Dave Henderson loved being Hendu.
Loved it. Basked in it. Enjoyed filling up every room he ever walked into with Hendu goodness. He’d smile his big smile, say hello to old friends and introduce himself to new ones and then he’d be off to the races. The 1986 home run in Game 5 vs the Angels and the subsequent collapse of the Red Sox in the World Series vs the Mets. His days as a Mariner. Tony LaRussa. Donnie Moore. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake World Series. The Bash Brothers. He was always ready to talk about every moment, character, every single little thing that ever happened to Hendu, the ball player.
And make no mistake about it. That’s exactly who Hendu was-a ball player. Not in the sense of his major league career complete with the requisite numbers, ups, downs, and everything that comes with a run like that in the big leagues. No, he was a ball player in his very identity; it was his core, his DNA, his self-definition of everything in his life. If you spent time talking to him or listening to him as a broadcaster you’d hear it: the three word phrase he used to start many sentences.
“We ball players would always think this”, or “We ball players would always do that”, or “We ball players would always say this”. It was never “back when I played” or some qualifier that would indicate that those days were in the past. Hendu never stopped being Hendu the ball player which was good and fun for all the people who ever crossed his path and not in any way sad in the traditional sense of old athletes being unable to let go of the past. For some reason, with him, it was different. To be fair, he wasn’t just an oldies show. Hendu had well thought out opinions and observations on the current players he was watching and would share them with anyone who asked. But those thoughts were almost always prefaced with “we ball players” to remind you that in his heart and soul he was still one of them.
I first met him in 1995. I was standing behind the batting cage in the Kingdome when all of a sudden I heard a big “hello, Gasman!” He introduced himself and within seconds it felt like we’d known each other for years. Our conversation lasted less than a minute but from that minute on I couldn’t remember not knowing him. That’s how he was with everyone. You were a stranger with Dave Henderson for as long as it took to shake hands.
In 1996 he (and Bill Krueger) started working with us at KJR as baseball analysts. We’d sit around the sports pit, watch games, talk about them on the air and generally have a big, fun time. Listening to Hendu and Krueger discuss pitches, umpires, hitting, the count, the situation, why something happened or why it didn’t was like going to baseball graduate school.
In 1997 we went to Arizona for KJR’s annual week of spring training radio shows. Our first morning there I was standing with Hendu, Dave Niehaus, and Lou Piniella. We were watching the M’s pitchers warm up and Piniella sounded like a proud papa when he boasted, “Hendu, I’ve got 10 guys in this camp who can throw 98 miles per hour or faster!” Hendu waited about five seconds before delivering a knockout punch.
“Can any of them pitch?”
You could hear the laugher echoing all around the M’s vast complex.
During that trip to Phoenix we had a blast. Rollicking around town all night after talking baseball all day. It was then that I first noticed how much he loved being Hendu. Fan after fan would approach us everywhere we went to talk to him and he had time for every one of them.
I also took 50 bucks off him that week by betting him that I could swim a lap of our hotel pool underwater. He had no way of knowing (and certainly no physical evidence) that I was a very good swimmer and when I triumphantly surfaced I saw him speechless for the one and only time in his life.
We spent a lot of time together on the radio during the 1996 and 1997 seasons and Hendu developed a habit of rebuking me whenever I asked a question that he deemed lacking in baseball intelligence. He’d look at me with his big grin and bellow, “C’MON GAS!!!” as a way of indicating that the answer to my question was so simple that it was almost beneath him giving it to me. That phrase is still a part of my life and is delivered to me regularly by two people I love: Dave Grosby who will absolutely find a way to use it in every single conversation he and I ever have, and my wife who uses it in the true Hendu fashion as a reprimand for the stupid things I do around the house. Both Dave and Renee deliver the line in a big, loud, Hendu style voice. I’d like to think that the man who signed every autograph with the conclusion “Still having fun!” would laugh at that story.
Hendu eventually moved on to the Mariners broadcast team and we remained very friendly but didn’t see each other as often. He developed a habit during those years that he maintained up until I left radio of calling me from time to time to discuss something he heard on KJR. He was always advocating for the players and would explain things to me with the familiar opening of “we ball players” to give their side of the story. There was usually a fair amount of bluster in those calls but there was also always at least one pearl of wisdom…something I hadn’t known or thought about. You can’t ask for much more than that from the people you’re lucky enough to get to know on this trip.
In August of 1997 my show was being done from the Stan Sayres pits at Lake Washington on the Friday before the Hydroplane races. When I got there I found out that the parking pass I had been given would only allow me to park in a lot that was a little over a mile from where I was working. I tried to get into a lot closer to the pits and explained to the guard there that I was actually working and asked him if I could I at least park here to unload my gear. Dikembe Mutombo wouldn’t have rejected me more thoroughly than this guy. I was not getting into his lot under any circumstances. So back I went to my appointed parking outpost.
My ego was running a little amuck as I carried all my stuff from the car to the broadcast site, grumbling every step of the way about the guard’s callous indifference to my situation.
I finally got to the table and got things set up and ready to go. My show would start with a half hour of baseball talk with Hendu and I found myself wondering where he had parked and how he would find me. About then I looked up and saw a convertible driving towards me. There were two Seafair guards directing this huge car through an area where cars were clearly forbidden. As the car got closer I recognized the guy behind the wheel. Hendu carefully steered his car into a position that was right next to my broadcast table. The guards who had helped him were smiling and laughing with him.
He sat down next to me and we were about a minute from air time. “How in the hell,” I said, “Did you get in here with your car? Cars aren’t even supposed to be back here. I’m parked a mile that way in some auxiliary lot. How did you get back here?”
He laughed and gave me the full 1000 watt smile treatment and with his palms open reminded me:
You sure are. I can’t believe you’re gone. Farewell.