In Search of the Wild Henderson
When the folks at the National Pastime Museum approved an essay on Rickey Henderson I was thrilled. I was going to write about somebody . . . LIVING! I immediately thought of Gene Wilder cavorting as Dr. Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ classic, Young Frankenstein: “He’s alive! He’s alive!”
My first thought was to contact a friend who could put me in touch with the “Man of Steal.” My second thought was I didn’t know anybody who knew him. Undaunted, I figured I’d reach out to his representatives; surely they’d arrange a connection, be supportive of a brief interview for our prestigious website and newsletter. They were, with a caveat. His fee for speaking appearances, endorsements, and yes, interviews is $10,000.01. I’m not kidding about the .01. Perhaps they figure in negotiation they’ll cave for an even $10,000. Call me negative, but I didn’t think it wise to run this “offer” past TNPM. Somehow, it just didn’t seem cost-effective.
I visualized a compendium of Henderson moments, vignettes, and impressions. Charisma, star quality, and magnetism—the label nets out to the same thing: you’re riveted. Eyes best not or cannot wander. Henderson commands your attention just walking to the plate. He’s built like a premier halfback, which he was in high school. The lower half of his body is ridiculously muscular with legs that might burst thru the Oakland Athletic uniform he seemed poured into. At 5 feet 10 inches, as he took his stance, he appeared 5 feet 3 inches; head scrunched way down in close proximity to his knees. His bat was coiled behind him as he chatted up the catcher and the umpire. A friendly demeanor and disarming smile foreshadowed his brand of torture about to commence. The game and games began.
The pitcher tried to hit the black on the corners of the plate, mixing up pitches, inside-outside, shoulders to knees. That was the strategy anyway. Henderson had serious pop; a mistake could easily land in the seats. He had great plate discipline; he worked the count, spoiling good pitches and waiting for one he could drive. The battle ended in a familiar result, he walked.
His “conversation” continued with the first baseman and the umpire. But Henderson wasn’t really talking. He was reviewing his mental file on the pitcher’s arsenal and delivery; staring at his chest and elbows for directional clues; evaluating and re-evaluating the caliber of his move; estimating the number of steps it would take the first baseman to get back to the bag. He was considering the catcher’s arm strength; the condition of the base paths; and the relative quickness of the second baseman and shortstop to cover second.
All Major Leaguers have athletic talent; they couldn’t have made the Big Show without it. Yet many times the differences between winning and losing are subtle, overlooked, and marginalized. They are far more mental than physical. They involve minute adjustments, creativity, the unexpected, whether at-bat or in the field. Within this construct, Henderson embodied the phrase game changer.
He was always smiling and nodding, often to no one in particular. Don’t believe it. He was processing all the data surrounding him, combined with the instincts of a feral cat deciding when to pounce. No one, on the field, in the dugout, in the broadcast booth, or in the stadium, was more focused. All knew he was going to go, try to get his team in scoring position, but only he knew when. He took his customary five-step lead, motionless, fingers twitching slightly above the deck.
The throws kept going over, the pitcher reminding all he was very aware of who was on first. As if we needed reminding. After attempts to keep him close, Henderson resumed the same lead, staring back with that gap-toothed grin—a whippet straining on a self-imposed leash. The pitcher, understandably worried about the constant movement over his shoulder, threw wide of the strike zone; the count mounted. His batterymate went to the mound and implored, “Settle-down; concentrate on the hitter.” He did.
On the next pitch, before the catcher could get off a throw, Henderson was on second. Olympian power sprinter, head down, legs churning like pistons, arms swinging in perfect synchronicity. He slid headfirst into second in slightly over three seconds. His spikes caught the edge of the outer bag, providing an anchor lest his momentum carry him past the base.
He shot a grin at the mid-infielder waiting for the ball that never came. He took a commanding lead. The next pitch was hit to the right side of the infield. The good news—it was an easy out; the bad news—Henderson was now on third. Hurtling at top speed, he was almost always safe, but the third sacker must have thought, how safe am I? Henderson was briefly obscured by a cloud of dust as he slid over the bag. By now, 20 minutes into the game, the amount of dirt on his uniform appeared as if he’d played a triple-header, no doubt an emblem of pride.
Another conference ensued at the mound, as the third hitter settled in the batter’s box. Meanwhile, Henderson was animatedly making small talk with the third baseman, the umpire, his coach; anybody who might respond. If no one did, it was irrelevant. He was his own best listener. He was 90 feet from giving his team the lead.
A few pitches later, a short fly ball or perhaps a grounder and Henderson crossed home standing up. There’s long ball, small ball, and Rickey ball. No hits, Rickey 1, other team 0. Former A’s Manager Tony La Russa referred to it as “The Rickey Rally.” On the way back to the bench, he smiled that damn smile, probably contemplating new and more devious ways to rattle and disrupt the opposition. If you rooted for whichever team Henderson played for, you loved him; if not you hated him. But no one ignored him.
There’s life B.G. and A.G.—Before Google and After Google. Anyone can easily check out everyone’s stats. Nonetheless, here’s a sampling: 24 year career; 10-time All-Star; 297 home runs; 1,115 RBIs (amazing factoring in he almost always led off); all-time leader in runs scored (2,295); AL MVP (1990); single-season record for steals, 130 (1982); a career total of 1,406 stolen bases obliterated Lou Brock’s previous 938.
Henderson’s Hall of Fame (2009) credentials are gilt-edged, blue chip, a quintessential no-brainer. By comparison, this seriously calls into question others elected or vigorously proposed by virtue of friendships, connections, or shameless lobbying worthy of Big Oil. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, George Steinbrenner under the same roof? I digress, sorely tempted to do so, but . . .
Rickey was born in motion, in the backseat of the family Oldsmobile, Christmas Eve, 1958, in the midst of a Chicago blizzard. He simply couldn’t wait to get to the hospital. As he’s oft quoted, “I’ve always been fast.” When his father, John Henley, took off for parts unknown, Mom Bobbie took her then six kids back to Grandma’s farm in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. She went to California in search of work and met and married Paul Henderson. The family moved to Oakland.
At Oakland Technical High, Rickey was all-everything in football, baseball, and basketball. He achieved his greatest acclaim in football. He was first-team all-city running back and second-team all-city linebacker. Henderson was considered the best prospect to emerge from the Bay Area since O. J. Simpson.
Mrs. Tommie Wilkerson, a guidance counselor at Tech, helped keep Rickey in line. In his autobiography, Off Base: Confessions of a Thief, he credits her with giving him inspiration and incentive. Some of her “incentive” included “rewards.” Every time Henderson got a hit or stole a base, this guidance counselor-“GM” gave him a quarter. In one game Henderson had five hits and stole five bases: $2.50 please. A few years later, the denominations for performance well done increased considerably.
Henderson wanted to play football; his mother wanted him to play baseball. Rickey, a self-admitted Momma’s Boy, listened to Momma. It made Bobbie happy; it made Oakland Athletics General Manager Syd Thrift (great name for a negotiator!) perhaps happier. Henderson was drafted in the fourth round.
In 1985, in his first season with the Yankees, Rickey Henderson hit .314 with 24 homers, scored 146 runs and led the American League in stolen bases with 80.
Source: The Cardboard Connection, cardboardconnection.com
He played for nine different teams (1979–2003), most significantly a cumulative 14-year stint with the Oakland A’s, whom he re-joined on three separate occasions. His numerous trades were often fueled by contract disputes and the perception that he wasn’t a “team player”; his physical complaints were excuses/false; he was faking it. When he played for the Yankees (1985–89) many labeled him a showboat, a dumb jock, petulant, and narcissistic. These were very serious charges particularly in a team sport, directed at a superstar, and written by New York sports-writers.
In Off Base, Henderson offers a spirited and persuasive defense. He states all his physical claims of injuries were validated by specialists. He provides their names, credentials, and diagnoses. He reminds us heavily layered musculature, particularly legs, can be more susceptible to pulls, strains, and tears. In addition, the brutal continual beating the lower half of the body suffers, the sprinting and diving headfirst into a base, as well as patrolling the outfield, takes a serious toll. I sense the press was fishing for an angle, some sensationalism. I believe Henderson.
Although I felt the book was somewhat of a tepid read, we do learn some interesting stuff. Henderson loved Billy Martin, his favorite manager by far. He wept when he died. The teammate he had the greatest respect and admiration for was Don Mattingly. Henderson ran into Reggie Jackson at a restaurant when he was in the minors; Henderson asked for his autograph. Jackson refused. Henderson smiled, said someday Jackson would ask for his autograph. At a ceremonial game, a number of years later, Jackson did. He also gave Henderson his autograph.
The most important takeaway Henderson apparently wants the reader to have is a blurb (quote) on the back cover. (Abridged) “I’m not going to hide what I am. If my actions offend anybody, I’m sorry. But I’m not a conformist . . . call me a hot dog, but don’t call me a conformist.” It’s highly unlikely anyone would.
The definition of a five-tool player, Rickey hit for power, hit for average, and displayed fielding ability, throwing prowess, and speed. Rickey had a sixth tool: flair. He saw himself as an entertainer. Showmanship was as much a part of him as his formidable skill set. Sure he talked the talk, but he also walked the walk, figuratively and literally. At one point in his career I felt he was so over the top, he made Reggie seem humble. I now believe Henderson is a very smart guy, a man who understood self-promotion. He gambled that he could deliver, and he did. Success is mostly determined by judgment, the outcome defines the wisdom of a decision. In baseball; in life.
Rickey lives in Fairfield, California, midway between San Francisco and Sacramento. He and wife, Pamela, have three girls, Angela, Alexis, and Adriana. All first letter A’s, leading off the alphabet. He works a bit with A’s minor leaguers, not much else it seems. He doesn’t really have too. Henderson has a net worth of between $25 and $30 million. Not bad for a dumb jock!
I was trying to estimate how many stolen bases he would have if he played today. I came up with between 12 and 15. Way below his yearly average, of course, but we should be reminded this December he’ll be 57.
Will his career stolen-base record be broken? Absolutely! I’m thinking the year 2515. Some designated android stealer from the Galactic Champion Saturn Rings will swipe 1,407. It’ll be a time when drones will play the game, and a ray of light will try to fool robots gripping laser bats. One inning will be considered a “quality start”; players will be suspended for NOT taking metallic steroids; the Cubs will be serious contenders. Until then, Henderson stands alone. He would definitely agree. His HOF plaque is unique. Unlike most Cooperstown residents, grim-faced and stoic, Rickey has a huge smile. It’s hard to look away.
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