Dave Henderson passed away Sunday at fifty-seven.
In my years of sportswriting that has to be one of the saddest sentences written. Why?
Ken Dryden, the legendary goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, is attributed with the following quote. When asked what he thought was the golden age of sport, he answered, “whenever you are fourteen. At no point after will sport mean more to you than then.” Whether he said it first is beside the point, he was dead on. For me, the years that mean the most and striking the hardest points to 1985-86, the year I turned fourteen.
Somehow, some way, the Boston Red Sox decided this was the year to make a championship run. Not a serious contender for the playoffs since the fall of 1978, the Red Sox squandered good teams and settled for mid-division records for years. First place in May, eliminated by Labor Day. We watched the New York Yankees threaten, and win a couple times, but the Red Sox watched the playoffs and World Series the same place I did, on television. Presumably they did not have bedtimes and stayed up for the bitter end of another season watching other players celebrate.
An 81-80 team in 1985 no one in their right mind, outside of a few delusional folks, expected anything different in 1986. The Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays battled to the end of the ’85 season to decide the American League East while the Detroit Tigers—who destroyed baseball en route to winning the 1984 championship—lurked. Boston’s realistic chances in April? They needed help.
They got it from Roger Clemens, a fresh-faced kid from Texas who battled shoulder problems in the past. He wouldwin twenty-four in 1986 including his first dozen. For years, that lack of pitching doomed whatever chance Boston had. They might have slugged their way to a division title, but no one ever thought a Mike Torrez was ever beating a Dennis Leonard or Mike Norris in a winner-take-all Game 5. Bob Stanley, as loved as he is in New England, wouldhave caused six states and a couple Canadian provinces to chain-smoke and drink if he needed to get eight or nine outs to lock down a pennant. It hurts to say this, but those Sox teams earned their lot.
Lady Luck in New England in those days lived at the Boston Garden. Not with the team that actually owned the place—the Bruins and Delaware North—but the team owning the NBA’s Eastern Conference, the Celtics. From dead spots on the parquet floor to Larry freaking Bird, it seemed all the good luck needed to win stopped at North Station. It certainly never extended down to Foxboro with the Patriots—the main reason most outside Boston never claimed New England as our team in that era, miracle at the Orange Bowl excepted—and rarely moved west a few blocks to Fenway.
When Dwight Evans deposited the first pitch of the 1986 season from Jack Morris into the left-center field bleachers at Tiger Stadium, that should have been my first sign things were different. My family, which somehow doubled in size over the previous year, moved in 1986. As we ventured from our old home in search of a new one, the radio filled the car with strange ways the Sox won. Need a walkoff wild pitch or hit by pitch? Done. Ken Coleman’s voice hit octaves he never knew he had. This team was not fading.
Too young to understand the magnitude of what happened in the summer of 1978—thanks, Bucky—this whole winning thing was new. Sure, there were some glaring holes with those Sox. They had no true shortstop. Stanley’s game-closing efforts caused a sharp rise in Budweiser consumption and centerfielder Tony Armas forgot how to hit.
Armas, a pure slugger, had good years in 1984 and ’85 behind Evans and Jim Rice in the lineup, but he fell off a cliff in 1986 and Boston added to their bench by getting Henderson and Spike Owen in a trade with Seattle. Owen, your typical 1980s no-hit average fielder, did his job and Henderson failed to draw the ire for his strikeouts that Armas earned.
Clemens kept winning. Bruce Hurst was the first lefty in a generation to pitch well at Fenway. Oil Can Boyd survived a breakdown not being selected to the All-Star team and was as good of a three starter as you could hope far. Boston even traded for veteran Tom Seaver down the stretch. They acquired Calvin Schraldi from the New York Mets to give the bullpen an honest-to-God closer. Who cares what it cost us, the Sox went all in. A nice dream as no one was stopping the two-ton gorilla in Queens.
Yeah, the Mets and their 108-win season. The real prize for this kid was winning the American League. No one was touching Dwight Gooden down I-95. The question in 1986 was not can the Mets win, but how many World Series will they reel off? If you answered one, and lived in 1986, you are lying.
The Sox clinched the division. A pop-up to Bill Buckner at Fenway. Somewhere, my mom still has the Boston papers. I think the Boston Herald went with SOXCESS on the front page and IN THE CAN! On the back as old Oil Can nailed down the first meaningful October games since 1975. Fenway would host the California Angels while the Mets would run into a buzz saw at the Astrodome in Mike Scott and the Houston Astros. California clobbered Boston in Game 1 and themselves in Game 2. A change of scenery for the weekend did little good as the Angels won Game 3 and 4 with ease.
As the ALCS headed to Sunday, the Sox were down 3-1 to a team dominating them in every way. A late-afternoon start for Game 5, the normal then, I did not ask to change the channel away from the NFL doubleheader. I went to bed that Saturday night knowing the season was over and satisfied 1986 had been successful. As the scores flashed on the bottom of the screen, whatever game we watched dutifully kept us updated on what was going on in Anaheim and it was not good. By the seventh, I had enough. I had to watch the end. My dad—not a big baseball fan, claimed to be a Reds fan—agreed, and we turned on what we thought would be a funeral.
Sure, they teased us. We saw the replay of Hendu’s dropped home run. We watched Donnie Moore come in. We saw the count work to strike two on Henderson. I remember that swing and his pirouette and dropping my first big f-bomb. No parental correction came.
Honestly, I do not remember the Angels coming back, but celebrating when the Sox took the lead for good in the eleventh. That voice in our head, we all have it, told me this was over. They weren’t blowing this. I had never heard the term dead team walking before. Here, the Angels were literally opening champagne bottles in their locker room and now had to fly across the country to a frenzied Fenway to win. I knew it was not happening. Then, I was 14. What the hell did I know.
As luck would have it, the Angels rip three off of Boyd in the first inning of Game 6. Dad and I watched on a tiny set in the living room as my mother had enough and watched a Nova with my sisters. When the Sox tied the game that same inning, my dad knew it was over. When Clemens strolled out to start Game 7, the Angels knew it was over.
Forget what happened in the World Series. In retrospect, the Astros gave the Mets everything and more to handle and it was not enough. The fact Boston pushed the Mets to the seventh inning of Game 7 is amazing. Yeah, that weekend is another story.
What Dave Henderson did on a Sunday afternoon in Anaheim changed lives. A silly sentence since we are talkingabout a game, but Donnie Moore would kill himself eventually over that game.
I was three in 1975. Although I remember parts of that series, including Carlton Fisk’s magic, 1986 was the jackpot. If it was not for Henderson, and Buckner, there would have been no World Series. The wounds of 1986 healed in 2004 and watching the Sox win at Fenway in 2013 ranks up there as a top moment, but that day in Southern California is top five for sure.
On behalf of a grateful fanbase, thank you Dave for what you did, your happy and smiling personality and sharing the joy in Seattle and Oakland you did with us. I am so glad you earned your ring in 1989 with the A’s. Your untimely death is felt by three cities and a new generation who watched you on Mariner broadcasts. Although your career was a short blip on the grand Red Sox timeline, the impact ranks up there with Fisk, David Ortiz and other heroes past and present. My dad and I thank you.