Monday, June 4, 2012

Sharpie Scribbles -- Chapter IV, Dave Henderson

--by Josh Suchon

Note to readers: The feedback on the “You Were Lucky, Hershiser” story was so positive, and triggered so many memories from a childhood where my playground was the Oakland Coliseum, I’ve decided to share more of these stories. I’m blatantly stealing this idea from “Cardboard Gods” author Josh Wilker, who used his baseball card collection to tell the story of his childhood in the 1970s. Wilker gave me his blessing, so I’m going to use my autograph collection to tell the story of my childhood in the 1980s.

When I reflect on my childhood experiences with Dave Henderson, the following items come to mind first:

1, Hendu often wore all-white jump suits and was totally paranoid that our Sharpies would get on his clothing when he stopped to sign autographs in the player parking lot.

2, Hendu had not one, but two fan clubs in the Coliseum bleachers. “Hendu-land” was the last section of bleachers in left-center before the batter’s eye. “Hendu’s Bad Boy Club” was in right-center, a section without stairs going down because the batting cage was below.

3, Hendu had a gap between his front teeth, on display whenever he flashed that awesomely goofy grin. He flashed that grin when he signed my “One Strike from Boston victory” 1987 Fleer card, and somebody asked him about those playoffs.

4, Hendu’s performance in 1988 made me forget about the departure of Dwayne Murphy, one of my favorites and the last remaining member of the A’s 1981 playoff team.

5, Hendu coined the term “Fly Boys” for the two biggest legends in the bleachers.

Mike Kelly and Jay Didier were rock stars among the regulars who showed up for autographs, chased batting practice home runs, cheered on the A’s from the bleachers, stuck around postgame for more autographs, then did it all over again the next day.

Their rock-star status, at least to me, was based on their ability to fly down the stairs. Yes, fly.

They put the open side of their gloves on the railing, bent their elbow so it was pointed down, leaned in, reached back with their bare right hand further up on the railing, and slid down -- knees bent, feet in the air, hair flying.

Their feet never touched the steps. They were a blur. They were down the steps so much faster than everybody else, they’d get just about any ball that didn’t land in the seats.

In my last posting about Curt Young and Rick Honeycutt, I wrote about how Didier was an older guru. You listened to Didier.

You idolized Kelly.  He invented the sliding down the railing technique, and was clearly the best. He was a few years older than me, and was an incredible athlete. I once played catch with him in the parking lot – between autograph time, and BP time, you had to get your arm loose – and couldn’t believe his arm.

Mike Kelly was like Kelly Leak from the Bad News Bears. Kelly even had long hair, like the fictional Kelly.

I wanted to be like Mike.

I wanted to glide down those railings, using just my glove, my feet never touching the steps, hit the ground, find the ball in the air, run underneath it, and catch home runs on the fly. I wanted kids a few years younger than me to idolize me and ask me to show them how I flew down the railing like that.

I went to my high school on weekends – you know, so nobody would see me looking like an idiot -- and practiced trying to slide down railings with my glove.

Try as I might, I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t generate the balance. Couldn’t generate the speed. Couldn’t generate the courage to go that fast, and trust myself that I wouldn’t do a face-plant. I even tried to lather up my glove with oil for better sliding. It didn’t work.

Best I could do is run down about two-thirds of the way, and somewhat slide down the last 4-5 steps. In reality, it was more like me jumping down the last steps than gliding down on a glove.

Kelly and Didier were among a group of about 20 that sat in the same bleacher section each game: second section over from the steps in left field. When the A’s reached the playoffs in 1988, the group didn’t have access to playoff tickets because they weren’t official season-ticket holders, even though they went to every game. The bleachers were sold day-of-game only.

That group wrote a letter to then-A’s owner Walter Haas, explaining their situation and asking for assistance. Not only did Haas make sure they were in the Coliseum for every playoff game, he made sure they were seated in their section and in the first two rows – their usual spot. (Another reason Haas was such a beautiful man and owner.)

This meant Kelly was in the front row, aisle seat, closest to the railing. Didier was next to him.
In Game Three of the 1988 American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, Kelly accomplished something that I have no way to prove is true, but I can’t imagine anybody else has ever equaled: catch three home runs in a single playoff game.

Mark McGwire, Carney Lansford and Hendu hit home runs over the left field wall in about the same area. Kelly, flying down the railing, way before everybody else, ended up with all three. (Ron Hassey, a lefty, pulled his home run to right field.)

I didn’t have tickets for that game. I remember watching it on TV with my dad, seeing the blur that is Kelly flying down the stairs, and thinking, “I bet Mike ended up with all those home runs.”

When I got to the Coliseum the next day for Game Four, my guess was accurate. He got ’em all. Each ball was secured in a separate plastic bag with all the details, and he was trying to get them autographed, just like he did with all his home run balls. The dude was incredible.

Watching Kelly was awesome, yet utterly intimidating. You had so few chances to get home runs -- in batting practice or the game -- because he got so many. And if Kelly didn’t get it, Didier would. You had to pick another section to patrol, but their section was the prime real estate.

My seats varied at the Coliseum. My dad bought 20 games annually from his friend and the seats were incredible -- section 123, row 2, aisle seat 13 and 12 -- just one section over from the A’s dugout.

For the other 20-35 games I would attend with my friends, we’d buy the cheapest seats and bounce around. I loved the first row of the second deck, right behind home plate, for the view of the field and the chance to get foul balls. Another favorite spot was down the left-field line, near the A’s bullpen. We ended up in the bleachers quite a bit too.

I still ended up with about 25 major league balls over a four-year period. By comparison, 25 balls was probably a home stand for Kelly. If the baseball was a brand-new white “pearl,” I’d use it to get autographs. The best part of getting a ball was actually bringing it to Little League practice, asking if somebody wanted to play catch, and waiting for them to notice what kind of ball we were using.

All the baseballs that I obtained were during batting practice. Much to my dismay, I never caught a home run ball.

On opening day 1989, I thought for sure I had my first. My friends and I sat two sections over from The Fly Boys, so we could be in the front row too, and have a better chance.

Facing Dave Stewart in his first major league at-bat, Ken Griffey, Jr. ripped a ball into the left-center gap. Off the bat, I saw it coming right toward us. Without hesitation, I sprinted down the steps, head down so I wouldn’t trip, jumped the last few steps, hit the ground, and realized that I was ahead of everybody. This historic ball would be mine for sure.

Then I realized why I was alone down there. The ball didn’t go over the fence. It one-hopped the wall. It was only a double. When I came back up the stairs, I was mocked for thinking the ball was gone. I couldn’t help it. If I was going to beat “The Fly Boys” for a ball, I had to run before I could judge if the ball was gone or not.

Mike Kelly and Jay Didier were everywhere. I went to spring training with my Dad, and who did I see there? Mike and Jay. 

It seemed like Kelly always had the best 8x10 photos to get signed. You’d usually see the same photos at card shows, but Kelly had photos that I never saw anywhere else. I asked him one day where he gets them, and he told me about a store along the Peninsula, close to where he lived.

By then, my friend Todd Strong had his driver’s license, so we made our way to the store. The selection was heaven. They had 8x10 photos of the stars, the top prospects, and the most random players. They had 8x10 photos of practically every A’s player, including Hendu, so I bought one and got it signed.

Going through the photo binders one day, I did a double-take at the background of an 8x10 Jeffrey Leonard photo. A lot of those photos were taken in spring training. I recognized the Mariners old field in Tempe, and recognized the guy in the background with his shirt off and wrapped around his head.

It was Mike Kelly.

He was everywhere.

That's Mike Kelly under Leonard's arms.

Mark Saxon was the A’s beat writer for The Oakland Tribune from 2000-03. I was the Giants beat writer those four years. Saxon took a job with The Orange County Register after the 2003 season, and I was given the choice of whether to continue covering the Giants or switch to the A’s.

The Giants are the bigger story in the Bay Area by a longshot, but the A’s mean more to The Oakland Tribune. It was a guarantee I’d be above the fold on the front page of the sports section every day. The A’s still had Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito for star power, and I could get away from the circus of covering Barry Bonds every day. The decision was a no-brainer.

Besides, after all those years getting Sharpie Scribbles at the Coliseum, telling World Series heroes they were lucky, chasing Jose Canseco around the parking lot, and having a man-crush (before I knew what a man-crush was) on some dude who slid down the railing named Mike Kelly, it was time to come full-circle and cover the A’s. 

The Coliseum, as my work place, was much different than the Coliseum as my childhood playground.

The renovations to accommodate the Raiders ruined the bleachers. They were never the same. Most of the characters from those days stopped going to games, or sat somewhere else. Still, every day when I was on the field during batting practice, I’d look into the crowd and wonder if I’d ever see Mike Kelly or Jay Didier again.

For four years of my childhood, they were everywhere.

Now, they were gone.

As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t talk about my childhood at the Coliseum very often with work colleagues. I’m sure they didn’t care, I didn’t want them to think I was some closet A’s homer who wasn’t objective, and it’s somewhat embarrassing what a baseball nerd I was back then.

One night though, I think at a bar in Kansas City over multiple vodka and red bulls, I was out with one of the guys from the A’s television crew named David Feldman. The conversation turned to the Coliseum bleachers in the late 1980s. Turns out, he always sat in the same bleacher section with Mike Kelly and Jay Didier.

Feldman didn’t know where the “Fly Boys” are now, but he knew them well back in the day.

We didn’t know each other in the 1980s, mostly because Feldman wasn’t into getting autographs, but we knew many of the same Coliseum Characters, and we’d spent countless nights sitting very close to each other at the Coliseum as teen-agers.

Now, we were on the road with the A’s, talking about Mike Kelly.

What a life.


The last remains of my ball collection from the 1980s.
When I was going through my Sharpie Scribbles recently, I saw Mike Kelly’s name and phone number written on the bottom of the cardboard box that I always brought to games to store my cards.

For over two weeks, I debated whether I should call the number. I knew it was a land-line. Nobody had cell phones back then. I figured it was his parent’s number. I could explain my story, explain this blog, and maybe they would give me his number.

Last night, I finally decided to go for it. I dialed the number. Not surprisingly, nobody at that number knew Mike Kelly. I was actually relieved.

Sure, it would be fun to talk with him, see if he remembered me, reminisce about those good ol’ days, ask how he invented the sliding down the handrail technique, and hear what he’s doing with his life these days.

Then again, what if he was a mess? Or a drug addict? Or fat and unable to play catch? Or worse yet, what if he still went to games and tried to get autographs and home runs balls, and hadn’t cut his hair since the 80s? 

I’d rather remember Mike Kelly as the guy who ruled the Coliseum outfield beyond the fences, the way Dave Henderson ruled the Coliseum outfield inside the fences.

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