Mariners player and broadcaster Dave Henderson made a friend of everyone he met. He began many conversations with “We ballplayers . . . ” because he remained one to his core.
Dave Henderson loved being Hendu.
Loved it. Basked in it. Enjoyed filling up every room he walked into with Hendu goodness. He’d smile his big smile, say hello to old friends, introduce himself to new ones and then he’d be off with stories.
His 1986 home run in Game 5 against the Angels and the subsequent collapse of the Red Sox in the World Series against 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 little thing that happened to Hendu, the ball player.
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 its requisite numbers, as well as the ups, downs, and everything that comes with a good run in the big leagues. No, he was a ball player in his very identity; it was his core, his DNA, his self-definition. If you spent time talking with him or listening to him as a broadcaster, you heard 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 past. Hendu never stopped being Hendu the ball player, which was good and fun for all the people who crossed his path, and not in any way sad in the traditional sense of old athletes 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 current players. He 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 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, Hendu and former Mariners pitcher Bill Krueger started working with us at KJR as baseball analysts. We’d sit around the studio’s 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 pitchers warm up. Piniella sounded like a proud papa when he boasted, “Hendu, I’ve got 10 guys in this camp who can throw 98 miles an hour or faster!” Hendu waited about five seconds before delivering a knockout punch.
“Can any of them pitch?”
Laughter echoed all around the complex.
During that trip, we had a blast. Rollicking around town all night after talking baseball all day. It was then that I noticed how much he loved being Hendu. Fan after fan would approach us everywhere we went to talk to him. 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 (certainly no physical evidence) that I was a very good swimmer. 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. 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 to provide it.
That phrase is still a part of my life and is delivered to me regularly by two people I love: Dave Grosby, who will find a way to use it in every conversation he and I have; and my wife, who uses it in the true Hendu fashion as a reprimand for stupid things I do around the house.
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 to the Mariners broadcast team. We remained very friendly but didn’t see each other as often. During those years until I left radio, he maintained a habit of calling me from time to time to discuss something he heard on KJR.
He was always advocating for 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 people you’re lucky enough to get to know on this trip.
In August 1997, my show was being done from the Stan Sayres pits at Lake Washington on the Friday before the Seafair hydroplane races. When I arrived, I found out that the parking pass I was given would allow me to park only in a lot that was a little more than a mile from where I was working.
I tried to get to a lot closer to the pits. I explained to the guard I was actually working and asked if I could I at least park here to unload 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 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 reached the table and set things up. My show would start with a half hour of baseball talk with Hendu. I wondered where he had parked and how he would find me.
I looked up and saw a convertible driving toward me. Two Seafair guards directed the huge car through an area where cars were forbidden. As the car drew 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 helped him were smiling and laughing with him.
He sat down next to me. 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, 1,000-watt smile. With his palms open, he reminded me:
“Gas . . . I’m Hendu!”
You sure are. I can’t believe you’re gone. Farewell.
Mike Gastineau has been a fixture in the Seattle sports community since his arrival in June 1991 as a sports-talk host on KJR-AM. His blog is gasman206.com.