By Rob Rains
PINE BLUFF, Ark. – As Marvin Hence made the four-hour drive north on highway 65 toward Springfield, Mo., he had plenty of time to think about why he was making the trip.
There was a lot to think about. This trip was 21 years in the making, going to see his son Tink pitch professionally for the first time, the first time he was going to see him pitch in person since 2020. Then, Tink was in high school, long before he became the Cardinals’ top pitching prospect and one of the best in all of the minor leagues.
It was the most recent 256 miles of a journey driven by love.
As he drove, with his older son Braelin, younger son Blaze and nephew Aaron in the Dodge Charger, Hence let his mind wander – back to all of the times it was him and Tink in the car, driving to practice, or a game, when the conversation was often about the hopes and dreams of a young boy.
“Reminiscing,” Hence said. “The anticipation of knowing I was going to watch him pitch. That journey, taking us from where we had been to where we’re going now.
“It was a different drive, just full of talking about all of the years leading up to it.”
The father and son shared a bond, not just of baseball, but of life.
Hence raised Tink as a single father for most of Tink’s childhood. He worked overnight shifts so he would be available to drive his son to school and pick him up in the afternoon, so he would be there to take him to those practices and games.
This trip was like so many in the past, on his way to a game, but yet so different.
“I couldn’t even sleep the night before knowing I was going that morning,” Hence said. “The only thing I was thinking about was that, ‘I get to see my son pitch.’”
Those who have known father and son for years can tell stories about their relationship, which stands out in an era when a lot of young boys grow up without their father being part of their lives.
That was Hence’s story too. He was determined it would not be his son’s story.
“I grew up with a dad but without a father,” Hence said. “I wanted to change that dynamic.”
Staying out of trouble
The first hour of the drive followed the same route that Hence drives five nights a week, leaving his home in White Hall, just north of Pine Bluff, at 11 p.m. to get to his overnight shift with Union Pacific Railroad in Little Rock, where he has worked for 16 years as a switchman and conductor. He wanted to be an engineer but that would have required too much time away from home.
“Everything I’ve ever done was calculated around my boys being raised,” Hence said.
Hence drove straight past that exit, keeping his car headed down the highway.
Keeping Tink on a straight path as a child was the most important job in Hence’s life after he “begged” Tink’s mother to let her son move back to Pine Bluff with him. She had taken Tink with her when she moved to Dallas when he was about five years old.
Hence wanted Tink to grow up with his older sons, Braelin and Blake. They have different mothers and are three years older than Tink, a nickname given to him by his mom and dad when he was young.
“His name is Markevian; that was his mom trying to put my name and her name together,” Hence said. “It was too long. I couldn’t spell it. One day I went over to pick him up and she was just calling him her little ‘stinker.’ I said, ‘Man you can’t have a name like that. Let’s just call him Tink. As he got older, it just stuck.
“I told him if he started playing baseball and hit a home run we’d change the name to Tank. We never put the a on it. We just kept it as Tink.”
Tink wanted to come back to Arkansas to live with his dad and brothers, where playing them in video games, and going to their games and practices, fueled his competitive desire to succeed.
Hence noticed it when Tink was still a young child.
“We only had two joysticks so there were a lot of fights,” Hence said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to buy him one of his own.’’’
The father also saw a chance to use the video games as a learning tool. Tink admits the games helped increase his knowledge of the sport.
“I got mad because they weren’t hitting the cut off man,” Hence said. “I said, ‘Whoever wins gets $5. If you play the game the right way you get $5. I had to make it competitive. I sat there and watched them.”
Tink’s favorite memory of his childhood came one day when his dad was coaching his older brothers on an All-Star team when they were 12.
“They were doing a drill trying to see who could catch the most fly balls without dropping one,” Tink said. “I won it.”
Hence also watched his son’s competitiveness, despite being smaller than most boys his age, emerge on the basketball court.
“He scored something like 40 points in a game when he was about 7,” Hence said. “I was the coach and I was mad. He shot every shot. He said it was because his brothers wouldn’t let him shoot at home. When I heard that I got all my boys and I said, ‘You each get an equal shot, one, two, three.’ I knew he (Tink) had an edge to him.
“I told him, ‘When you pass and we score, that kid’s mom and dad cheer. When you score 42 points, I’m mad and upset because that isn’t how I showed you how to play.’”
Making certain Tink and his brothers did things the right way was always important to Hence, in baseball or school, because of lessons he learned when he was growing up. He stressed academics, and Tink remembers expecting trouble if he ever brought home a C on his report card. There never was any trouble, especially in math, where he said he always earned an A.
Hence had told his sons that if they wanted friends, he was going to pick them. He didn’t want there to be any chance of his sons going down a bad path. That also applied to all of the players on every youth team he ever coached.
Hence knew what it was like when kids got in trouble – he watched it happen to his older brother William, going with his mom to visit him in prison at the Cummins Correctional Facility.
“I saw my mom crying at the kitchen table because of things that he had done,” Hence said. “At the time I didn’t understand it. The first time I ever saw a microwave oven was in a prison when we went to visit him.
“I remember my mom telling me, ‘You can go on this street; don’t go on that street.’ I wanted to know what was over there bad; I wanted to know what was going on. I got beat up one time so I knew not to go back over there.
“I tell Tink all the time, there are certain things you are supposed to look for. You give everybody the benefit of the doubt but at the end of the day use self-judgment and be careful who you meet.”
Tink was grateful for his father’s guidance when he was growing up, and he’s grateful now.
“He mentored me; he taught me respect and just the way to treat people and go about life,” Tink said. “Don’t do anything you don’t want anybody to do to you.
“My dad was my role model. He just preached to be smart and make the right decisions and keep around the right people.”
The lessons came daily.
“Dad made sure I was doing the right things,” Tink said. “Every day we had something we were going to do – working out, going to the field. There wasn’t too much going out and hanging out with friends. I’d rather spend time with my brothers playing video games. They saved me from a lot.”
Tink also spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s house, where his dad set up two garbage cans on the side of steps leading to the front door. He told Tink to practice throwing a baseball between the cans, imagining they were the two batter’s boxes.
“I saw something special about him,” Hence said, “so I just stayed after it.”
The lessons came with love.
“I made sure I let him know I loved him,” Hence said. “He didn’t have a mom hugging on him. I told him his mom loved him. It was for the best; she had to do what she had to do. I needed him. I felt incomplete without him. She sacrificed, she struggled with it. I think sometimes he missed somebody hugging on him like a mom, but my mom, she hugged him.”
Hence, with a lot of help from his mother and late sister, tried to fill that void. Baseball became one of his tools.
“Baseball was what I wanted to do,” Hence said. “I’m the perfect example of living through your kids and I don’t see anything wrong with it if you train them the right way and you treat other people as if they were your own kids.”
Perhaps because of all the competition against his brothers and other older kids, Tink’s baseball ability soon was evident.
“Tink was kind of a legend in the state,” said Chase Brewster, who later coached Tink on the Arkansas Sticks. “He was always smaller than everybody else but you always knew who Tink was.”
It would not be long before people outside of his home state would begin finding out about Tink too.
Why the Covid-shutdown was a “blessing”
Just before crossing the border into Missouri, Hence drove through the town of Harrison. It was there, as a sophomore playing for Watson Chapel High School, that Tink’s future began to truly take shape.
Harrison was the site of the Arkansas high school state championships in 2018. It was the first time he pitched in front of Dirk Kinney, an area scout for the Cardinals whose territory includes Arkansas.
The tournament field that year was loaded with talented prospects, and Kinney was surprised that he saw only one other scout there, from the Giants.
“I was so confused there weren’t other scouts there,” Kinney remembers. “I thought I was at the wrong spot.”
It turned out Kinney was right where he was supposed to be.
Kinney was there primarily to watch one of Tink’s older teammates, senior pitcher Kaleb Hill, but after watching Hill, he decided to stick around for another game to watch the sophomore he had heard about – Tink.
“He was tiny,” Kinney said. “He might have weighed 140 pounds. He was probably throwing 86 to 88 miles per hour.”
There was something which made Tink stand out to Kinney, however, just as had happened to others who had watched him, surprised he could be so successful against bigger, stronger and older kids.
It was something Tink had become accustomed to from the time he first picked up a baseball.
“I was like 5 foot 3, and other kids were like 6-foot,” Tink said. “Still I realized that no matter your age or size, you have to have the heart to compete. It (size) doesn’t really matter in this game. That’s kind of why I fell in love with the game.
“It was always in my head that this was what I wanted but I knew it took a lot of work. Not everybody gets blessed to stay healthy, including my brother Braelin. I realized I was blessed and I just continued to work, listening and growing.
“For a minute when I was younger I would get a little upset about putting in the work and then my dad, he coached me well and then I realized this is what I wanted to do and it kicked in.”
Chad Cope was the coach at Watson Chapel at the time. Braelin had played with his nephew on another team, so he had known the Hence family before he started coaching Tink.
“Tink was already well known around the travel ball world for the way he could throw a baseball,” Cope said. “You could tell he was going to be something special and that he had a real bright future ahead of him.”
Some of Tink’s high school teammates had been on teams that Hence had coached when they were younger. Cope was impressed with their baseball ability, but also because of the kind of kids they had become.
“Marvin did a great job with those kids,” Cope said. “Not only were they really good baseball players but they were really good young men. They were good in the classroom. They took care of their business. You didn’t have to worry about any of them getting in trouble.
“There was a lot of stuff you could get into in Pine Bluff. It could be a tough environment. Tink didn’t mess with that stuff. He kept his nose down, stayed out of trouble, took care of his business, took care of his grades.
“You could see he was focused and driven on what he wanted to do. He left all of that other stuff alone. To be honest, you have to be different than other kids to get to where he wanted to go.”
Cope was impressed by Tink’s quiet demeanor and how he didn’t carry himself like he thought he was better than any of his teammates – another lesson he learned from his dad.
“There was zero drama with Tink,” Cope said. “He was low maintenance. He didn’t need a lot, he didn’t ask for a lot. You don’t get a lot of those kids anymore, especially as good as Tink.”
It was a reflection of the way he was raised, being taught to say yes sir, no sir, please, thank you.
“When he was 9 we were playing somewhere and he threw his butt off and we made a lot of errors and lost the game,” Hence said. “He wasn’t really upset but I said, ‘We made a lot of errors’ and he said yes sir. I asked, ‘What do you think?’
“He said, ‘Well, I think I should have made a different pitch.’ As he got older it never was anybody’s fault, to this day. When I heard him say that answer, I knew he was the kind of kid I already knew. Tink is not going to think bad about anybody. He’s not going to say anything wrong. I don’t have to worry about it. His character is what it’s going to be.”
Cope learned the only time Tink was not nice to others was when he stepped on the mound.
“He went to a different level,” Cope said. “He kind of flipped the switch and it was all business. He wanted to make guys look as bad as they could at the plate. He wanted to embarrass you when you were in that box.
“You just don’t coach a lot of kids like that … There are a lot of kids these days who have a lot of talent but they find other things to do that distracts them. Tink didn’t. It’s hard to keep kids focused. There’s so many things they can get into.
“When you find one that’s driven like that, then you’ve got something special.”
Despite knowing Tink was part of a talented team heading into his senior year, Cope decided to change jobs before the 2020 season, moving to another high school. The new coach, J. Keith, knew he was walking into a great situation. He had coached Tink’s brother, Braelin, in a college summer league before injuries ended Braelin’s career. Keith was well aware of Tink and his ability to throw a baseball.
“I went to Chapel 100 percent because Tink and a couple other kids were there,” Keith said. “I had coached in the same conference for two years. You had heard about Tink in Arkansas for 10 years.
“All of those kids had been built up thinking this was going to be their chance to win state. Everybody on the team, that was their one and only goal. We had three Division I arms – Tink, Gabe Starks, Randy Little Jr. It was a special group.”
Keith wasn’t the only one looking forward to seeing how Tink would perform.
“We had scouts showing up when we were long tossing and hitting ground balls on the football field because it was too wet to get on the baseball field,” Keith said. “They watched how he warmed up. I realized they were about to put some money in this kid.”
What Keith didn’t know then was how the season would be over almost before it began because of the pandemic.
Chapel’s first game was on Feb. 28, with Tink scheduled to start and throw three innings.
“It was as cold as all get out and there were scouts everywhere,” Keith said. “It was like a movie. There were 18 to 20 of them standing behind home plate. The first batter was a lefthanded hitter and he flared one down the left field line for a double.”
It was the only hit Tink allowed. He struck out the next nine hitters, throwing 36 pitches.
“That was the best 36 pitches of my coaching career,” Keith said.
Kinney was one of the scouts on hand that day.
He already knew more about Tink than his fellow scouts, having gotten close to him the previous summer when he was coaching for the Sticks. He spent a week at a tournament in Arizona living in the same house with Tink, Masyn Winn and some other players on that team.
“Driving around in a Toyota Corrolla for a week, I still couldn’t get him to talk,” Kinney said.
It was during that summer that Winn and Tink became close friends. Winn was able to get him to talk, and the two shared stories from their childhood and talked about their plans and dreams. At the time, both were committed to the University of Arkansas.
“I definitely knew his dad was special,” Winn said. “I knew his dad kind of played the mom and dad role like my mom did. Tink talks very highly of his dad.
“Growing up in that environment, you see a lot of kids get into other stuff that they shouldn’t get into. I think sports saves a lot of kids and really helps them out. I think baseball really helped Tink. He found something he took a liking to and was really good at it and stuck with it.”
Kinney was prepared to watch Tink pitch in his second game in early March in a tournament against Texarkana, as were multiple other scouts.
“We were about to get on the bus when I got a phone call that the tournament had been cancelled,” Keith said. At the time, he was just beginning to learn about Covid-19.
The team would not play an official game the rest of the year. As the pandemic spread, scouts were called off the road and sent home. Preparing for the draft became a virtual activity with no new games to watch or chart.
The Cardinals had an advantage over other teams with both Tink and Winn because of the time that Kinney had spent with them the previous summer.
Even though a great senior season could have elevated Tink’s draft status, his dad views the pandemic differently.
“I look at Covid as a blessing because he could have got hurt or maybe wouldn’t have done well,” Hence said. “He already had done good. Everybody knew about him.”
Especially Kinney and the Cardinals, who also had reports on both players from other scouts. They were able to select both Winn and Hence in that draft, following their first-round selection of Jordan Walker.
“When you stay in hotels 120 nights a year, that’s what you do it for,” Kinney said. “I get attached to these kids, probably a little too much. I think of what I put my 10-year-old son through. It’s one of the coolest stories I will ever be a part of.”
The draft night was special for Brewster too.
“Marvin was a mentor to me on what love and communication and coaching people really looked like,” Brewster said. “I’m very thankful he let Tink pitch for the Sticks.
“What Marvin taught all of his kids, and the kids on his teams, goes way beyond baseball. There’s very few people I could be around that truly love not only their own kids but other kids like Marvin Hence. Marvin is one of the greatest parents you can find. Marvin really believes what’s right is right and helping kids was right.
“Marvin grew up in a community where so many kids were looking to find a mentor and find a good example to follow. Marvin really embraced that role. He really preaches life lessons more so than trying to win a game. As guys got older you could really see that.
“A lot of the kids he’s coached, shared a dugout and a room and a bus with, they have stayed out of trouble. They are in college or succeeding off the field. He really loves human beings and just wants the world to be a better place.”
Watching Tink pitch
The anticipation builds as Hence drives into Springfield.
“I got chills knowing that Tink was going to pitch,” Hence said. “I had been waiting so long to see him. It’s nothing like the videos.”
Because of his job, and his coaching and parenting duties for Tink’s 9-year-old brother Blaze, Hence had not been able to travel to any of Tink’s previous 33 starts while playing for Palm Beach, Peoria or Springfield. He had not even seen Tink since he left home for spring training eight months ago.
He briefly considered going to the Futures Game in Seattle this year when Tink was named to the NL team, but Hence doesn’t like to fly and quickly found out that to take his entire family to the game, which he wanted to do if he went, would have cost $7.000. He watched Tink’s one inning appearance on television in his living room.
But now he was here. It was Aug 4, two days before Tink’s 21st birthday.
As Tink warmed up in the bullpen before the game against Northwest Arkansas, Hence and Blaze stood behind a wall and watched.
“Me and Blaze looked at each other and he said, ‘He doesn’t look like he’s throwing that fast,’” Hence said. “I said, ‘Son, he’s throwing fast.’ I stepped back and watched Blaze watch his brother.
“I want him to have somebody to look up to. Tink had to look up to somebody, which I am hoping it was me.”
Tink knew how special it was for his dad and the other family members to be at the game.
“It was really good to have them in town,” Tink said. “Seeing my brother smile, how happy they were. There was no better feeling.”
The game didn’t go as well as Tink’s previous start, on July 28 at Tulsa, when he allowed two runs and struck out nine over five innings. Kinney happened to be at that game.
“I was very proud of him,” Kinney said.
Hence was proud on this night too, even though Tink allowed four runs, including two home runs, over 4 1/3 innings.
It was 4 1/3 innings intertwined with memories, emotions and private thoughts about all of the years, all of the work, all of the sacrifices that had gone into preparing for this moment – and all of those still to come.
“I was so proud of him,” Hence said. “No kid really knows what a parent goes through with their job, trying to provide for them, keeping them off the streets.
“The atmosphere at the game was something I will never forget. I was wearing my jersey from Blaze’s team that Tink sponsors. I don’t miss work much, and I work nights so I don’t have to miss much. I took a sick day that day. Watching Tink throw that first pitch, looking at that scoreboard, I thought, ‘he’s halfway there.’ He’s on the rainbow he just doesn’t have the gold yet.”
Hence was referring to the day, likely not far into the future, when Tink will make his major-league debut.
“I pray every day that it can be possible,” Hence said. “I’ve thought about it, I’ve dreamed about it. No matter what I’m doing, if I’m alive, I will be there.”
Hence had been around baseball long enough to know that there are going to be games like Tink’s next start, on Aug. 11, when he had the worst game of his career, allowing nine runs in 3 1/3 innings against San Antonio.
“My dad was always like, ‘Some days aren’t always going to be the best and you just go out there and leave it all on the field, that’s all you can do,” Tink said. “A lot of times before a game I pray not about the results but just to come off the field healthy.
“This game was the first time where I didn’t have any off-speed pitches working. I thought I could get some groundballs or popups with my fastball, but they knew what was coming. I’ve got to learn from it.”
Springfield manager Jose Leger viewed the game as an opportunity for Tink to grow. That’s the purpose of the minor leagues.
“The next time he has only one pitch we will see what adjustments he can make,” Leger said. “He has to flush that one and move on.
“I like the way he conducts himself for his age. He’s our top guy and he doesn’t act like it. He’s very humble and is all business. He comes in and does his work. The tools are easy to see, but his personality, his demeanor and how he conducts himself is the thing that has impressed me the most.”
Hearing that comment makes Hence smile.
A couple of hours after that game ended, the father sent a text message to his son.
“Son, keep your head up and stay focused,” the text read. “Every great player has bumps in the way. This is nothing. Change your approach and keep grinding. Love you son.
“Some days you are a pigeon and some days you’re the statue.”
Minutes later, Hence’s phone buzzed with a return message.
“Appreciate it pops. Love ya.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Marvin Hence, Chad Cope and Springfield Cardinals
Main photo, left to right, Aaron Hence, Marvin Hence, Tink Hence, Blaze Hence, Braelin Hence