The Red Sox have had so many different players deliver in crucial moments since October 2004 that it’s challenging to keep all of them fresh and properly revered in our memories. It’s a ridiculously fortunate blessing for sure, and that doesn’t even take into consideration what the Patriots, Celtics and Bruins have achieved during the same era. These really have been the good old days.
Dave Roberts’s steal in Game 4, or Johnny Damon’s Game 7 grand slam at that ancient house of horrors in the 2004 American League Championship Series, or even J.D. Drew’s did-that-just-happen? bomb off Roberto Hernandez’s alias in the ALCS three seasons later will never be cut from our memory’s highlight reels. But because so much has happened, it’s easy forget some of the important plot twists that preceded and foreshadowed the unforgettable plot twists—maybe a big out recorded by Curtis Leskanic before a Big Papi walkoff, or a crucial strikeout of Miguel Cabrera by Junichi Tazawa, those sorts of things.
A lot of good things have to happen en route to a championship. Boston has collected a lot of championships in the last 15 years, and so we end up with this weirdly enviable dilemma: It’s tough to remember every one of the good things worthy of joyful recollection because there are so just many of them. So much has happened that there’s not enough space in our heads for every last piece of mental memorabilia.
I bring this up not just as the periodic nag to appreciate how good we have it (though it seems appropriate after an inconsequential Patriots loss to the Jets), but also as the preamble to a salute of a player who delivered a couple of momentous clutch hits at a time when our World Series championship drought had reached 60-something seasons and Red Sox fans were perennially, desperately awaiting a hero who rarely arrived.
Dave Henderson—the ever-smiling “Hendu” to those who know his story or witnessed his feats in real time during a 14-year major league career that included a brief stint in Boston—died Sunday of a heart attack. He was 57 years old. His obituary in The New York Times mentioned in the lede that he “hit one of the most memorable home runs in postseason history.”
That is the plain truth. Henderson’s two-out, two-strike, two-run home run in the ninth inning of Game 5 against the California Angels in 1986 ALCS gave the Red Sox a 6-5 lead just when it seemed all hope was lost. The Red Sox went on to win that game in extra innings—on a Henderson sacrifice fly—then won the next two games of the series to overcome a 3-1 deficit and advance to the World Series against the 108-win Mets.
Henderson’s home run was a where-were-you-when moment for Red Sox fans still waiting for that first World Series crown since 1918. When that ball sailed over the left-field wall at Anaheim Stadium, I was not watching the game broadcast, listening to Al Michaels’s brilliant call. I was in my bedroom listening on the radio, having been exiled there by my mom when I got mouthy for some forgotten and surely idiotic reason after the Red Sox began to look doomed. I was 16. So, that’s how my life was going at the time, thanks for asking.
What the Times obit might have said, had circumstances played out differently later that month, is that Henderson hit two of the all-time most memorable postseason home runs that year. In the top of the 10th inning in Game 6 of the ’86 World Series, Henderson crushed a homer off Mets reliever Rick Aguilera that put the Red Sox on the precipice of that cruelly elusive championship.
You know what came next: Schiraldi, Stanley, Gedman, Mookie, Buckner, Knight, and the cruelest defeat yet. Hendu should have been a World Series legend and a Boston icon. He could have been everything that Dave Roberts became 18 Octobers later. Instead, his moment was overwhelmed and shoved toward the fringe of relevancy by all that followed. We remembered what he did and what he tried to do around here. If only the feeling from the top of the 10th inning had lasted, if only it had mattered as much as it seemed it would when it happened.
What was remarkable about Henderson’s postseason is that no one saw it coming. Acquired from the Mariners in an August trade that also brought steadying shortstop Spike Owen, Henderson hit .196 with one homer in 54 plate-appearances during the regular season. Until that Game 5 of the ALCS—which he entered only after Tony Armas suffered an ankle injury—his greatest contribution to the ’86 Red Sox was whiffing three times in Roger Clemens’s 20-strikeout game while still a Mariner.
The good times didn’t last. His stay with the Red Sox was almost as brief as the franchise’s glee in Game 6. The Red Sox couldn’t shake a World Series hangover in ’87. Henderson was striking out in bulk, and with Ellis Burks having seized the center field job, the Sox heard nary a protest when they sent Henderson to the Giants for the immortal Randy Kutcher on the first day of September.
Looking solely at his career numbers, Henderson was not an exceptional player. He was a slightly above average one (108 career adjusted OPS) who hit all of the intangible markers. His statistical career comps at Baseball-Reference.com include Kevin McReynolds, Carl Everett (a man of an entirely opposite demeanor to Hendu) and Bobby Higginson. But his ‘86 postseason success with the Red Sox was a harbinger of future October impact. In eight postseason series in his career, Henderson would deliver a .948 OPS in 141 plate appearances. He was a glue-guy for the stacked Bash Brothers-era Oakland A’s, someone you wanted in the batter’s box when the stakes were highest.
If you’re of my generation, a jerk teenager of the ‘80s turned a nostalgic old fool, you can still conjure flickering highlights of Henderson beyond the postseason homers. I recall his Nique-like vertical leap after hitting the home run against the Angels as he bounded toward first, and how Channel 4 showed it in slow motion with Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again” playing. You see that permanent Hendu smile, and man, how he stutter-stepped before slinging the throw back into the infield after recording the second out in the bottom of the 10th in Game 6.
It was the last out the Red Sox would record that night, of course, and his home run would become a footnote to a much more enduring story. But as we mourn Dave Henderson, we also realize this: He didn’t need the cooperation of fate or a championship parade to become a permanent baseball hero around here. We’ll remember him permanently, and in a most fitting way. We’ll remember with a smile, always.