Dave Henderson, RIP: Big smile, big hits, big man

Dave Henderson (right, next to Calvin Schiraldi) after he helped bludgeon a 1986 pennant away from the Angels.

Dave Henderson (right, next to Calvin Schiraldi) after he helped bludgeon a 1986 pennant away from the Angels.

It’s a longtime baseball cliche that little men come up big in the clutch when you least expect it. The complementary cliche is the one about big men who aren’t as big as they look until you least expect it or you liberate them from an impossible world.

Dave Henderson—who died today at 57, suffering cardiac arrest a month after receiving a kidney transplant—was the latter for the 1986 Boston Red Sox. He hit two home runs in that postseason, one of which brought the Red Sox back from the dead to claw their way to the World Series in the first place, and one of which might have proved the Series winner until . . .

A 6’2″, tapered fellow who looked like he’d been sculpted into a power hitter, the tirelessly smiling Henderson—his snaggletooth grin was as familiar as everyone else’s fatalism, and it really could step in and light up a city in the middle of a power blackout—became a Red Sox that August when the Red Sox got tired of their shortstop Rey Quinones’s act.

A flashy defender with a solid swing at the plate but an inconsistent performance jacket fueled by apparent indifference, Quinones also didn’t help his own cause in a scuffle with some Chelsea district police during the All-Star break. The Red Sox were willing to take a far less talented shortstop (Spike Owen) off the hapless Seattle Mariners’ hands just to be rid of Quinones. 

They also took Henderson in the deal, strictly as insurance in the event one of their veteran outfielders broke down down the stretch. After completing the deal—which also involved the Red Sox sending Seattle three other players—he hit 51 times down the stretch with only three runs batted in and nothing much else to show for it.

Henderson was an effervescent student of the game who could play the outfield like a gazelle, enough so that even his errors were the product of hustle and not hubris or indifference. He had considerable enough long ball power but hadn’t seemed to make it work consistently.

But there he was with his Red Sox, a much cursed franchise, playing for the 1986 pennant against the California Angels, another franchise with enough curses of its own, or so it seemed. And there were the Angels in Game Five, entering the top of the ninth three outs from going to their first World Series.

Earlier in Game Five of that American League Championship Series Henderson—whose nickname was Hendu, and who was sent in in the sixth after starting center fielder Tony Armas twisted his ankle—ran down a long drive by Angels second baseman Bobby Grich, leaped to grab it at the wall, then hit the wall enabling the ball to turn into a two-run homer and a 3-2 Angels lead.

The Angels took a 5-2 lead to the top of the ninth when manager Gene Mauch, rest his soul in peace, couldn’t resist the wounding flaw—overmanaging—that had cost him previous World Series trips with the Angels and, far more infamously, the 1964 Phillies. Don Baylor whacked a two-run homer off Angels starter Mike Witt to make it 5-4 and, despite the Red Sox being down to their final out, Mauch lifted Witt for Gary Lucas.

Lucas plunked Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman with the first pitch, and Mauch lifted Lucas for Donnie Moore with Henderson coming up. You could hear two star crossed fan bases—one whose construction began in 1961 in the American League’s first expansion, one thinking itself bedeviled ever since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees—straining not to mutter curses. (And, “Curses!!!!” while they were at it.)

“I was just out there trying to do a job,” Hendu would say after the game. “Everybody else was out there battling with history. I didn’t know anything about Boston history ’til after the fact—all the so-called jinxes and the other crap you guys write about. So it wasn’t any big deal to me.” Yes, he was smiling when he said it.

Dave Henderson

Hendu sending Moore’s second, just-as-nasty two-strike forkball over the left field fence . . .

Moore, whose best pitch was a forkball he could run away from hitters on either side of the plate, threw Henderson a beauty on 2-2. Knee high, low and away, and Henderson was probably lucky to tick it off foul. He stepped out of the box. Then, he stepped back in. Moore threw the same forkball to the same spot. This time, Henderson got extraterrestrially lucky. Moore could only watch helplessly as Henderson connected and the ball sailed over the left field fence.*

“I was just protecting the plate,” Henderson would say after the game, thinking he’d hit only a second foul tick before he realised “it was gone. When I hit ‘em like that, they’re gone.”

The game went to extras when the Angels re-tied in the ninth. Moore stayed in for the Angels mostly because Mauch practically emptied his bullpen to win Game Four. The big righthander opened the top of the eleventh by plunking Baylor—whose spring training acquisition from the Yankees was probably the real key to the Sox turnaround after a dismal 1985, loosening up the clubhouse and offering real veteran leadership—and surrendering back to back singles before facing Henderson again.

Henderson hit a sacrifice fly to center, the Angels were futile in the bottom against rookie Red Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi, and the Red Sox went from there to bludgeon the Angels out of the pennant and have the New York Mets down 3-2 in the Series when it returned to New York.

As the clock was about to strike midnight during a game that proved a kind of comedy of mental errors by a pair of managers (John McNamara and Davey Johnson) too bent on outsmarting each other to keep from outsmarting themselves, Henderson stepped in against Rick Aguilera and ripped an 0-1 service off the Newsday sign hanging on the rim of Shea Stadium’s left field loge to bust a three-all tie.

The good news was Marty Barrett making it 5-3 two outs and a double later with an RBI single, and Henderson looking for all the moment as though he’d hit what proved the game-and-Series-winning bomb. The bad news, alas, was the bottom of the tenth, as the Mets pried their way back to win on a fateful grounder skipping through Bill Buckner’s eroded ankles, and the Game Seven loss to follow.

The 1987 Red Sox dissipation included Henderson, earning the number one center field job, reverting to the player who couldn’t win that job in Seattle before he was finally dealt to Boston out of Dick Williams’s doghouse. The Red Sox traded him to San Francisco in September 1987. The Giants let him step into free agency and the Oakland Athletics took a flyer on him.

It turned into a six-year stay that included three World Series trips and one World Series ring (1989, the Earthquake Series) to which he contributed heftily with two home runs, four runs batted in, a 1.423 Series OPS.

Henderson probably had baseball’s most radiant smile amidst assorted gatherings of men for whom the dour phiz was the only proper pre-game, in-game, or post-game expression. “I don’t think you should have a stone face,” he told Mike Sowell for One Pitch Away. “I just don’t take this baseball stuff too seriously.”

How did a guy who had long ball power but not enough to make Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, or Babe Ruth insecure on their historical perches, come up big in such surreal clutches?

“The biggest key is that there is no pressure at all, because guys aren’t supposed to hit the [Dennis] Eckersleys and  . . .  guys like that,” he told Sowell. “So when we strike out, we’re supposed to. There’s not really much pressure when you’re supposed to make an out. And I guess I’m the only one who realizes that. So, I have a distinct advantage in that everybody else on the field is pressured, and I’m not. I’m the same old guy, and that makes me better.”

It also enabled Henderson to see things as they were when it looked like the 1990 A’s—a team loaded with hubris and excuse makers and minus their clubhouse enforcer, Dave Parker, allowed to walk as a free agent because then-GM Sandy Alderson sought a more economic alternative who never came—stood an excellent chance of being swept in the Series by the Cincinnati Reds, who went on to do just that.

“We’re well on our way,” Henderson told Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, “to make sure that we are a team that will not be remembered.”

Henderson made his only All-Star team in 1991, but then his knee exploded on him. He trudged through one more year in Oakland, a followup year in Kansas City, then retired to the Mariners’ broadcast booth and made his second life astride the late Dave Niehaus.

When not doing that, Hendu raised big monies for research into Angelman Syndrome (a neurodevelopmental genetic disorder afflicting one of his sons, among thousands of others) and co-founded Rick’s Toys for Kids, which provides Christmas presents every year to Pacific Northwest children who wouldn’t get Christmas presents otherwise.

They resonated as deeply as his infectious love of baseball resonated with fans, whether he was playing or broadcasting. How much so? When the Red Sox dealt him away, one of Henderson’s farewell presents was a baseball—signed by sixty fans. That’s more precious than any home run Hendu ever hit no matter what the bomb might have meant in the moment.

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* – Tragically, Donnie Moore was never allowed to live Dave Henderson’s pennant-killing home run down . . . by Angel fans or, worse, by himself. He’d pitched despite a sore arm, threw Henderson his best, and watched Henderson drive it out of sight. But as I wrote in October 2014, it wasn’t really the Henderson homer that haunted Moore enough to finally commit suicide after first shooting his wife in July 1989. Moore was a badly haunted man long before he threw that pitch.

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