Dave Henderson, RIP
The M’s had been a big-league team for a few months when it came time to make their initial pick in the amateur draft. Picking near the end of the first round, the new club selected a CF out of a California HS. There was no history to look at – the M’s front office didn’t have a “type,” and no one knew anything about the player development group. Seattle fans would learn to be skeptical in future years – years of Tito Nannies and Al Chambers and Terry Bells – but in that year of firsts, the M’s wished upon a power/speed combo at an up-the-middle position. They would be rewarded for it.
Henderson made his debut in 1981, looking overmatched in a few dozen PAs. But in 1982, he settled down and showed real promise. Flanked by an aging Al Cowens and All-Star Bruce Bochte, Henderson was part of a legitimate big-league OF. No one on the IF could hit – the highest OPS+ on the IF was Julio Cruz’s 80 (an 81 wRC+), while the *worst* OPS+ in the OF was Hendu’s 107. It was something to build on, anyway – Hendu was 22, after all.
In short order, Bochte left in free agency and the M’s began churning through LFs like Spinal Tap drummers. Henderson’s development seemed to stall, as his production dipped a bit in 1983 and then more severely in 1985. He was still a fine player, a gap-hitting CF with a perpetual smile, he seemed to thrive with other competent hitters (as in 1984, Alvin Davis’ big rookie year), but as these were the M’s of the 1980s, lineup protection was not something to count on.
As a kid, I don’t remember the ups and down of Hendu’s production as much as I remember the losing. I was a baseball optimist then (this may be hard to believe to some readers), and this was troubling. To the hardened realists of the time, though, Henderson’s volatility was an issue. The M’s would get Hendu and Davis playing well, but then Barry Bonnell got Valley Fever and that was that. Or, they had Ken Phelps, Phil Bradley and a solid year from AD and Hendu’s numbers crashed. It was maddening, but to me it was seemed like the growing pains of a future dynasty. In 1986, Henderson was having his best year. Rookie Danny Tartabull proved to be an instant success, and, with Bradley, the M’s had their OF set. Hendu/Bradley were 27, while Tartabull was 23. The M’s were hopeless, of course, finishing further back than they had in 1985, but they had one question answered. And then, in a fit of pique, they blew it all up.
The first to go was promising RF prospect Ivan Calderon, a favorite of mine not so much for his long HRs but for a charmingly stilted interview he gave with Dave Niehaus after a game winning hit or something (at that time, Calderon spoke approximately no English, and Niehaus no Spanish). A month or so later, Hendu and SS Spike Owen headed to Boston in exchange for SS Rey Quinones and pitchers Mike Trujillo and Mike Brown. Brown’s career was over 16 innings later, while Trujillo spent another 100IP or so as a swing man. Quinones seemed like an ironic divine punishment – the team that believed Henderson was wasting his talent would be shown what *true* waste looks like. In a few months, once the 95-loss campaign wound down, the M’s dealt Tartabull to Kansas City for Scott Bankhead.
As a fan in 1986, the playoffs and the World Series were incredibly exciting but abstract. I loved them, but they seemed like a different game – the M’s hadn’t come close to making them, and now seemed to be rebuilding. They’d played 10 seasons and seemed to be treading water six feet below the surface. I thought the M’s were talented, but even the players they cast off seemed to wither and die. Julio Cruz got to play in the post season for the White Sox, but he had an awful year and the Sox lost the ALCS. Henderson and Owen were at least thrust into a real playoff race, and that would have to do. I’d hoped the M’s would build a winner out of my favorite players, but if they couldn’t, I wanted them to go off and do well – to show others that yes, Mariners players weren’t historically bad, they were just star-crossed and mismatched.
Soon, he’d develop a reputation for coolness in pressure situations, but the initial returns on the big trade with Boston weren’t great. Henderson’s K rate spiked and he put up a Zunino-esque line of .197/.226/.314 in a handful of PAs. Thrust into what looked like a deciding game 3 of the ALCS thanks to an injury, Henderson’s initial contribution was to have a long fly ball pop out of his glove and go over the fence for a bizarre two-run HR. Then, and only then, would Hendu redeem himself. Down to their final strike against a tough closer, down 5-4, Henderson hit a 2R-HR that gave Boston life. After California tied the game in the bottom of the inning, Henderson ended up winning it with a sac fly in the 11th. I was dumbstruck, and I was happy. Dave Henderson was free, and now he had even more of a reason to never stop smiling for the rest of his life.
This is actually not about Hendu’s career, though. I know, I know: that was a hell of a lot of prologue for a post about something else. What I think is so interesting, and in the week or so since his passing, so sad, is that I/we never really knew Henderson while he played for Seattle. Here’s a typically great post by Ken Arneson about Hendu. Go read it – I’ll wait. Henderson arrived in Oakland in 1988, the peak of Bash Brothers mania. The A’s had assembled a terrifying offense, with game-transcending superstar Jose Canseco in RF and new star 1B Mark McGwire. They still had Carney Lansford at 3B, and they had a rotation anchored by Dave Stewart. They added to it in 1989, bringing Rickey Henderson back (far better than the Steve Henderson the M’s flanked Hendu with) and getting a career year from Bob Welch. The point is: Hendu flourished in this environment, and his constant grin won the fans over. As Arneson points out, he had TWO fan groups dedicated to him, and he’d interact with him before each game. This wasn’t Henderson growing into himself, or gaining confidence after his ’86 heroics. *Nothing about Henderson had changed*. He smiled all the time in Seattle too, and he kept doing it as a TV color analyst after retirement. All that changed was the context.
Beatwriters knew and loved Hendu. Read John McGrath’s heartfelt tribute in the News Tribune as an example. But the fans didn’t. The team seemed to be conflicted about Henderson’s constant grinning (“you can’t smile when you’re losing every day!”), and it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for any of the M’s given that they were out of the race by May-June *every year* and drew 1 million fans in a good year (the M’s were under 900,000 in total attendance for two of Hendu’s four full seasons in Seattle). No one knew what Henderson would do in a pressure situation, as the M’s hadn’t had one in their first decade of existence. But in Oakland, Henderson was beloved for being himself.
This isn’t to say Oakland’s fans were better, whatever that means, or that Seattle misunderstood Henderson (that came later). It’s just another way that losing affects us as fans. We look at players differently – we interrogate them. I can’t really blame us for doing it, either. Baseball is beautiful even when your team’s out of it. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be writing this, and I would’ve stopped following the M’s in 1986. But for whatever reason, Henderson’s death and the reactions to it have reminded me that persistent losing distorts our vision a bit.
Unfortunately for Henderson, his turn as a broadcaster did the same. Analytical blogs like this one, and analytical fans like this one, often saw ourselves as pitted in a duel with the dread forces of received baseball wisdom and mainstream media. Every cliche, every rote denunciation about a rookie having to prove something, or vague phrases like “playing the game the right way” seemed like relics of the 19th century – they were the linguistic equivalents of high collared uniforms and segregated baseball. At a distance now, this is all quite hyperbolic, but hey, ours was an insurrection, and equanimity doesn’t rally the troops like righteous indignation. Dave Henderson was the color man tasked with/selected for his ability to dispense these baseball nostrums about, I don’t know, Jeremy Reed or whoever. He started on broadcasts when the team was an offensive juggernaut, and only a few die-hard Bill James acolytes would’ve objected. By 2003, this blog was around, and the M’s were about to fall off a cliff. BY 2006, Henderson became an odd kind of focal point for the traditional versus analytical debate, and a constant irritant for readers here and elsewhere. He came back in 2011 in the wake of Niehaus’ passing and was treated to another 95-loss, go-nowhere club. Losing had, again, obscured our view of the guy.
Not to say he was Vin Scully – I don’t want to scold all of us for not appreciating his broadcasting. Rather, the broadcasting became just another annoyance in years that offered a steady stream of them. We were angry, and the team was awful, and why is he *grinning* so much? Dave was an amazing father and a very good ballplayer. He leaves a family hurting -that’s the sad part. But as two fanbases offer warm remembrances, many M’s fans remember him either as a broadcaster or a once-promising guy who found stardom later (“why do they always get better when they leave?”). Neither do the man justice.