John McGrath

John McGrath: Dave Henderson’s big smile only matched by the love for his son

Dave Henderson, who played for Seattle from 1981-86 and worked as a Mariners broadcaster, throws out the first pitch before a Mariners game on Sept. 23, 2012.
Dave Henderson, who played for Seattle from 1981-86 and worked as a Mariners broadcaster, throws out the first pitch before a Mariners game on Sept. 23, 2012. Associated Press file, 2012

Of the more than 6,000 lead sentences I’ve written as a newspaper columnist, the only one I can precisely recall was for a story that never got published.

“He will ride forever in the streets of Boston,” I typed in the Shea Stadium press box on Oct. 26, 1986, moments after Dave Henderson hit a 10th-inning home run that put the Red Sox in position to win their first World Series since 1918. The shot appeared to cap a remarkable postseason for Henderson, who’d kept the Red Sox alive with a two-out, two-strike, two-run homer that prevented the Angels from clinching the American League Championship Series in five games.

The “ride forever” reference was from “M.T.A,” a 1959 song by The Kingston Trio about a Boston subway passenger who didn’t have the correct change for the exit turnstile.

I’m not sure why I presumed a 1959 song by The Kingston Trio would resonate with readers in 1986, but the night was long, my filing deadline was looming and besides, I was right: Henderson’s leading-man role with the Red Sox had set him up to be an eternally revered legend in Boston.

Henderson’s ride didn’t last forever. It didn’t even survive the 10th inning of Game 6, famous for the Bill Buckner error that enabled the Mets to conclude a three-run rally with two outs. New York went on to win the seventh game, and midway through the following season, Henderson moved on to the West Coast, where he became an All-Star outfielder with the Oakland A’s and later a broadcaster for his original big-league team, the Mariners.

Henderson died Sunday of a heart attack possibly associated with a recent kidney transplant. Although many of us familiar with “Hendu” had no idea of his kidney problems, we knew about the heart, a beautiful piece of work that explained his perpetual smile.

Henderson was an interesting man but not a complicated one. He kept things simple as a player — don’t sweat the small stuff, and because this is baseball, it’s all small stuff — and upon retirement, he enjoyed his status as a Seattle-area celebrity, happy to interact with sports fans wherever he went.

I encountered Hendu this past season on the deck atop the bullpens at Safeco Field, the best seats in the house for those who prefer to stand and mingle. Our conversation over a few innings reminded me of how much fun it is to watch a big-league baseball game with somebody who played big-league baseball.

But Henderson did something else that night that will endure as a memory. He rearranged the wheelchair of his son to face the fans passing by us on the concourse.

“He wants to check out all the pretty girls,” Hendu said with a wink.

Chase Henderson was born with Angelman Syndrome, a complex genetic disorder identified in 1966 by Harry Angelman, an English pediatrician. Prone to epileptic seizures, those with the disorder are impaired intellectually — their typical vocabulary doesn’t extend beyond 10 words — but research suggests a person with A.S. can comprehend far more than 10 words.

Hendu doted on his son. He took Chase to Mariners games, to the shopping mall, to restaurants. They were inseparable.

A friend of the family told me Monday that in lieu of flowers, mourners can make a donation at cureangelman.org.

Sports often pose challenges to the commitment of fatherhood. Missing a must-win game to be there for the birth of a child, for instance, is an enduring quandary.

The presence of a father in the delivery room is symbolically substantial, but it’s still symbolic: He’s present at the creation.

The more authentic commitment is to be there when the child is five and has fallen off a bicycle, to be there when the child is 12 and has been bullied in the schoolyard.

Dave Henderson was there for his son, and he was there with affection, with empathy, with love. On the unlikely day I’m inaugurated as the president, my first priority will be to rename Father’s Day as “Dave Henderson Day.”

May he ride forever in the streets of heaven.

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