The ‘Baseball Guardian Angel’ Behind Henry Ford’s Record-Breaking Season

May 30, 2024 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Henry Ford, all grown up and wearing the uniform of his dreams, scanned the empty diamond at Disharoon Park. The home to the University of Virginia’s baseball program isn’t just the place where he’s turned into a power-hitting machine for the Cavaliers this season.

It’s where the relationship began with his grandfather. 

In 2005, a much smaller version of Ford – now a hulking 6-foot-5, 220 pounds – was carried in John Ford’s arms to Section 110, Row B, Seat 3, two rows up from the backstop. Henry was a few months shy of his first birthday, but he had already established his heroes. 

They were UVA baseball players.

“Where’s Sean?” John would ask his grandson before a game – and baby Henry would point to Sean Doolittle on the pitcher’s mound.

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“Where’s Tommy?” John asked next – and Henry pointed to Tom Hagan at first base.

“Where’s Zim?” John asked next – and Henry pointed to Ryan Zimmerman at third base.

Henry Ford offered this memory earlier this week while seated in B3 and with an arm around B4. Nowadays, he might say his favorite spot at The Dish is the batter’s box – heading into Friday’s home NCAA Tournament matchup with the University of Pennsylvania, Ford has 17 home runs, the most ever by a UVA freshman – but for most of his life, it was here in his family’s seats.

The Fords have had the same view of Cavalier baseball for two decades. It’s been shared by all members of the family – including Henry’s uncle Kevin, an alumnus of the program – but some of the most cherished times in the seats came when John Ford drove down from Washington to join them.

Two photos of Henry Ford as a child wearing UVA gear.

Left: When he wasn’t wearing a No. 9 jersey on the Little League fields in Charlottesville, Ford was wearing the UVA baseball jersey he received at a game. (Contributed photo); Right: While watching the Hoos in the 2014 NCAA Tournament from his family seats, Ford ran into UVA basketball star Justin Anderson. (Contributed photo)

A “people person” with a baseball background, John, a former police officer, was the ideal fan to share the space with. He could chat up anyone around him, while providing unique perspective on the game at hand.

Above all else, he was “big on UVA baseball,” said Ryan Ford, John’s son and Henry’s father.

He loved the Wahoos since Kevin played for them in the 1990s and that passion only deepened as he got closer to the program.

“He would swing by on like a Tuesday and pick up Henry,” said Ryan, who moved to Charlottesville with his wife, Christy, in 2001. “I mean, Henry was 6 months old, and my dad would take him up to the field and walk in and have a chat with coach Mac (UVA assistant coach Kevin McMullan) and take him to the game and sit in the front row and take in the games with him. He was Henry’s baseball buddy.

“And Henry was engaged.”

John Ford swinging a baseball bat, left, Henry Ford with his family, right

Left: A talented baseball player, John Ford transitioned his sweet swing to softball later in life. (Contributed photo); Right: After years of watching games together, the Ford family – including Ryan, far left – has lived out a dream this season, seeing Henry in a UVA uniform. (Contributed photo)

John helped Henry learn the names of UVA’s players, leading them to cheer on their favorite team together as the Cavaliers began their rise to a national power under head coach Brian O’Connor, now in his 21st season on Grounds.

As Henry grew older and developed into a promising player in his own right, he soaked in more information about his grandfather – how John was once invited to a tryout for the Cleveland Indians, how John had a sweet left-handed swing and how John always wore jersey No. 9.

“From everything I’ve heard,” Henry said, “he was super talented.”

The last time John watched the Hoos was in Omaha, Nebraska, at the 2009 College World Series, fulfilling a bucket list trip with his sons. He had terminal cancer then, but that did little to derail what Ryan called an “amazing trip.”

It’s been 15 years since John’s death, but his presence is still sensed at Disharoon Park. When members of the Ford family – Henry has two younger sisters, Tulip and Ruby – sit in B3 and B4 now, they’re there in proud support of the UVA player who wears No. 9.

Henry Ford is a sweet-swinging representation of his grandfather.

“He’s like Henry’s baseball guardian angel,” Ryan said. “I feel it. When we’re at The Dish, you can feel it. I mean, my dad’s the one who introduced Henry to all of this.”

Henry is forever grateful. At noon Friday, he debuts in the NCAA Tournament, starring in his hometown – and on the team of his childhood.

“I know me playing here and having success means the most to my grandpa more than anybody,” he said. “So, I definitely play for him and know that he’s watching.”