Dave Henderson turns back the clock to 1981
(As told to Jim Street)
Selected in the first round of the 1977 June draft (the Mariners’ first-ever draft pick), Hendu spent the first six years of his 14-year Major League career in Seattle. He hit 79 of his 197 career home runs wearing a Mariners uniform and although he played for four other MLB organizations – Red Sox, Giants, Athletics and Royals – Henderson still calls Seattle home. He played 654 games for the M’s, including his first-ever appearance against the Athletics in Oakland, located about 60 miles from his home town of Dos Palos, Calif. This is his story of that game, played on April 17, 1981.
(Editor’s note: Henderson suffered a fatal heart attack in December, 2015 at the age of 57.)
When I reported to spring training before the ’81 season, I was not expecting to make the team out of camp, not at all. I knew I’d make it to the big leagues at some point, but that not that spring.
In one of the early (Cactus League) games, the guy who was supposed to start in right field that day (Willie Norwood) asked for the day off because Lenny Barker, a hard thrower, was starting for the Indians.
Our manager, Maury Wills, put me in the lineup and I got a couple of hits, including a home run. He said, ‘I want to see if you can do that again’,” and played me in the next game. Of course I did it again. I kept playing, hit real well, which is no fete really, and near the end of camp, (Norwood) was released. We all called him Wally Pipp.
I ended up making the team and we opened the regular season at home. I hit some balls hard against (left-hander) Geoff Zahn but went 0-for-4. I ended up going 0-for-8 during the homestand, but I wasn’t worried. I knew I could hit big-league pitching.
We flew to Oakland and I spent most the first day there on the telephone, talking to friends and reporters. We didn’t have cellphones in those days so all the calls came to my hotel room. The reporters wanted to talk to me about playing my first big-league game so close to home.
The population of Dos Palos is about 2,000 and half the town was coming to see me play the game that night, which was the A’s home opener, including my parents, brother and four sisters. It was exciting to have them there enjoying the moment with me.
They had seen me play before, but it’s different when you are wearing a Major League uniform with 50,000 people in the stands.
I came up (in the second inning) against (Steve) McCatty and got my first Major League hit – a home run. Bill King, the Oakland announcer, knew me from my high school football days and he called me ‘The gap-tooth wonder.’
I was kind of excited, but did everything correctly, the way a rookie is supposed to do it – no hot-dogging or anything. Just run around the bases and get your butt in the dugout. We didn’t do much showcasing back in those days. You get into the dugout and then shake hands. I didn’t get the silent treatment. Everybody was happy for me, (Tom) Paciorek, (Richie) Zisk and all those guys. They all knew I was going to be good and they were happy for me to get off the snide. I still have the ball, and the call from Bill King from the radio side.
I got my career going in grand style. The weird thing about it was I was pretty well known in Bay Area and the crowd gave me a big round of applause although it was against Oakland.
When the game ended, I was excited about hitting a home run to start my career off. Heck, I was going to knock Hank Aaron off his perch. But we lost the game, 16-1. I walked into the clubhouse feeling pretty good about myself, but there were a lot of sad faces, so I couldn’t celebrate. Here I was, really excited about getting my first Major League hit, a home run, and people are really sad. I like to smile, but that wasn’t the time to be smiling. Some of the players and coaches weren’t happy about it and it was a learning experience for me.
In the meantime, my family and some friends were waiting for me in a tunnel and they were as excited as I was. But I told them to keep it down because six of our pitchers were really upset after giving up that many runs.
The Athletics had a really good team that year. McCatty was part of starting staff that completed almost every game they started. He had a good fastball, hard slider and, of course, the spitter. All of the A’s pitchers threw spitters.
I remember McCatty treating me like a rookie in that first at-bat – here it is, hit it out of the ballpark if you can. He threw me a fastball and I hit it out of the ballpark. I gained some respect with that at-bat. He never threw me another fastball. All sliders, and a few spitters.
The scouting report got out real quick that this guy has power.
(Jim Street covered the Mariners for the Seattle P-I from 1986-98, and MLB.com from 2001-10) This article first appeared in Mariners Magazine.)