A Mets “Magic Moment” Turns 30

The date June 14th, as a sports fan, holds significance for me personally.  Sixteen years ago today, the New York Rangers beat the Vancouver Canucks in a seven game series on home ice to end their then-54 year Stanley Cup drought.  I always remember dancing in the streets (literally) by Madison Square Garden with fellow Rangers fans, high-fiving cops and chanting on the train ride back to the Jerz.

I have always described myself as a Mets fan first, baseball fan second and a Rangers fan third, but rooting for that team then, the Stanley Cup Championship team was truly a memorable one.

However, I am ashamed to admit that I almost forgot it was the 30th anniversary of a significant Mets event as well today.  Now, class, raise your hands if you are old enough to remember what in the Mets lexicon is known as the “Hendu Walk-off?”

I am dating myself, but I do remember it, only by technicality.  I’ll get to that towards the end of this column, since I am writing this column for history, remembrance, and to remind Mets fans what we all have even when times are tough…and that thing is “hope.”

To get to this evening, we must go back to a date that most Mets fans would like to choose to forget, and that is June 15, 1977 (33 years ago tomorrow), otherwise known as the “Midnight Massacre.”  The Franchise himself, Tom Seaver was traded to the Cincinnati Reds.  What gets muddled in that trade is that the Mets did get four players in return, however paltry or nonsymbolic they may have been since Seaver could never truly be replaced.  Those four players were Pat Zachry, Dan Norman, Doug Flynn and one Steve Henderson.

Even on Steven Curtis Henderson’s Wikipedia page, his opening lines to his bio include being well-known for being part of the contingent returned to the Mets in the Midnight Massacre trade.  However, that diminishes his career, where he was a decent major league ball player.  His major league debut was June 16, 1977, for the Mets where he scored a run in a Mets win.  In 497 games over four season for the Mets, Henderson had a line of .280/.352/.418.  He wasn’t exactly lauded for his power over those years, with 35 HRs and 227 RBIs.  However, he played on some notoriously horrific Mets teams in those years.  Lifetime over 12 seasons, his line was a respectable .280/.352/.413.  Last we saw of him in baseball, he was a coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, earning an American League Championship with them in 2008.

In a year when the Mets were sold by the Payson legacies the de Roulets to the Doubleday/Wilpon consortium for the then-staggering price of $21.1 million, Job #1 in 1980 was to get fans back in the seats.  How so?  Let’s run a major ad campaign: “The Magic Is Back!”  The Mets were on a winning streak at one point, and winning games they by all accounts should have been losing, under Joe Torre’s managerial reign in June of that year.

On Saturday, June 14, 1980, Mets fans filled just under half the stadium (according to Matt Silverman’s 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, the exact number was 22,918), only to see them on the wrong end of what seemed to be a blow out, 6-0, very early on in the game.

Also according to Silverman’s chapter on this particular night, there was a promotion on the old screen called “fan of the game,” with the tune “This Magic Moment” by Jay & the Americans, setting the tone for what would indeed become a “magic” sort of night.

By the ninth inning, the Mets managed to scrape together three runs to bring the rally gods out a bit, still losing to the San Francisco Giants, 6-3.  Outfielder Claudell Washington singled in a run, making the score 6-4, when fans started to once again believe.  When Steve Henderson came to bat, the Giants brought in a new pitcher to face him.

With two men on base, the non-power hitter Steve Henderson hit an opposite field three-run home run to win the game in the 9th inning, 7-6.  I think it’s also noteworthy that up until that at-bat, Henderson had not had a home run since July of 1979.

The Magic Is Back?  “This Magic Moment?”  Mets fans that night, whether they watched in the stands or at home knew one thing was certain: magic was certainly in the air.  If it was fleeting, so be it.  With this team’s history, miracles were the rigeur du jour.  Hendu’s walk off made it possible TO believe again, and made Mets baseball engaging and fun after years in the dark.

Why is the Hendu walk-off significant in my memory?  I generally tell people I became a Mets fan in 1983 when some dude named Keith was traded to the Mets (27 years ago tomorrow).  My dad and I would watch games on the old WOR Channel 9, and if my dad liked someone, I liked them too.  I did not go to my first Mets game until the next season, when a kid named Doc would take the mound at moments that always seemed like a rock concert event.

Technically though, my parents attempted to take me to my first game the day after the Hendu walk off.  As legend has it, they got lost in Chinatown, got in an argument, and headed back to Jersey.  Yeah, the promises of a Mets doll or Mets stuffed animal for me were gone, but replaced with a trip to McDonald’s instead.  Hey, I was four years old, what was the difference?  My mom could have promised me a corn dog and lemonade from my favorite stand at the Woodbridge Mall, and I would have been happy.  Indirectly speaking, however, a quarter of the Mets return from the Midnight Massacre is responsible for my being a Mets fan today, and that would be Steve Henderson.

The themes here are prevalent.  Yes, the Midnight Massacre was awful, thankfully I was too young to experience it.  I did feel the aftershocks of said trade for years after that.  As Mets fans though, we’ve all learned that after darkness comes light.  Steve Henderson’s walk off home run that “magic” night provided a glimmer of hope that would shine just enough to get our attention, but provide a bridge to the success of the late-’80s.

On the night Steve Henderson was traded to the Mets in 1977, Dave Kingman was also traded.  In the going-into-1981 offseason, the Mets traded Henderson to get Kingman back.  Just six years after Henderson’s trade to the Mets, Keith Hernandez’s trade for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey would launch the comeback years, where dramatic walk off fashions were the norm.

Mets fans, let’s tip our caps and raise a glass to Steve Henderson, the Hendu Can Do Walk Off Memories, and the New York Mets.  What’s a Mets fan got to do, if not to BELIEVE???  For this brief magic moment, they all did just that.