"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.