-American. The name has three meanings -- "Thunder, Lightning and Trust" -- but Benjamin, Rai's 6-year-old son, likes to joke that it also means "Dork."

At age 48, Henniger is a cross between Mike Veeck, proponent of the "Fun is good" mantra, and Tom Hanks dancing on a giant keyboard in the movie "Big." Amid the wide-open spaces of Henniger's imagination, there's no such thing as a bad idea -- merely occasional tinges of regret from concepts unexplored.

He's the guy who conceived "Bark in the Park" night, when baseball fans cavort with Cocker Spaniels and Pomeranians, and he was at the forefront of the first ballpark hot tub (even though the PR guy and groundskeeper had to twist his arm to do it). He designed the costume, name and educational theme for Sox the Fox, the Colorado Springs mascot, and once wore a homemade TV set over his head during Comcast Night in Colorado Springs.

As the proud creator of Assorted Animal Snout Night, he ordered thousands of cheap barnyard masks from China, passed them out to the crowd, then cued the pigs to "oink" and the cows to "moo" just as the opposing pitcher went into his delivery.

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger and Steve DeLeon
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comDeLeon, left, helped save Henniger after the fireworks accident at the site of the automated rack that holds 20 mortar tubes behind the scoreboard.

And during his signature promotion, Computer Geek Night, he dressed up in high water pants, a pocket protector and nerdy glasses and did a poor man's Myron Noodleman impersonation. When the Sky Sox weren't holding Bill Gates and Dilbert look-alike contests, they were designating fans to be "Spam blockers" -- sending them to the grassy hillsides behind the foul lines and firing gobs of lunch meat at them from a sling shot.

"I would have loved to be in the meeting where they talked about shooting meat into the berm," Ensor says. "Someone makes a dumb joke, the ignitions are firing, the lights are going off, and Rai's formulating a promotion. And he's the best at it. I like to think I'm pretty good, but he's got one more gear than everybody else."

It's only fitting that he met his future wife at the park. One night the scheduled participant in the "Pitch to Win" contest failed to report to the gift shop as instructed. Henniger, desperate for a replacement, approached an attractive young woman on a group office outing and asked if she could bail him out of trouble.

"What is this, some sort of sexist thing you do to make women look foolish?" asked the then Heather Mooney.

She won a $50 gift certificate by throwing a baseball through a hole on a board and revealed during a casual conversation that she was a trained vocalist. Henniger invited her back to sing the national anthem, and the story ends with 12 years of marriage, three beautiful children and a lovable, panting Australian Shepherd mix named Bosco.


Two years ago Henniger suggested to Sky Sox management that he would like to personally coordinate team fireworks displays rather than contract out the job. "When you're the promotions director, you want everything to go off like clockwork for the sponsors and the fans," he says. It was a way to indulge his creative impulses and make sure the trains ran on time.

The displays have long enthralled fans in Colorado Springs. A single, booming "salute" shell greets every Sky Sox solo home run, and four go off in response to a grand slam. As a courtesy to the neighbors, the salutes cease after 9 p.m., and the team switches to silent "colorful effects" that light up the night sky.

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comHis kids help remind him of the resemblance between Daddy and Mickey.

Henniger was eternally vigilant in his preparation. He's a licensed fireworks display operator and was trained by Bob Kordula, whose family handled the local July 4 fireworks shows for 26 years. Kordula always told him to never take anything for granted, to be meticulous and consistent -- and if there's a one in a million chance of something going wrong, don't take it.

The game on May 12, 2007, was special because it was Fort Carson Appreciation Night, a time for the club to honor soldiers at the nearby military base. The evening featured an 18-gun cannon salute, color guards on horseback, the Wings of Blue parachute team and Army generals throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Henniger, befitting his routine, entered his lair behind the left field wall at 2:15 p.m. to prepare for the show. The automated rack at the back of the scoreboard houses 20 mortar tubes. One by one, he inserted a fireworks shell into each tube and gently tamped it down to make sure it was seated properly. A device called an "e-match" was attached to a fuse, which connected to a system of underground wires running all the way to the press box. That's where Chip Dreamer, the Colorado Springs public address announcer, monitors a control box that sets the process in motion.

Henniger was about 10 minutes from the final step -- placing plastic bags and elastic bands over the tubes in the event of rain -- when something went awry. For reasons he might never know, mortar tube No. 3 mysteriously went off. The shell struck the left side of his face, then cracked and fizzed a few feet away without exploding.

Did the controls in the press box malfunction? A subsequent check reveals that wasn't the case. Did he make an error in judgment by peering directly into the tube? He can't recall. A year after the fact, he's blocked out the WHOOMP sound that heralded the event. The realist in him concedes that's probably for the best.

"I argue that maybe this is God's way of making sure that really horrible things don't bother people, because they're just erased," Henniger says. "It's very helpful -- trust me."


The bystanders remember events too vividly for comfort. Steve DeLeon, the team's stocky, mustachioed groundskeeper, was busy towing in the Army cannons for the 18-gun salute on the field. He passed Henniger several times to check on the progress of the fireworks display, and on his final turn, he received a thumbs-up sign as a signal that everything was fine.

DeLeon was riding on a cart near the right-field foul line when he heard the fateful WHOOMP. When he reached the spot of the accident, he found his friend lying on the ground, motionless and initially unresponsive.

As a former high school teacher and coach, DeLeon is certified in first aid and CPR. After determining that Rai was conscious, he shifted his friend to his side and told him to spit so he wouldn't choke on his own blood.

"I've been around him and the fireworks for 14 years now, and I know how careful he was," DeLeon says. "To see him on the ground like that … that was tough."

Within moments DeLeon was relieved by the Army sergeants, Smith and Cordosi, who were on the field preparing for that night's activities. The two artillery soldiers had served in Iraq and were schooled in emergency training. At a press conference in early June, Smith said they used towels to stanch the bleeding and kept Henniger talking until the ambulance arrived.

Ira Liebman, the Sky Sox's community relations director, sensed something was wrong when he looked down from the press box and saw Tom Runnells, the Sky Sox manager, momentarily flinch and glance over his shoulder while throwing batting practice. Ensor, the GM, was in his office when he heard DeLeon's frantic call over the radio that "Rai's been hurt!" Several front office members sprinted to the outfield, dreading what they would find, and someone placed a call to 911 on the way.

"At the time, you were more in shock than anything," Ensor says. "It's like when a tornado hits. You think, 'This can't happen here. It can't happen to us.'"

Heather Henniger was driving on Powers Boulevard with her father when her phone rang at 3:07 p.m. Moments later, she followed an ambulance into the Security Service Field parking lot. At Memorial Hospital, one of the emergency-room personnel told her the chances of her husband's dying were 1 percent. But after an excruciating wait, she learned that was wildly optimistic.

Three doctors -- a neurosurgeon, plastic surgeon and an eye specialist -- entered the waiting room and reeled off the damage: Henniger had suffered facial fractures of the nose, eye socket, upper jaw and cheekbone, and an additional fracture through the base of the skull. He suffered multiple soft tissue injuries, and his left eye was so badly ruptured, it had to be removed. Doctors told Heather that her husband's chances of dying had significantly increased.

"It was like this cloud just enveloped us," Heather says. "I had never seen more somber expressions. They used terms like 'catastrophic and devastating injuries,' and said it was beyond their scope here in Colorado Springs."

They transported Henniger to Denver Health Medical Center by helicopter. Heather made the trip by car with a friend and mulled over the possibilities. The list ranged from death to total blindness to permanent disfigurement, with disfigurement ranking as the most upbeat scenario of the three.

Her husband spent three weeks in a drug-induced coma and a web of morphine-related hallucinations. In the empty space where his left eye used to be, he imagined a malicious-looking sea creature intent on carving out its turf. The doctors kept the room cool to reduce metabolic activity -- and by extension, swelling in the brain -- and his body was covered by a thin sheet.

"My most vivid memory was of freezing to death," he says. "You know that feeling where you can't get warm and have no capacity to get warm? I didn't know who I was or what I was. I didn't know anything, except that I was something that was really cold. My sense of identity was askew."

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comDr. Mario Imola injects saline into Henniger's head to expand the skin that can be used to cover his scalp.

Heather stayed by his side, singing softly to him, playing Beatles music or their sentimental favorite, Norah Jones' "I've Got to See You Again." When Henniger finally awoke, his daughters, Grace and Emma, were there to see him, and little Benjamin had no reservations about crawling into bed beside him.

"Daddy doesn't look good," Heather told him, "but it's still the same Daddy.'"

Rehabilitation brought Henniger from Denver Health to Craig Hospital, and a slew of talented and devoted professionals. Jim Schraa, his neuropsychologist, helps him deal with his newfound impulsivity and penchant for expressing emotions before thinking. Walter Johnson, a Denver ocularist with a classic baseball name, talked him through the trauma of losing an eye, then crafted a prosthetic replacement. Henniger even received clearance to resume driving a car on a limited basis.

Doctors Mario Imola and Nick Slenkovich, Denver-based plastic surgeons, have spent the past few months on the long and arduous process of rebuilding his face. Bit by bit, it's coming along.

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comDenver-based plastic surgeons Dr. Mario Imola, right, and Nick Slenkovich, not pictured, have spent the past few months on the long process of rebuilding Henniger's face.

The mystery surrounding the accident remains unresolved. Representatives from OSHA, the fire department and insurance companies visited the site, but reached no definitive conclusion. The Sky Sox hired a Denver electrical engineer, Mark Felling, to examine the scene, but Henniger has yet to learn the results of his investigation. Felling didn't return phone calls from ESPN.com seeking comment.

In August, Henniger returned to the spot of the accident with a groundskeeper and his therapist. He thought the experience would jog a memory or two, but his recollections were irretrievably gone.

"I expected lots of emotion," he says. "I wanted to look into the rack and maybe see if something came back to me. I just wanted to relive the last moment of being normal."


So what is normal, precisely? Dr. Imola's goal is to repair Henniger's disfigurement so it will barely be noticeable from a distance of 15 feet. But he's aware of the underlying emotional baggage. As a cranial plastic surgeon, he routinely treats children with severe birth defects.

"It's stressful and depression-inducing to a person when every time they go out, they think, 'Everybody is looking at me like I'm from another planet,'" Imola says. "Even the strongest personalities have a hard time coping with that."

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comHeather Henniger told her kids, "Daddy doesn't look good, but it's still the same Daddy.''

Henniger makes do with a dose of humility and self-deprecating humor. As he shows a visitor the recent photo from his YMCA card, he's quick to point out his cosmetic shortcomings.

"Look at this -- my nose was like Lon Chaney in 'Phantom of the Opera,'" he says. "My friends use to joke that when I blew my nose, you had to wipe off the ceiling."

As the Hennigers learn to cope, they're overwhelmed by the support of loved ones and friends. Rai was moved to tears when he came home last summer and found that one of Heather's friends, Carrie Nugent, had spearheaded a project to build the family a new sunroom beside the kitchen. Neighbors could only wonder what was happening as workers pounded away and catering tents were set up in the backyard. It was like an old-fashioned barn raising.

On slow days, Henniger sits in the sunroom, which he calls his "fortress of solitude," and writes thank-you notes. When he opens the ottoman at the foot of his favorite chair, it's bulging with cards, letters and get-well wishes. A longtime Sky Sox season-ticket holder, Dot Hutchinson, who recently died of cancer, sent a card before her death with an offer to babysit the Henniger children. Brandon Rose from Mrs. Morgan's class offers his get-well wishes, and Henniger's friends at a local diner want him to know, "We're Missing You at Gunther Toody's."

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comHenniger plays with his kids -- he and Heather have three, Grace, Emma and Benjamin.

The minor league baseball community reached out en masse. Pacific Coast League clubs and other minor league teams donated money to the Rai Henniger Family Fund, and last Father's Day, the Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League held a sports memorabilia auction to help with his rehabilitation.

In August, he returned to Security Service Field for a special day in his honor and gave a powerful and emotional speech. "It was so quiet, you could hear the wind," says Ensor. For 20 minutes, this fractured man thanked his family and friends, stressed the power of positive thinking and promised to be back.

"The biggest thing for me wasn't necessarily that he spoke," says DeLeon, "but the fact that he was there. Period."

Sky Sox owner Dave Elmore has assured Henniger that when he's ready, his former job is waiting for him. The team just wants him to heal and proceed at his own pace. Right now, most of the medical bills are covered by worker's compensation, but there's still a long road ahead.

During a recent blustery spring day, the Hennigers returned to the ballpark with Heather's parents. They ate hamburgers, hot dogs and chocolate chip cookies from an upstairs suite while watching the Sky Sox lose 16-8 to the Sacramento River Cats. As the game progressed, a parade of front office employees, ballpark attendants and former interns dropped by to pay respects and reminisce. Even Sox the Fox, the team mascot, made an appearance.

People want to console Henniger, yet the encounter usually ends with him doing something to make them feel at ease. It's a 17-year tradition in Colorado Springs.

Fellow employees tell a story from years ago, when a little boy designated to be the Sky Sox's junior announcer was so panic-stricken he wet his pants in anticipation of the big event. It was Henniger who cleaned him up, encouraged him to overcome his fears, and made the experience one to cherish.

[+] EnlargeRai Henniger
Lucas Gilman for ESPN.comHenniger, in his sunroom, writing thank-you notes to people who have sent him get-well wishes.

"A time like this is a telling sign of how somebody treats other people," says Dan Karcher, Sky Sox radio broadcaster and Henniger's longtime friend. "I don't think Rai has an enemy anywhere in the community. He's one of those guys who's able to light up a room whenever he enters it."

True to character, Henniger is quick to find the positive amid his travails. His ordeal has strengthened his faith in God and increased his appreciation for his family. He's grateful to his doctors, nurses and therapists as well as the soldiers and DeLeon for saving his life. And he's humbled and a bit perplexed by the attention he's received while military men and women in distress -- paraplegics and quadriplegics -- so often suffer in silence. He plans to take an active role in Wounded Warriors, an organization that supports the families of injured or deceased soldiers.

Each day when he wakes up, Henniger recalls the advice he received from a Craig Hospital nurse early in his rehabilitation.

"You have a choice," the nurse told him. "You can get better or you can be bitter, but you can't be both."

He made his choice a long time ago.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer