Sometimes we remember 1986 as the year Bill Buckner let the World Series slip under his glove and the Curse of the Bambino was born. We forget that the Sox had slipped into the Series by until-then the biggest clutch hit in their history. In 1986, Dave Henderson “hit a ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike homer that lifted the Red Sox to a Game 5 victory over the Angels in the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox won Games 6 and 7 to advance to the World Series.” ESPN.com remembered the moment in an obituary for the 55-year-old Henderson, who died on Monday.
For a trade acquisition who played only two years for the Red Sox, Dave Henderson had this remarkable impact on a team supposedly cursed to fall short of a championship for decades. He didn’t hit for an average, but he had clutch power that brought him out of obscurity into local fame and adoration. Frank Malzone, who died the day after Hendu, is remembered as a lifetime contributor to Red Sox Nation, but the center-fielder who came for a short stay is remembered with similar affection.
I came to the Red Sox as a disaffected Yankee fan in 1978. (Billy Martin had just been re-hired for the third or fourth time in the farcical epic of Steinbrenner’s reign). I hadn’t seen glory days of 1968 or 1975 as a Red Sox fan, so the playoffs were new excitement to me. I remember the resignation of Game 5 and the sudden elation as Henderson turned the series around with the last strike thrown. It was a new excitement, not the kind you expect as a Yankee fan, but the kind that rocks you as a Red Sox fan. That the Red Sox went on to win that series and return to the big stage made the moment more special. Dave Henderson was a Fenway folk hero for that and later clutch swings at unexpected moments.
Henderson’s glamor was undermined by the immortal Bill Buckner, whose fielding gaff unfairly turned a great career into a sad joke. Dave Henderson was the counter-narrative to that tragedy in that he turned a floundering team into the American League Champions in the same year. His clutch swing puts the Curse in a different perspective, a team struggling to overcome its reputation as a big-game failure. The swing turned Henderson himself into a local hero, a buoyant and unruffled batter, indifferent to averages and odds-makers.
In 1986 I decided to go back to graduate school after twelve years of high school teaching. Eight years later I came to Michigan to teach teachers, a job I have cherished till today. Probably the uplifting moment when Dave Henderson entered Red Sox history had nothing to do with this turning point in my life. But it didn’t hurt. I remember 1986, not as cursed, but as blessed by the bat of Dave Henderson. Thanks, Dave.