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The Fans' Man

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

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.

"Baseball," posits Dave Henderson, "cuts down into split seconds, from when the pitcher goes into his windup until the catcher catches the ball. That's the concentration time. You have to remember, we do have a lot of free time out there, so you can see me screwing around with fans when Tony's changing the pitcher. If a fan says hello to you, you can say hi back. If the fans ask you a question, you can answer it. It's really part of just being a human being. But most players are out there with the stone face, all business. Well, I'm not."

No, he is not. You want more entertainment for your dollar? While standing on second base with two outs and Mark McGwire at bat in the first inning last Friday night, Henderson waved to California rightfielder Dave Winfield, who, momentarily dazed, found himself waving back. In the fourth inning, Hendu made a stunning, running grab at the wall while laughing; turned to admire his handiwork on the Diamond Vision replay; and then acknowledged the cheers of the Bad Boy Club. Finally, in the eighth inning, he camped under Winfield's deep drive with his glove hand down and his throwing hand up, as if he were going to bare-hand the ball. (Alas, he did not.)

On Saturday, he caught a Luis Polonia pop fly for the third out of the seventh inning and, as he proceeded toward the Oakland dugout, repeatedly flipped his flip-shades up and down at the Angels' leftfielder, as though he were catching Polonia in some sort of Hendu high-beam headlights.

"If you talk to almost anybody around the league, they'll tell you that the way he plays sometimes gets them a bit upset," says Angel pitcher Langston, Henderson's teammate in Seattle, still his next-door neighbor during the off-season in nearby Bellevue, and his whipping boy this season (Hendu is 7 for 7 off his neighbor thus far in '91). "But," Langston says with a sigh, "that's the way he plays the game. You can't take that away from him."

"Ninety-eight percent of the players know me, and they know I'm kind of weird, so they know it's not me just taunting or hotdogging," says Henderson. "I'm just a big kid playing baseball, and I'm not afraid to be me."

It hasn't always been so. As the first-ever June draft pick of the Mariners, one of sport's least pleasant, least successful franchises, Henderson not only was expected "to be someone they could headline, the Chosen One," as he puts it, but also was expected to wear a hair shirt to the Kingdome each day. "When you're losing a hundred games a year, you have to tone it down," he says. "People get upset that this guy's having so much fun."

"When he was on the other side, I'd think, Does he care?" says La Russa. "I mean, you're smiling in Seattle, where you're always getting beat. He's earned [respect] now, but it didn't really happen until he went to Boston."

And that didn't happen until he had spent five years in Seattle, where, in his best season, he hit .269 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs, and where Williams once told him that anyone who smiled as much as Henderson did couldn't be taking the game seriously. Henderson was quoted in a newspaper as voting Williams the league's worst manager. Williams removed Henderson from Seattle's starting outfield, and shortly thereafter, in August 1986, Hendu and shortstop Spike Owen were sent to Boston for Rey Quinones, a player to be named later and cash.

"In those days, I just wasn't that good," says Henderson. "Simple as that." But that was before his 1986 postseasoning—which made the series of rapid-fire insults that followed in 1987 all the more discouraging. Henderson was hitting .234 for Boston that season when he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for a player to be named later. Worse, the player to be named was named Randy Kutcher. Worse than that, the trade was effected on Sept. 1, hours too late for Henderson to qualify for the playoff's, which the Giants made that season. "Which," says Henderson, "is why I assumed they traded for me in the first place."

Apparently not. Less than four months after arriving in the Bay Area, Hendu signed with Oakland as a free agent for $225,000. In his first season with the A's, he hit .304, with 24 home runs and 94 RBIs. He has averaged 20 home runs and 79 RBIs in his three seasons as an Athletic. What happened, exactly? "Wisdom," says the 32-year-old Henderson. "And age. The more you play this game, I think, the better you get at it." And baseball has been his main game only since he graduated from Dos Palos (Calif.) High 14 years ago. Before then, he was primarily a running back and linebacker who was recruited by virtually every major school in the nation. It came down to simple economics, Henderson says: a $40,000 education, or $100,000 from the Mariners, who were intrigued by the combination of speed and power he flashed as an outfielder for Dos Palos.

He has gotten an education, nonetheless. For three years now he has carried more A's than any honor student. When Hendu missed 27 games with torn cartilage in his right knee last August, both Stewart and third baseman Carney Lansford called the loss Oakland's most significant of the past three years—this on a team that had been without Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Eckersley, McGwire and most everyone else at one time or another during that span.

That is because Hendu's time is what hack announcers call Crunch Time, but what Hendu himself calls Game Time. "I've learned life from football," he says. "Game time? I worked on that in football practice. I learned that in high school. The Fourth Quarter, we called it. When we were dead tired and could barely move, that was when we would go practice the Fourth Quarter. That's one of those things you learn and never lose."

If Williams thought a smile meant that Henderson didn't care—well, it has come to mean quite the opposite to Henderson's opponents. "I have never seen him get mad," says Langston. "I have never even seen him lose his composure."

"I would like to get that straight," says Henderson. "Me having fun takes nothing away from me doing my job. In fact, I'm probably the most concentrated guy out there."

Which is why even the game's most intense, granite-mugged performer speaks honorifically of Hendu. "The Field General!" Stewart says upon learning, to his delight, that Hendu will be getting some national pub. "It's tough to get recognition on this team, because everybody wants to focus on the big sluggers, Canseco and McGwire. But then Dave sort of comes out in the postseason, and that's when people have to take notice."

But he has come out in April this year, and seeing his shadow pursued by the shadows of several minicams, he has occasionally felt inclined to crawl back in. He only likes "50 billion people" watching him when he's on the field. Outside the park, he guards his privacy, and in the off-season he retreats to Bellevue to be with his wife, Loni, and their two young sons.

"I wouldn't want to be Canseco," Henderson says. "His face is everywhere. I mean, at least I can still go to McDonald's with my kid and not be recognized." Then he smiles that smile that covers more ground than any centerfielder ever could. "I can still have a Happy Meal," Hendu says. "I like that."



Hendu is worshiped by fan clubs in Oakland, and in other parks, too.



The ever-playful Henderson gives Wally Joyner a squeeze on the leg, then happily takes off.



Always a clutch postseason hitter, Henderson came up big in this April of the A's need.



Henderson says he's just a big kid playing baseball, and his omnipresent smile proves it.