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Henson playing without pressure

For the most part, Drew Henson will throw the ball in the 20- to 40-yard range. When he does, he won't have to worry about 300-pounders trying to bury him.

There are no 300-pound players in baseball. A third baseman doesn't need a "pocket," except one in which to store his batting gloves. Henson will be doing the hitting, not worrying about getting hit, save for the occasional line drive or fastball.

The record-setting former Michigan quarterback and future New York Yankees hot-corner occupant probably would have been a high first-round pick had he declared for the NFL draft after his junior season as a Wolverine, maybe No. 1 in April had he played _ played well, that is _ as a senior.

That would have meant big bucks. Former Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick, No. 1 last year, signed a six-year, $62-million contract with the Falcons.

Henson's deal as a No. 1 would have been bigger. And Henson likes football, but not nearly as much as baseball. He's being paid handsomely: a six-year, $17-million contract signed March 24, on top of the $2-million signing bonus he got when the Yankees made him a third-round pick in the June 1998 amateur draft.

He played Class A ball in 1998-99 and a bit of Double A in 2000 before the Yankees traded him to Cincinnati in July 2000 to get pitcher Denny Neagle. When Henson began talking about returning to Michigan for his senior season, the Reds figured they wouldn't be able to sign him and traded him back to New York.

The Yankees took care of that potential wrinkle by including a contract clause prohibiting Henson from playing football.

"We got back at the NFL for taking (John) Elway away from us years ago," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said of a minor-league third baseman in 1982 who gave up a promising baseball career to throw footballs for the Denver Broncos.

Henson said that for the three years he was at Michigan, "I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. In my heart I knew I loved baseball. It was just a matter of getting a good situation for me to pull the trigger when I did. It was easy making the decision, but the process going about it wasn't all that simple. "I had an idea of where I'd go in the (NFL) draft, but it never got to that because I didn't want to go into something and regret it later. (Football) wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to give baseball a shot. Besides, you don't get beat up every game in baseball."

Henson isn't on the Yankees major-league roster, for now. Save for likely callup in September, Henson will spend the season at third base with the Columbus Clippers while newly acquired Robin Ventura plays it for the Yankees.

"The only thing I told him before we started our first (spring) game," manager Joe Torre said, "is that whether he hits .100 or .900, just enjoy the experience because our plans are to start him in Triple A to keep him from putting too much pressure on himself. He doesn't have to impress anybody. . . .

"We brought him back (from Cincinnati) after having traded him. Obviously we think he's going to be a big player for us. We don't think he's very far away, but we're not going to push it."

Ten days after Scott Brosius retired Nov. 27, the Yankees traded David Justice to the Mets for Ventura, starting his 14th season.

"It's the best trade I could have imagined," Ventura said. "I'm on a good team with good players, and I didn't have to sell my house." It's just a different drive to work from Greenwich, Conn.

He knows he's the Yankees third baseman until Henson's time comes. "That's part of baseball," he said. "Guys can't play forever. Obviously when he's ready they're going to give him a shot. He's a good player, and I'm fortunate to have played as long as I have."

Said Torre: "We love having him here because he adds to what we have in the clubhouse and gives us the experience on the field. There's no competition. (Third base) is his position."

So until he was reassigned a week ago to minor-league camp at Legends Field, March was a kid-in-the-candy-store month for Henson, wearing pinstripes, batting .250 and sharing a bench and clubhouse with Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams and Ventura.

"I'm just trying to learn at this point rather than competing against Ventura," Henson said. "My time will come. Everybody (on the Yankees) is working to win another championship. I'm working to get to the major leagues."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

The Henson File

BORN: Feb. 13, 1980, San Diego.

RESIDES: Brighton, Mich.

HT./WT.: 6-5, 222.

ACQUIRED: Picked by Yankees in third round of 1998 amateur draft, signed for $2-million bonus. Traded to Cincinnati July 12, 2000, in deal that brought pitcher Denny Neagle to New York. Played sparingly at quarterback at Michigan 1998-99, started in 2000 as a junior. Traded back to Yankees March 21, 2001, with outfielder Michael Coleman for outfield prospect Wily Mo Pena and cash; three days later signed six-year, $17-million contract. Played with Class A Tampa, Double-A Norwich and Triple-A Columbus in 2001, batting .228 in 81 games with 12 homers, 43 RBIs.