AN Interviews Rickey Henderson

April 25, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Former Oakland Athletics player Rickey Henderson high fives Athletics players after the win against the Chicago White Sox at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Chicago White Sox 5-4 in 14 innings. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

What can I say about Rickey Henderson that hasn’t already been said?

Was he really the "greatest of all time?" Well, no one in the history of the game has scored more runs than Rickey. Which is pretty much the point of playing, isn’t it? To score the most runs? And Rickey did that better than anyone else. Ever. Which is a really long time.

Look guys, I can easily turn this post into a smorgasbord of Rickey’s gaudiest accomplishments, of which many of you have already memorized frontwards and backwards and sideways and slantways, and still you would read them again as if it were the first time, smiling that goofy smile until the remains of cereal milk find that tiny crack in your grin and crawls down your chin and onto your laptop or shirt or whatever, and you don’t care because oh my god, he stole one thousand four hundred and six bases!!

But here's the deal, stat nerd: Rickey Henderson transcended the numbers. He did. You can look it up. Well, no. You can’t. But take my word for it. I mean, how else do you explain my 7-year old nephew - born two years after Rickey played his last major league game - perfectly imitating his patented lead from first? And how many of you stopped reading this to do your own Rickey impression? Yeah, that's what I thought.

To promote Pepsi MAX’s Field of Dreams campaign in which fans can vote for their favorite players – and earn an opportunity to play with them – Athletics Nation afforded yours truly the chance to chat with Oakland’s favorite son last Tuesday, which fittingly marked the anniversary of Rickey’s crowning achievement, when he passed Lou Brock for most career stolen bases on May 1, 1991.

Wow, that last paragraph reads like a press release. Let's try that again. I interviewed Rickey Henderson!! I asked questions, and he answered them! I know!

{composes himself}

I was scheduled to talk to Rickey at 11:20AM. At 11:15, I went to my car with my questions and tape recorder, where I could speak to him privately. At 11:37, I returned to my office without hearing from anyone. Three minutes later, my cell phone rang. A lady in charge of Rickey's schedule apologized to me, saying that they were running behind with their interviews, and asked if 12:00 would work for me. I told her yes, but asked her to call my desk phone. At 12:04, she called back, saying they were still behind but she had Rickey on the other line ready to talk to me. She asked if 7 or 8 minutes would be enough. I glanced at my questions. "Sure", I lied. I was hoping for more like 15. I ended up with 12. Which is 12 more minutes than I would ever imagine talking to Rickey Henderson on a Tuesday afternoon. Enjoy.

AN: Before we get into baseball conversation, let’s talk about the Pepsi MAX campaign. I spoke to Rollie Fingers about it last year, and he said you guys had a lot of fun with it. Was this pretty much a no-brainer for you; an opportunity to rub elbows again with other stars you played with and against?

Rickey: Oh yeah, it was a no-brainer. It’s always exciting that you can rub elbows with some of the greatest players who have ever played the game, and just being around the “family” again from baseball. But I’m not on the Field of Dreams team yet. The fans got to go on line and vote for me, and then I’ll have the opportunity to be on that field. But it should be a fun day. I have always had fun playing the game of baseball because I loved it so much, and it would just be another great thing.

AN: I am sure you won’t have any trouble getting votes, Rickey. But let’s talk about some of your defining moments in your playing career, at least from your time in Oakland. This year marks the 30th anniversary of your single-season stolen base record. (editor's note: Rickey’s 130 steals in 1982 would have bested the totals of 21 teams in 2011). With less emphasis on that aspect of the game, is this a record that you see lasting for a long while?

Rickey 1982

Rickey: To me, right now, that seems like a record that’s going to last a long period of time. Basically because the game has changed a lot. You don’t get a player who wants to be a base-stealer, and try to create something on the basepaths. You get a lot of players who want to be versatile, based on being a homerun hitter and a (high) average hitter or different ways to excel at the game. I think from the manager’s side, they got computers now and (they are measuring more closely) the times that a certain guy can run and when they can’t run, and it’s taking away the instincts of the guy who is able to go out and steal bases.

AN: Yeah, and a lot would have to go right for that record to be broken. Obviously you need a guy that gets on base, and a manager willing to let a runner loose. And he has to have the stamina that comes with throwing your body on the ground some 150 times a season. Is there a current player in the bigs that could make a run at your record, if he had his manager’s blessing?

Rickey: Well, when I was in New York, I felt that Jose Reyes, with what he could do on the basepaths, with that blazing speed and the determination, I felt he could steal 100 bases if he put it all together. But right now it’s hard for me to pick somebody because you don’t see any of the kids out there determined to be a base stealer because the game has changed so much, and like you said, they don’t have the freedom. You got some guys out there, like a (Carl) Crawford that can run, but they’re not getting that opportunity. And then again to be a great base stealer, you got to be out there (on the bases) a lot. You can’t steal first base, so I don’t care how much speed you have, you’re not going to steal that many bases.

AN: You played for two pretty good managers here in Billy Martin and Tony La Russa. Talk a little about their styles, what were their strengths through your eyes, and your relationship with each of them.

Rickey-Tony

Rickey: To tell you the truth, I had a great relationship with both of them. I probably had a better relationship with Billy Martin because he was aggressive. He was the type of manager that every day he wanted to find a way to win a ballgame. During his time we didn’t have the power hitters so we had to go out there and manufacture runs, so he gave me the opportunity to steal bases at will because he always wanted to get that guy in scoring position, and he believed in me to be that guy.

Tony La Russa was more of a strategy type manager. He would still let me steal my bases, and he left it up to me. But his time was when there was more studying of the game and he would let that dictate on how he would manage a game.

But both managers had a great instinct for a game and knew how to go about winning a ballgame.

AN: Take me back to June 21 1989. Your Yankees are in fifth place, trying to get to .500. And then comes the call that you have been traded. To Oakland. Not only are you returning home, but you are joining the likes of Canseco, Stewart, Eckersley, and McGwire. Was it like Christmas coming early for you?

Rickey: The first thing for me was that I was going back home. I knew the Oakland A’s had some big boys over there that were hitting homeruns, and they were winning. I was with the Yankees in the last year of my contract, and I was fighting that contract. The negotiations weren’t going as planned, and I was only having a so-so year, not doing the things I was capable of doing.

Then I got the call that some teams were interested in me. First off, it was the San Francisco Giants that called for me. I would have went to the Giants but they wanted me to bat fifth and play right field (editor’s note: um seriously, SF?) and that was something I had never done so I didn’t want to go over there mid-season and play right field.

George Steinbrenner was out of town at the time and he said to some reporters that by the time he got home he better have some pitchers. And the A’s came through with some pitchers, and they made the deal. It was a new life to me, to go back home. I knew what was back home. I knew the fans and the players, and knew they would have my back, and that we were going to have a good time.

AN: And of course you made the playoffs and World Series your personal playground. Was that the most fun you ever had as a player, considering the importance of those games?

Rickey 1989

Rickey: That was the most exciting time for me, a dream come true. This is what we play for, to get to the post season and to the World Series, and it was my first real opportunity. Earlier in my career in a split-season, we played the Yankees but it wasn’t as exciting to me at the time.

But this was my time to win it, especially after everything that happened earlier in the season in New York. I don’t think I could have dreamt it up any better than how things went, of being at my peak at just the right time, and have everything go my way.

AN: Kids- even those who have never seen you play- know you and imitate you. Who were the players that you emulated or looked up to when you were growing up?

Rickey-Reggie

Rickey: To tell you the truth I patterned myself after Reggie Jackson. I wanted to have that same swing and hit some homeruns. When I was down in A-ball, I was trying to be Reggie Jackson and I was striking out all the time. And I was like, ‘This isn’t the way Reggie is doing it, so I got to change.’

And a good friend of mine took me out and had me hit off a tee. He made me understand what was my strike zone and - with my speed - the importance of making contact. So I give him a lot of credit for changing my game and making me the player I became. He showed me how to work on me and my game, and not worry about patterning myself after someone else and focusing on what they were capable of doing rather than what I was capable of doing.

AN: I saw you in Arizona this past March and watched you sign autographs for nearly an hour. As a player you made a point of reaching out to fans, even chatting with them during games. Why was that connection to the fans so important to you?

Rickey with fans

Rickey: I don’t think some of the players understand what the people are about. The people are coming out to show you their appreciation of the game, and the player that you are.

And I think that when I was growing up – like I said, my favorite player was Reggie Jackson – and I never got the opportunity to get an autograph from Reggie. I was so frustrated. I mean, he was my idol. And I couldn’t get no autograph. I would go through punishment waiting on him (after games) because he was always the last guy to come out. And I would go back home with no autograph.

So I told myself that if I ever make it to the big leagues that I would be the one to appreciate the fans. Take a little time out to sign autographs and shake their hands and say hello to them.

(editor’s note: I did not have the heart to tell Rickey that I did get Reggie’s autograph. On my birthday.)

AN: And we appreciate you appreciating us, Rickey. Thank you for your time today.

Rickey: Thank you. And don’t forget to tell those fans out there to vote for Rickey.

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