SEATTLE -- For 20 years, Rick Rizzs worked with Dave Henderson to distribute gifts to homeless and sick children in the Seattle area through their Toys For Kids program, a charity that grew from a grassroots effort among a handful of Mariners players to a robust service that now brings a little Christmas cheer to thousands around the Puget Sound area.
But while the program is still going strong -- reaching a record number of dollars raised and toys and cash distributed to needy families this winter -- one thing is missing this year: Henderson, who died of a heart attack two days after last Christmas at the age of 57.
"I miss him like crazy," said Rizzs, the longtime Mariners broadcaster who worked with Henderson in the booth as well as with their charity efforts. "It was 21 years ago that Hendu and I were sitting in a bar in Pioneer Square after a game, having a cold beer and watching a news report on TV about the homeless people in Seattle."
From that conversation, pondering how many of those homeless had kids who wouldn't be getting a Christmas present, spawned the idea of raising a little money from Mariners stalwarts like Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson, John Olerud, Norm Charlton, Julio Cruz, Bill Haselman, Matt Sinatro, Bill Krueger and Omar Vizquel, and buying some toys to deliver to homeless and women's shelters.
From the 12 original donors, Rizzs gathered $18,000 and bought about 500 toys that year, then began slowly expanding the plan. By 1999, the Mariners RBI Club offered to conduct an annual auction, and the program has taken off to the point that this year's fundraiser brought in a record $378,000, used to buy more than 8,000 toys distributed through 25 agencies.
"We had no idea where it would take us when we started out," Rizzs said. "Now, we have an impact with homeless kids all over the area who can have a Christmas. We just want to make sure Santa Claus shows up."
And nobody loved being Santa Claus more than Henderson, who would arrive every year for the Christmas giveaways wearing a big Santa hat and his irrepressible smile.
"One of his favorites was the Broadview Women's Shelter," Rizzs said. "We have the kids unwrapping the toys, and the Mariners Moose is there. We give each mom a crisp $100 bill, and it's like we gave them a million dollars. Hendu loved that. He could light up a room with that gap-toothed smile. He loved those moments.
"He was something special. I can't believe he's gone. But I can still see him. Dave's wife, Nancy, and son, Trent, were at our auction last month. Both said they want to do everything Dave did. They have been with me every step of the way. Nancy even brought David's Santa Claus hat. He's still with us, and he'll always be with us."
Rizzs presented the first Dave Henderson Scholarship at this year's auction, giving $5,000 to Franklin High senior Deiosha Sparks to help pay tuition to the college of her choice after she won an essay contest about the importance of education and community service.
Sparks researched who Henderson was and gave a speech at the annual fundraiser at the Bellevue Hyatt, which "she knocked out of the park," according to Rizzs.
"It would have meant everything to Hendu, because this guy was one of the smartest guys I've known in my life," Rizzs said. "He was street smart about what is important in life. He really got it. He was a great player, but so much more than that off the field, the way he took care of his family and his son, Chase [who has Angelman Syndrome].
"He became part of our family, and we became part of his. He would have been so proud of Deiosha. I wish he'd been there to see her face and know her feelings. He'd have loved every second of it."
Those interested in volunteering, donating or learning more about Rizzs' charity can visit www.rickstoysforkids.org.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.