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The Fans' Man
Steve Rushin
May 06, 1991
Dave Henderson has won hearts in the bleachers—and carried his A's through a rough start
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May 06, 1991

The Fans' Man

Dave Henderson has won hearts in the bleachers—and carried his A's through a rough start

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Dave Henderson's smile runs foul pole to foul pole. It has a gap in the middle as wide as the one between leftfield and center. It is an otherwise ordinary smile that Henderson has simply stretched into a double. It has, as we shall see, made the Oakland A's centerfielder beloved among people with bad seats everywhere, and it once got him traded out of Seattle. Smile, and the whole world—with the exception of former Mariners manager Dick Williams—smiles with you.

The best thing about Dave Henderson's smile, though, is that it is always there, hedged by the ever-changing topiary of his beard and mustache. He circles the bases after home runs as most people circle vacation dates on calendars, in garish and overlarge loops. He high-steps on tiptoes in pursuit of routine flyballs, as if barefoot on blacktop in July. "Playing professional baseball brings a smile to my face," he says. "I don't need much else to have a good time." Which is why, through it all, the smile is on. Always on, like Hendu himself.

Before Sunday, Oakland ace Dave Stewart had a 1-2 record with a 7.56 ERA. Dennis Eckersley, baseball's best reliever, had been Eck as in wreck in running up an untidy 4.00 ERA. Rightfielder Jose Canseco had played so egregiously on defense that he was even catching flak on one hop. Leftfielder Rickey Henderson, last year's Most Valuable Player and this spring's Most Voluble, had played in only five games, because of a strained left calf muscle. Six other Athletics were on the disabled list in April as well, bringing to the A's roster the Triple A likes of Fred Manrique (who is no Al Pedrique) and Joe Klink (who is Eric Plunk).

Nevertheless, after last weekend's three-game sweep of the California Angels, the defending three-time American League champions were just a half game out of their accustomed position atop the Western Division, and Hendu was the single-handed reason Oakland had survived its spring squall. "This is just an early example of his ability to rise to an occasion," Athletics manager Tony La Russa said last Saturday, after Henderson went 4 for 4 against the Angels' Mark Langston to raise his average to .406, with a league-best six homers and 17 RBIs. "On this occasion, we've been short players. And he's risen. We've needed something special."

It seems that whenever they have needed something special, the A's have gotten it from Henderson, whose special deliveries every October have made him, it must be acknowledged, one of professional sports' alltime money performers. "I have always been ready to perform prime time," he says. "As you've noticed, the last three years here, we've been in the World Series. That's no fluke. Guys like me love 13 or 14 TV cameras on 'em, and 50 billion people watching."

Or 60 people. That is the approximate number of signatures that are on the baseball autographed to Henderson by season-ticket holders in the centerfield bleachers at Fenway Park in Boston. He used to conduct a game show with those fans between pitches during the nine weeks when he was a member of the 1986 Red Sox. "I was the host, and they were the audience," are the only details of the production that Henderson will divulge. But, he says, he is as proud of that five-year-old ball as he is of any of the other souvenirs of his genuinely astonishing career. "I still have that ball at home," he says. "It's next to all of my World Series balls."

It is a formidable collection. Henderson has played in four of the last five Series. And that is only one of his notable postseason accomplishments. His playoff-prolonging, ninth-inning home run off California reliever Donnie Moore in Game 5 of the '86 American League Championship Series has become, in a figurative and literal sense, larger than life, only in part because Moore committed suicide in 1989. "That home run killed him," said Moore's former agent, Dave Pinter.

Henderson has fonder memories of his dinger off then New York Met reliever Rick Aguilera in the 10th inning of Game 6 of that year's World Series. It gave Boston a one-run lead and is the only reason Bill Buckner was later able to grow goat's horns. "That was a bigger, bigger home run in a baseball sense," says Hendu. "You know, when the pitching coach goes out there and says, 'This guy's hot, don't give him anything good to hit,' and you still hit a home run. That means you've really done something."

The words may make Henderson sound like his own biggest fan, but that is not the case. He shrugs off as insignificant the fact that he missed, by less than one inch, hitting a third home run in Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. And anyway, there are Hendu fans far bigger than he in every city in the American League. Fans in the bleachers at Arlington Stadium in Texas, for instance, shower him with U.S. currency each time he appears there. "On a good day, I make probably 23, 24 bucks," he says. "In bills. All in bills. The change is too heavy to carry."

Two fan clubs compete for his considerable attention at the Oakland Coliseum: Hendu's Bad Boy Club resides in right centerfield, while bleacherites in left center call their lair Henduland. The two groups sing harmony on an improvisational song that has evolved lyrically during Henderson's three years with the A's. It is called Dave Henderson: More Entertainment for Your Dollar.

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