Former Mariner Dave Henderson, who died Sunday from a heart attack, was a big personality who should be recalled fondly for his clutch postseason play with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s.
Dave Henderson was immediately the center of attention in any room he entered, especially the clubhouses he populated for 14 years in an under-appreciated major-league career.
For one exalted moment, he was nearly a demigod in Boston, giving them the 1986 pennant with one epic homer and then coming oh so close to delivering an elusive World Series title to the Red Sox with another homer in the top of the 10th of Game 6. The New York Mets rallied in legendary fashion in the bottom of the inning, and the next day. If they hadn’t, Henderson frequently joked, “The Red Sox would be playing on Henderson Way, not Yawkey Way.”
For three seasons in Oakland, he was the conscience behind the Bash Brothers on a rollicking A’s ballclub that brought him to three more World Series. Henderson was a winner, but in his earliest days in Seattle, he was one of the few beacons of hope on a Mariners’ team that did a lot of losing.
He found a home here, though. Henderson clashed with Mariners manager Dick Williams and got traded to Boston in August 1986, but he settled in Bellevue after his career ended. Henderson opened a batting cage, raised a family, broadcast Mariners games for a decade, and did noble work in pursuit of a cure for Angelman Syndrome, the neuro-genetic disorder that affects his son, Chase.
There was just something about Hendu, as everyone called him. You gravitated toward him, toward that gap-toothed smile (don’t worry, he joked about it himself), toward the charisma that oozed out of every pore.
Henderson signed all his autographs, “Hendu, still having fun.” A great Sports Illustrated profiled by Steve Rushin in 1991 began, “Dave Henderson’s smile runs foul pole to foul pole.”
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The irascible Williams, in fact, always thought Hendu smiled a little too much for someone playing on a sub-.500 team. But there was a gravity behind the light-heartedness that I hope people remember in the wake of Henderson’s shocking, and heartbreaking, death Sunday at the far-too-young age of 57.
Ask anyone who was around those great Oakland A’s teams with marquee players like Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco. Henderson, along with Dave Stewart and Carney Lansford, were the unquestioned leaders, the ones who drove the team to pennant after pennant.
When Canseco retired in 2002, I called Henderson to get his perspective. He told of how Canseco “got lost” in the middle of his career and fell apart as a ballplayer. And how he and Stewart and Lansford pushed back hard when they felt Canseco was mentally absent in the 1990 World Series, a Reds sweep of the heavily favored A’s.
“We all thought he shouldn’t have been playing if he didn’t want to be there,’’ Henderson told me. “He was bored, to put it bluntly … Eventually that’s why he was traded. We all said, ‘Get him out of here.’‘’
That was Hendu — blunt to a fault. But when Canseco came back to Oakland last year for the 25th anniversary reunion of the 1989 championship A’s team, Henderson welcomed him warmly. Bygones were bygones. That was Hendu, too. His humanity shined through above all else.
I first met Henderson in 1986 when I took over the Mariners’ beat for The Journal-American, a newspaper in Bellevue. He was a delight to cover, a playful personality and an insightful interview subject who took pity in the nervous kid feeling his way around a major-league clubhouse.
We both landed in the Bay Area the next year, me to cover the Giants and A’s, and Henderson traded from Boston to San Francisco on Sept. 1, 1987. Hendu arrived thinking he was going to help the division-winning Giants in the postseason, only to find out, much to his chagrin, the deal had been consummated too late for him to be eligible for the playoffs.
He was signed by Oakland the next spring, and it was the perfect match right from the start. That was the most charismatic team I ever covered, and Hendu was right in the center of all the madness. The fans absolutely loved him, forming two separate fan clubs in the bleachers — “Hendu’s Bad Boy Club” and “Henduland.”
He interacted happily with all of them, even — or especially — in the middle of games. As he often said, there’s only brief flashes of action in a baseball game, and he was intensely invested in those. But in the down time — well, why not have a little fun?
Hendu was a man of the people, and that never changed even when he returned to Seattle as an announcer, or when he ran fantasy camps for both the A’s and Mariners. And he was one of the greatest clutch players of his time, putting up a .298 average and .946 on base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) in 36 postseason games.
That included seven postseason homers. One stands out, of course — the blast off Donnie Moore in the 1986 ALCS when the Angels were one out away from the pennant.
Popular mythology had it that Moore never let go of that failure, and the anguish led to the incident 2½ years later in which he killed himself and shot his wife (who survived). But Henderson knew that Moore had other demons, which were eventually revealed years later in a Sports Illustrated article.
“I would have been deemed very insensitive if I came out and said this guy had this problem,’’ Henderson told me last year in the final extensive interview I had with him. “I basically kept quiet for 20 years, knowing the truth and people blaming me for that.
“I’d be in restaurants and hear whispers, ‘That’s the guy that killed Donnie Moore,’ and I’d have to take it.”
In the ’86 World Series, Henderson’s homer in the 10th inning of Game 6 gave the Red Sox a 5-3 lead, putting them on the verge of ending a 68-year title drought. But all hell, and Bill Buckner, broke loose in the bottom of the inning.
Henderson always felt Buckner got a bad rap, too, but he was keenly aware of the opportunity that had been lost.
“We all loved the guy,’’ tweeted Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy on Sunday. “Would have had a statue at Fenway if things ended better for the ’86 Red Sox.”
I still can’t fathom that the end has arrived for Dave Henderson, as the result of a massive heart attack. Hendu won’t likely have a statue in Seattle, but every Mariners fan — every baseball fan — should reserve a warm spot in their heart for a great guy, great player and great ambassador who left us far too soon.