96: One strike away, Hendu saves Sox, denies Angels

He was lost, out of synch, overmatched. He calls it one of those "bizarre and numbing" instances when the body and mind simply aren't functioning in unison. He stood at home plate, the biggest at-bat of the game, the biggest at-bat of the season, the biggest at-bat of his lifetime, for goodness sakes, and he couldn't even think, let alone think straight. "It was like I wasn't even there," Dave Henderson says, years later. "Like my body was in one place and my mind was in another."

With the Boston Red Sox one strike away from losing the 1986 American League Championship Series to the Angels, and adding yet another chapter of misery and heartbreak to the franchise's never-ending book of pain and disappointment, Henderson looked absolutely pathetic against Angels right-handed closer Donnie Moore, flailing insipidly at a combination of splitters and fastballs. The jam-packed stadium of 64,223 people screamed, anticipating the final out of a series that would crown the Angels champions of the American League for the first time in their 25-year history.

"I was thinking, 'What are you doing? Get it together already,'" Henderson says. He was already experiencing a nightmare of a day -- actually a nightmare of a series, season and career. He was a reserve outfielder for most of the early portion of his career, a mediocre player who sometimes gave the impression he didn't care. He was considered a classic underachiever. And the Seattle Mariners couldn't take it any longer, so after 5½ seasons they dealt him to the Red Sox for the '86 stretch run. He hit .196 in 36 games for Boston.

When the curtain rolls up for Game 5 of the ALCS on October 12, Henderson is in his usual place -- on the bench. But when Tony Armas, the Red Sox' starting center fielder, suffers a leg injury, manager John McNamara has no alternative but to call on the least effective player on his roster: Dave Henderson.

Shortly after Henderson's entrance, disaster strikes for him and for Boston: the Angels' Bobby Grich launches a deep drive to center field that Henderson snags on the run. But when he slams into the wall, the ball comes loose and drops over the fence for a two-run home run that gives the Angels a 3-2 lead. "I wanted to bury myself," Henderson says.

When Henderson walks to the plate to face Moore in the ninth, the Angels are just one out away from a 5-4 win, the Sox have a runner on base, and the stadium is ready to explode in wild celebration. Henderson is in a daze, a confused state of mind. He is also hitless in the series. Moore, meanwhile, is in deep physical pain -- his right shoulder had been injected with a shot of cortisone the day before -- yet his fastball has unusual zip; he is working on pure heart and emotion in the electricity of the moment. His splitter, however, is his out pitch, and because of the shoulder pain, it doesn't have its normal devastating drop.

Henderson feels fortunate to have worked the count to 2-and-2, considering his feeble swings. But then, as Moore spins around and releases another splitter, Henderson's psyche changes. His focus somehow appears, however briefly. As the pitch rolls toward the plate, hanging a bit, Henderson quickly flicks his wrist at a pitch that is down and away. He connects -- solidly. Time freezes. All eyes watch the flight of the ball. The Angels, standing on the top step of the dugout, ready to storm the field in celebration, their necks craned, watch the flight of the ball. This is the defining moment for Henderson, Moore, Angels manager Gene Mauch, and Angels owner Gene Autry, a moment in time that alters careers, franchises and lives.

Just when you think the ball is going to settle into the glove of Angels left fielder Brian Downing, it somehow keeps sailing, as if some force or power is directing it ... and as Downing runs out of room, he buries his face into the outfield wall as the ball descends into the stands. Home run. 6-5, Red Sox.

As a deafening stillness falls over Anaheim, Henderson jumps and twirls his body around in the air in one breathless motion and begins a home-run trot that ultimately turns him into a Boston folk legend.

The home run makes quite an impact on baseball history:

  • It is baseball's most dramatic, most stunning home run since Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski hit a bottom-of-the-ninth, World Series-winning home run in Game 7 in 1960 against the New York Yankees;

  • It effectively ends Moore's life: unable to deal with the catastrophic memory of giving up the home run, Moore winds up putting a bullet through his skull three years later;

  • It is the highlight of what turns out to be not only perhaps the greatest ninth inning in major-league history but also a game many consider to be one of the two or three greatest ever, an 11-inning 7-6 Red Sox win in which Henderson drives in the deciding run on a sacrifice fly against Moore;

  • It forever prevents the highly respected Mauch from shedding the label "greatest manager in history to never make it to a World Series";

  • It ultimately sends the beloved Autry to his grave without a World Series title;

  • It is the prelude to one of the greatest collapses in baseball history, as the Angels lose the final two games of the series by a combined score of 18-5, adding more misery to the cursed franchise;

  • It completely alters Henderson's career. He goes on to hit .400 in the 1986 World Series with two homers and Henderson goes on to become a feared hitter who winds up playing in four World Series in a span of five years (1986, 1988, 1989 and 1990) for Boston and Oakland.

  • It sets the stage for Game 6 of the World Series, in which Henderson's home run in the 10th inning gives the Red Sox a lead over the Mets, which they surrender in the bottom of the inning.

    "People bring up the home run all the time, and I still think about it a lot," he says. "How can I not think about it? It changed my life. It turned my career around. I'm not exactly sure where it ranks among the greatest and most dramatic home runs, but I know it's right up there with Bobby Thomson, Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk, Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter. I always thought of Thomson's as the biggest or Mazeroski's and even Carter's because they won a pennant and World Series. But mine," he says, "is up there."

    Way, way up there.