Monday, January 19, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Steve Henderson

Every once in a while, a player becomes known for something he has no control over.  It's then up to that player to give people something else to think about whenever his name pops up in a conversation.

One such player became known for a trade he was involved in - a trade that was arguably the most hated transaction in Mets history.  He went on to have a decent career in New York, but did not do nearly enough to make Mets fans forget who he was traded for.  But for one night, he became the talk of the town when he launched a ball into the Flushing sky to give the Mets an unexpected come-from-behind victory that is still being talked about to this day - a victory that made fans truly believe that there was something magical returning to Shea Stadium.

Steve Henderson was one of the key players received in the Tom Seaver trade.

Steven Curtis Henderson was one of the Cincinnati Reds' top outfield prospects in 1976.  During that season, he batted .312 with 17 homers and 44 stolen bases.  Henderson continued his onslaught against minor league opponents in 1977.  Through his first 60 games, Henderson batted .326 with seven homers and 19 steals.  It appeared as if Henderson was on the fast track to the major leagues, but there were three obstacles standing in his way.  Their names were George Foster, Cesar Geronimo and Ken Griffey.

The two-time defending champion Reds had one of the best outfields in the league with top slugger Foster in left, perennial Gold Glove winner Geronimo in center and batting title contender Griffey in right, making Henderson instantly expendable.  During their World Series-winning seasons in 1975 and 1976, the Reds had one of the top pitching staffs in baseball, posting ERAs of 3.39 and 3.51, respectively, on their way to back-to-back titles.  But Cincinnati struggled on the mound during the first two months of the 1977 campaign, with the team ERA ballooning above 4.00.  For the Reds to compete with the surging Dodgers, they needed an upgrade in the starting rotation.  They found a perfect suitor in the New York Mets, who were looking to rid themselves of the best pitcher they ever had.

On June 15, 1977, in a trade that was dubbed "The Midnight Massacre" by the New York media, Tom Seaver was shipped off to Cincinnati in exchange for Henderson, infielder Doug Flynn, outfield prospect Dan Norman and pitcher Pat Zachry (who was the 1976 National League co-Rookie of the Year).  Most of the four players who came to New York did not do much to erase the sting left by the trade of The Franchise.

Flynn did become the first - and only - second baseman to win a Gold Glove for the Mets when he took home the hardware in 1980, but he was as close to an automatic out with the bat as he could possibly be.  After hitting a respectable .275 in two and a half seasons with Cincinnati, Flynn posted a .234 batting average and .264 on-base percentage during his time in New York.

Norman played sparingly in his four seasons with the Mets, never collecting more than 110 at-bats in any campaign.  Like Henderson, he was a power/speed guy, hitting as many as 17 home runs and swiping as many as 33 bags in a minor league season.  But that never translated at the major league level, as Norman had a total of nine homers and eight steals in 139 games as a Met.

Zachry's promising rookie campaign with the Reds did not blossom into an illustrious career in New York.  Although Zachry was selected to the National League All-Star team in 1980, he never started more than 26 games in any of his six seasons with the Mets because of nagging injuries.  Zachry's 41 wins from 1977 to 1982 did not make anyone forget about another No. 41, and because Zachry wasn't Tom Seaver, he had no chance to be as good as he could have been in New York.

That left Steve Henderson to be "the guy" in the deal.  Manager Joe Torre was adamant that some day the trade of Seaver was going to be known as the Steve Henderson trade.  Henderson actually had a very good rookie campaign in New York in 1977.  Although he didn't make his Mets debut until June 16, Henderson still managed to post a .297/.372/.480 slash line in 99 games.  Henderson also collected 16 doubles, six triples, 12 HR and 65 RBI, while scoring 67 runs for a Mets team that finished with its worst record since Seaver's rookie season in 1967.

Henderson lost out on the Rookie of the Year Award by just one vote to future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, despite posting a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage than the Expos' right fielder.  Henderson also scored more runs, drew more walks and tied Dawson in RBI even though he played in 40 fewer games than the Hawk.

The 1978 and 1979 campaigns were mostly forgettable for the Mets, but quite solid for Steve Henderson, as the young left fielder posted career highs in doubles (30), triples (9) and runs scored (83) in 1978, then followed that up with his first .300 campaign, as he batted .306 for the Mets in 1979.  Clearly, Henderson had become one of the bright stars in New York, even with the team going through its darkest period.

In 1980, the team started to alter its course, as new majority owner Nelson Doubleday hired an experienced general manager with a winning pedigree in Frank Cashen.  Doubleday also enlisted the services of advertising executive Jerry Della Famina to come up with a catchy slogan for the Mets.  "The Magic Is Back" proclaimed to Mets fans that the team's losing ways were coming to an end, and that there would be good times to be had at Shea Stadium in the new decade.  Steve Henderson did his part to contribute to this magical feeling, and did it in a most dramatic and unexpected fashion.

Despite the new slogan, there was nothing that would suggest that the 1980 Mets were going to be a much better team than their 1979 counterparts. The '79 squad needed to win its final six games just to avoid a 100-loss season.  The '80 team appeared headed down that 100-loss road during the season's first month, losing 18 of its first 27 games.  But then something - perhaps something magical - began to happen at Shea Stadium.  The Mets started to win with regularity, going 17-10 over their next 27 games.  And they saved their best for last, winning four games in walk-off fashion over the 27-game stretch.

On June 14, the Mets were trying to pull to within one game of the .500 mark as they hosted the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium.  But after falling behind by five runs going to the bottom of the eighth inning, it appeared as if the team would have to wait another day before continuing their march to the .500 mark.  That is, until Steve Henderson took control of the night's festivities.

The Mets were four outs away from dropping a 6-1 decision to the Giants when Henderson lashed a two-out RBI single off John Montefusco.  It appeared to be a meaningless hit when John Stearns struck out to end the rally, leaving the Mets within four runs of the Giants going into the ninth inning.  Reliever Jeff Reardon struck out the side in the top of the ninth, giving the Mets one last chance to erase the seemingly insurmountable deficit.  But a pair of groundouts sandwiched around a Doug Flynn single left the Mets an out away from defeat with the tying run sitting somewhere on the bench.  The Mets needed, for lack of a better expression, magic to come back against Giants closer Greg Minton.  And magic they received.

With wands shaped like bats, New York mounted a furious comeback.  First, Lee Mazzilli drove in Flynn with a single to make it 6-3.  Then Frank Taveras walked to bring up the tying run to the plate in Claudell Washington.  Washington then singled to center, bringing home Mazzilli and putting the tying runs on base for Henderson.  Giants manager Dave Bristol then called upon reliever Allen Ripley to face Henderson.  Ripley was prone to serving up the long ball, having allowed 20 homers in 150 career innings prior to his tête-à-tête with Henderson. But that was the furthest thing from Bristol's mind when he brought in Ripley because Henderson, surprisingly enough, had yet to go deep in 1980.

After reaching double digits in home runs in two of his first three seasons with the Mets, Henderson had not homered in any of his first 188 plate appearances in 1980.  His strength was in the batting average department, where he was hitting .340 to find himself among the National League leaders.  But with one swing of the bat, Henderson made Bristol pay for doubting his ability to hit with power and proved that at least for one night, the magic was indeed back at Shea Stadium.

(Please scroll to the 50:58 mark of the video to see the full ninth inning or just click on the link above.)

YouTube video courtesy of Larry Arnold/ClassicMLB11 

Henderson's three-run opposite-field homer completed the miraculous five-run rally against the Giants, giving the Mets a thrilling 7-6 victory and moving the team to within one game of the .500 mark.  New York would eventually reach the break-even point in mid-July, but couldn't maintain its good fortune throughout the season, although they did manage to stay out of the NL East cellar for the first time in four seasons.

Steve Henderson finished the 1980 campaign with a .290 batting average, 17 doubles, eight triples, eight home runs and 58 RBI.  He also scored 75 runs and stole a career-high 23 bases.  But by not hitting a home run until mid-June, even though that homer was the liveliest moment for a moribund team, the front office decided that there needed to be a more consistent power threat in the lineup.  After all, no Met had hit as many as 20 homers in a season since Dave Kingman launched 37 blasts in 1976.  With no internal options appearing to be headed toward a 20-homer season, Frank Cashen did what worked for the Mets in the mid-'70s.  He brought Kingman back to New York, trading Henderson to the Chicago Cubs for the surly slugger.

The irony of bring traded for Kingman, another victim of the Midnight Massacre trades conducted by the Mets in 1977, did not escape Henderson.

"It seems every time I get traded, it's for the big guy.  Tom Seaver in 1977.  Now, Dave Kingman."

Henderson was correct.  Seaver was a three-time Cy Young Award winner when he was traded to Cincinnati for a package that included Henderson, while Kingman crushed 111 homers and made the All-Star team twice in the three and a half years he was away from New York.

Upon his return to the Big Apple, Kingman produced the first 20-homer campaign for the Mets in five years when he collected 22 round-trippers during the strike-shortened 1981 season.  He then hit a league-leading 37 homers in 1982.  But by 1983, Kingman had worn out his second visit to New York and was released.  He was later signed by the Oakland A's, producing three seasons of 30-plus homers, the latter two as a teammate of Steve Henderson, who by then was a part-time outfielder and occasional designated hitter.  Henderson spent his final season in the big leagues in 1988 as a member of the Houston Astros, then played in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league system in 1989 until announcing his retirement from professional baseball at age 36.

When Tom Seaver was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds at the trade deadline in 1977, Steve Henderson became one of four players who were asked to fill the huge void left by the departure of The Franchise.  Doug Flynn, Dan Norman and Pat Zachry never became the players the Mets expected them to be.  But Joe Torre knew that Steve Henderson wasn't going to fail, which is why he expected the deal to someday become known as the Steve Henderson trade.  That didn't quite happen, but it wasn't because Henderson didn't become a good player.

Steve Henderson was one of the offensive leaders on a Mets team that didn't have much offense.  During his four years with the Mets, Henderson led the team in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS.  His 31 triples led all Mets players from 1977 to 1980 and only Lee Mazzilli had more hits and scored more runs.  When he played his final game as a Met, Henderson was the team's all-time leader in batting average (min. 1,000 plate appearances).  Henderson was also among the top ten leaders in runs scored, triples, stolen bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, while falling just outside the top ten in hits, doubles, walks and RBI.

Entering the 1980 campaign, the Mets had a new owner, a new general manager and a new attitude, proclaiming that the magic was back at Shea Stadium - magic that had been lost since Tom Seaver's last full season as a Met.  And for one night in mid-June, the magic did indeed come back on the strength of an incredible ninth-inning rally capped off by Steve Henderson's long overdue first home run of the season.  Fans at Shea Stadium on that glorious June evening did not want to leave the park, celebrating until minority owner Fred Wilpon urged Henderson to come back onto the field to acknowledge the euphoric crowd.

For as much as Henderson did in his four years as a Met, no moment was as big as what became known as the "Hendu Can Do" home run.  The Mets were a lousy team from 1977 to 1983, but even a second division squad can have its bright spots.  And that's exactly what Steve Henderson provided on June 14, 1980.  Henderson never quite replaced Tom Seaver in the hearts of Mets fans, but still provided a seminal moment during a time when Mets fans needed something to cheer about.

And it's a moment that still resonates with Mets fans who experienced it.

Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki

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