Monday, February 11, 2008

Your Oakland A of the Day – Dave Henderson

In my never-ending quest for blog content, it came down to writing another "Oakland A's Monday" (which would've included insight and commentary on our two latest free agent signings: RP Keith Foulke and 1B/DH Mike Sweeney) or this "past player spotlight" thingie, which I blatantly stole from the one of the best baseball blogs out there.

Since the former post option would require me to either feign enthusiasm ("Hey, if they perform well through July, we could have some quality bait by the trade deadline!) or state the obvious ("They've got nothing left in the tank."), we'll go with the latter.

Dave Henderson spent six seasons (during a 14-year career) with the Oakland A's. He was originally drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the first round of the 1977 draft (Harold Baines, Paul Molitor and Bob Welch, among others, were picked before him that year, Terry Francona, Mookie Wilson and Ozzie Smith were among those picked after).

He made his debut in April 1981, but didn't become a regular until 1982. Henderson wasn't very good during his stay in Seattle, save for a batting average-assisted flukish 1984 and the first few months of the 1986 season, when he was traded to Boston in mid-August. As a testament to both Henderson's talent and baseball's prehistoric talent evaluation skills, at the time, Henderson was basically a throw in. The Red Sox wanted good field/absolutely no-hit SS Spike Owen for the stretch run. Henderson was a 4th OF and late-inning defensive replacement.

Of course, Owen would kill the ball in the playoffs (.478 OBP/.524(!) SLG) that year after hitting .183/.283/.238 with Boston in the last six weeks of the regular season, while Henderson hit two of the most famous home runs in Red Sox postseason history.

In 1987, Henderson was the Opening Day CF, but only held the job through April before Ellis Burks would run away with the gig after an early season call-up. Henderson finished the year on the bench with the San Francisco Giants and was ineligible for the team's NLCS series vs. St. Louis. He signed with the A's (1 year/$225K) as a free agent on December 21, 1987.

Oakland was coming off of an 81-81 third place finish, which was their highest AL West standing in six years. That '87 team featured an outfield of Jose Canseco, Mike Davis and Luis Polonia, with longtime CF Dwayne Murphy injured for large swaths of time. During that offseason, the A's let Murphy and Davis walk, then handed the starting CF job to the 29-year-old Henderson who, to that point, had barely been a league average player.

Then, out of nowhere, Hendu had the year of his life in 1988.

Manager Tony LaRussa slotted him in the #2 spot and there's no doubt he benefited from unlikely leadoff hitter Carney Lansford in front of him (.366 OBP when batting 1st, 29-for-37 in SBs) and Jose Canseco's career year behind him. Henderson hit .304/.363/.525, won something called the AL Comeback Player of the Year and was one of the few A's who showed up for the team's embarrassing World Series choke. Amazingly, Henderson got less national press than Oakland's no-stick shortstop, Walt Weiss, who stole the Rookie of the Year award in '88.

In 1989, Henderson's anonymity was compounded by the A's mid-season acquisition of a much better "Henderson" and the fact that Dave Henderson's numbers nose-dived from awesome to awful. He lost nearly 50 points of OBP and almost 150 points off his slugging pct. He did go 9 for 32 in the postseason, though, with eight extra base hits, including a home run in Game 3 of the World Series, in which he ran about halfway up the first base line backwards.

The rest of Hendu's A's tenure is memorable for two things: (1) injuring his knee against the upstart White Sox in 1990 and (2) his white-hot start to the 1991 season.

His knee injury was originally thought to be season-ending and it opened the door for the A's to acquire OF Willie McGee from the Cardinals. Aside from upping our ugly quotient, McGee was leading the NL in hitting at the time of the trade. The A's also traded for DH Harold Baines on the same day, which reduced our ugly magic number to zero.

The following year, Henderson was hitting .367/.427/.680 on May 21. He got the requisite write up in Sports Illustrated and was voted to start in the All-Star Game. We won't mention that from May 22 to the end of the season, Hendu (chuckle) "hit" .245/.318/.391. He'd spend two more injury-plagued seasons in Oakland, before signing with the Royals for the 1994 season, Henderson's final year in the bigs.

The numbers really don't tell the whole story with Hendu, though. Dude was always smiling. He'd never hesitate to chat up the fans at home from centerfield or trash talk the ones on the road. During a game at Yankee Stadium in 1990, fans threw coins and dollar bills at Canseco, who'd just signed a huge contract extension. Hendu spent the rest of the game picking up every cent he could find out there and pocketing it. The following year, after a long at-bat against the Mariners' Erik Hanson, Hendu laughed out loud, pointed to the mound and gestured off the plate when he drew ball four.

Somehow, I doubt I'll remember Mike Sweeney stories 20 years after the fact.

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