Always memorable, Dave Henderson will be missed

ESPN Illustration

You know that players get older, that they can’t forever be those guys you got to see on the field. Not even a player whose mannerisms you remember years later can last forever, not even a player who you found yourself liking for little more than their ready smile, only to find yourself rewarded by big hits and big plays as well.

But now that former big league outfielder Dave Henderson has passed away too soon at 57 and just a month after receiving a kidney transplant, I find myself responding to the news as the fan I was rather than as the writer I am now, the writer who might merely assess Henderson's accomplishments in reflecting on his passing.

Henderson was a guy you remembered because you recognized him in an instant: He was the man wearing the biggest smile in the ballpark. Whether he was up to bat, chattering with the plate ump, in the field or in the dugout, Hendu stood out because he was always beaming. In a game reliably overstocked with dour players focused on execution and excellence, Henderson was the guy who looked like he was doing all that and having fun. As he told author Mike Sowell in "One Pitch Away," a history of the 1986 postseason, "I don't think you should have a stone face. ... I just don't take this baseball stuff too seriously."

Henderson was by no means a perfect player, but he was often the right guy in the right place at the right time, as memorable in how he played as in what he did. I'd been spoiled as a kid by watching ultimate fly-ball catcher Dwayne Murphy glide around center for the A’s, and Hendu seemed a bit busy out there by comparison, taking so many steps to cover ground that he looked like a spider crawling toward the gaps ... only to get to the ball just in time at the very moment when you started to worry he might not make it. It wasn’t the stuff of highlight reels, but when I close my eyes, that’s what I see in my mind -- Hendu, arriving in the nick of time.

He had that knack, which allowed him to deliver some impressive plays that were part of what made Hendu fun. After laboring in relative obscurity to sparse Seattle crowds for the better part of six seasons, an August 1986 swap provided him a chance to give Red Sox fans an unforgettable blast. Despite playing through a bum knee, Hendu hammered a forkball from Angels closer Donnie Moore for a two-out, two-run home run in the ninth inning of Game 5 in the American League Championship Series to help stave off elimination for a Boston club down three games to one. The Sox would come back to win the pennant -- but lose to the Mets in the World Series made famous by Bill Buckner’s boot.

As Hendu later said to Sowell, "The biggest key is that there is no pressure at all, because guys aren't supposed to hit the [Dennis] Eckersleys and the [Tom] Henkes and guys like that. ... 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."

Hendu was dumped off to the Giants in one of Sox GM Lou Gorman’s more inexplicable deals less than a year later, after which he joined the 1988 A’s as a free-agent find, providing them with a pleasant surprise in center field and his best season. He ripped 63 extra-base hits while setting career highs in batting, OBP and slugging -- he hit .304/.363/.525. And in one of those classic Tony La Russa lineup switches, halfway through the season the skipper dropped Hendu into the No. 2 hole, which helped kick the Bash Brothers lineup into overdrive. The team scored more than five runs per game down the stretch to power a return to the postseason. Here again, Hendu would be on the wrong end of one of the great World Series upsets, as those A’s lost to the underdog Dodgers thanks in part to Kirk Gibson’s Game 1 blast off Dennis Eckersley.

Hendu would finally get a ring the next season when the A’s won the 1989 World Series, and he would be a first-time All-Star in 1991, when he hit a career-high 25 home runs. But time was already running short for him; he was in his age-32 season, and the next year he blew out a knee. He struggled through one more season with the A’s before finishing his career with a single-season swan song with the Royals in 1994. He’d later spend the better part of a decade working on Mariners TV and radio broadcasts, but he was also known for sharing his love of the game by running adult fantasy camps for the Athletics and Mariners, which helped cement the feeling that Hendu was one of those guys, someone who really was “just happy to be here” -- around the game, on any terms, in every way, because it’s baseball.

I’m thankful for the joy he gave me and gave us, as fans. Thanks to his readiness to talk to folks out in the bleachers, Hendu became popular almost immediately in Boston -- so much so that 60 fans signed a ball and sent it to him when he was traded away.

Covering this game, there are people that you get to know a little or a lot, and then there are those that you wish you knew. Hendu is part of the latter group for me, and I'm the poorer for it.

Today, we should try to be happy that he was, it seems, truly happy to be there, and we should remember the fun as well as the feats, the improbable career that helped put that big smile on his face. And we should lament that the game is a little bit worse off for his too-soon departure. Thank you, Dave Henderson, thank you and goodbye. You’ll be missed.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.