"If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall-of-Famers."
- Bill James, on Rickey Henderson
I ask you, how does one turn down a request like this?
- Short answer: one doesn’t.
- Long answer: keep reading.
Rickey Henderson burst onto the big-league scene in the summer of 1979. He was a breath of fresh air to an A’s team that was headed to a 108-loss season, and a fan base starving for a superstar since Reggie was traded to Baltimore in 1976. For a certain 12-year old, Rickey represented something greater: hope. Over the next quarter-century, we saw the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly that characterized his career. One thing it never lacked for was excitement.
To ensure you get your money’s worth, this epic- even by my standards- tribute features a story within the story, beginning with Oakland’s favorite son hanging out at his home-away-from-home (plate).
The slugger stands at the plate, wielding the lumber that is at least half responsible for the MVP award he won the year before. The score is 4-3, in favor of the slugger’s team, and with two men on and no one out in the fifth inning of Game 3 of this rudely interrupted World Series, one mighty swing from the slugger can break this contest wide open.
And yet the pitcher’s most nagging concern isn’t the slugger at the plate, but the 31-year old on second base. How he got there was old hat for the homegrown star, who had returned to his roots four months prior.
He reached base via a leadoff walk and, on a 2-1 count, stole second with that familiar head-first slide. It was his eleventh swipe of these playoffs; no one before or since has demonstrated such thievery in a single post-season.
With the slugger settled in, the speedster steps off the same bag he made his own just moments before. The pitcher, stuck squarely between baseball’s equivalent of a rock and a hard place, flinches towards second, looks to the plate, back at the runner, and then throws his first pitch. Popped up, foul. The camera catches the would-be base stealer, eyes wide. He struts off second, arms swaying. He spits twice.
The pitcher goes through the same routine as before: look, flinch, look, pitch. Ball one. Another look, and this time a fake throw. Then to the plate. Ball two. Halfway to walking his third straight batter. Somehow realizing that maybe he should focus on the guy at home plate, the hurler gives only a passing glance at the runner before firing a strike to even the count.
Perhaps the brief disregard of the man behind him was merely a ploy, meant to lull his adversary to sleep, and the pitcher suddenly spins and throws towards second, nearly picking off the bothersome baserunner who just gets back to the bag standing up. Surely feeling a little more daring, the reliever once again tries to catch the thief napping, but he slides back in safely.
Now the pitcher gives a long, hard look at his nemesis, puts his head down, and glares again. He flinches, but clearly the rodent has the upper hand in this cat-and-mouse charade. The baserunner flashes a grin as he glides backwards towards second, adjusting his helmet along the way. Without question, he is enjoying the attention.
Once more the unfortunate soul on the mound looks at the runner, then to the plate, back at second base, and finally at the slugger, to whom he grooves a fastball that gets crushed over the left field fence for a three-run homer.
Of all the things that went right in Oakland’s Giant sweep of the 1989 World Series, that has to be one of my favorite moments. And yet that was just Rickey doing what Rickey does, and always did. Those wonderful subtleties that somehow transcended the mind-numbing numbers he left behind. Rickey on the bases was Bonds at the plate: whether you loved or loathed him, you watched.
From the very beginning, Rickey Henderson knew his way to- and around- the bases. Drafted and signed by the A’s right out of Oakland Tech High School in 1976, Rickey spent the next three-plus years burning up the minor leagues. In 384 games with Boise (A-), Modesto (A+), Jersey City (AA), and Ogden (AAA), he sported a .325 batting average and a .444 on-base percentage, while scoring 301 runs and stealing 249 bases (he swiped seven in a single game for Modesto).
Rickey, speaking during his record-breaking season in 1982 on where he learned the trade that would make him the game’s most prolific baserunner:
"I really learned how to steal bases at Modesto in 1977. They taught me how to transfer my weight there and what to watch for in the pitcher. I used to lean a lot and get caught off base. I stole 95 bases that year. I learned the headfirst slide in '79, when I was playing for Ogden in Triple A. Guy named Mike Rodriguez taught me how to do it. He wasn't really a base-runner type. He was more of a home-run hitter. But he knew about sliding. When I tried sliding headfirst before, I'd almost stop and dive at the base. I kept banging up my shoulder that way. He taught me to do it all in one motion. I think the headfirst is quicker than feet first. You're using your momentum, and I think there's less wear and tear on the body, particularly the legs."
Called up to the major-league club on June 24, 1979, Rickey doubled in his first at-bat off John Henry Johnson (who had been traded by Oakland to Texas just nine days earlier). Two innings later, he singled and pilfered second base, the first of 1,406 lifetime steals. In his fourth game, Rickey scored his first of 2,295 career runs. Yes, it was quite the week of firsts for this future Hall-of-Famer.
Mitchell Page, the player that Rickey replaced in the outfield in 1979:
"It wasn't until I saw Rickey that I understood what baseball was about. Rickey Henderson is a run, man. That's it. When you see Rickey Henderson, I don't care when, the score's already 1-0. If he's with you, that's great. If he's not, you won't like it."
Anticipation of the 1980 season ran rampant in Oakland, what with new owners, a new manager, and a full year of Rickey. Unleashed by Billy Martin, Henderson stole exactly 100 bases. In addition to becoming just the third player to reach the century mark in steals, he broke Ty Cobb’s American League record of 96, which had stood since 1915.
After a strike-shortened season in which he led the league in steals for the second straight year while sparking the A’s to the American League West title, there seemed to be no ceiling for this rising star. Indeed. With a unique batting stance Rickey was always a threat to reach base, and once there, the fun really started. Dave Duncan, Cleveland’s pitching coach in 1981:
"You have to be careful because he can knock one out. But you don't want to be too careful because he's got a small strike zone and you can't afford to walk him. And that's only half the problem. When he gets on base he's more trouble still."
Offensively disruptive, Rickey impressed in the field, too. He won a Gold Glove in 1981 and- with Dwayne Murphy in center, and Tony Armas in right- made up one-third of what was widely considered the best outfield in baseball.
As the 1982 campaign approached Rickey set his sights on the World Series and the single-season stolen base record. While the team aspiration fell way short (the A’s lost 94 games and placed fifth in the division), Lou Brock’s mark of 118 steals never had a chance. The race was nearly over by the All-Star Break as Rickey made off with 84 bases; only one player since 1988 has totaled that many over a full season (I’ll give you one guess as to who that is). After a controversial episode kept him from breaking the record at home (I was there; believe me, it was an ugly scene), the record fell in Milwaukee on August 27. He walked with two outs in the third inning and with 41,600 patrons cheering him on, Rickey stole second base- on a pitchout. Number 119! For good measure he added three more steals that evening, and finished the season with a barely-approached 130.
After an 11-8 defeat of the California Angels on July 26 in which Henderson stole two bases, had a single, double, homer, two RBIs and scored three times, he received some high praise from a player he once idolized, Reggie Jackson:
"I'm tied for the league lead in home runs but I'd fear him more than me."
And this from teammate and captain Dwayne Murphy after Rickey secured the stolen-base record:
"You know, every day now for the past two weeks when I've seen Rickey take off, I've felt chills run through me. It's been that exciting."
There was concern that Rickey’s need for speed had an adverse effect on other aspects of his game. But the game’s greatest leadoff hitter shrugged off the criticism the following season- which for the first time since 1979 did not include Billy Martin as A’s manager- as he hiked his average up from .267 to .292 and his on-base percentage from .398 to .414. And while he still found time to become the first major-leaguer to reach 100 stolen bases in three different seasons (with 108 in ’83), he was only caught stealing nineteen times; a far cry from forty-two the year before.
After leading the league in walks in back-to-back seasons, Rickey reluctantly introduced new elements to his game. A’s manager Steve Boros, who called for Rickey to utilize all his talents:
"Perhaps he shouldn't think as much about walks. I believe Rickey has the ability to hit 20 homers and drive in 70 runs and steal 100 bases."
Oh, he still did the usual Rickey things (.293/.399, 113 runs scored) but he walked a un-Rickey like 86 times, and stole "only" 66 bases (still good enough to pace the American League). While those numbers went down, Rickey reached career highs in homeruns (16), RBI’s (58), and slugging percentage (.458).
And then he was gone. Just a few weeks before Christmas, 1984, the A’s shipped Rickey off to the Big Apple. In return Oakland received Tim Birtsas, Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Eric Plunk, and Jose Rijo. Having been too young to fully experience the Reggie trade, seeing Rickey Henderson sent to the New York Yankees was the worst kind of hurt imaginable, in that losing-your-best-friend sort of way. Such sentiments were not shared by Rickey’s former teammates who offered a few parting shots:
The A's said they had to trade Henderson because they couldn't afford him. But there was more to it than that. Henderson had filed for arbitration three straight years, and when he lost last season and had to struggle along with a $950,000 salary, he let the decision affect his play. Quite simply, he dogged it at times… According to teammate Steve McCatty, "One game he didn't play he spent the whole time in street clothes playing cards. When this guy takes a day off, he takes it literally."
As he often did, Rickey let his performance answer for him, and his first year in pinstripes was historically special: .314/.419/.516, a league-best 146 runs scored and 80 stolen bases (only ten times caught stealing), 24 homeruns, and 99 walks. He broke a 71-year old club record for steals, scored the most runs since Ted Williams in 1949, and became the first player since Lou Gehrig to amass more runs than games played. Not bad company to keep. He was also the first American Leaguer to hit 20 homeruns and steal 50 bases in the same year (only Rickey and Eric Davis have 20-80 seasons). Maybe Steve Boros was on to something after all.
Henderson crushed a career-high 28 homeruns in 1986, again led the American League in runs (130) and steals (87), but saw his other numbers slip (.263/.358/.469). He blamed some of that on a high strike zone but the umpires struck back in kind:
Respected crew chief Jim McKean acknowledges that umpires are finally defining the Henderson strike zone not by his crouch—which gives a pitcher only a few inches to work with—but by where he stands when he hits the ball. "A lot of people have thought we should have done that years ago," says McKean. But Henderson's problem with the umps is even larger than his new strike zone. "He ticks everyone off," says one ump. "We're all sick and tired of his showing us up and slowing down the game by stepping out on every pitch. He told us, 'we’re gonna have a meeting,' and we just laughed. No matter what he thinks, the game wasn't created for him."
That aside, Rickey was seen as otherworldly from his peers. Boston catcher Rich Gedman at the 1986 All-Star Game:
"He's built like Superman. When you play against him, you try to say, 'Don't let him bother you,' because there are times there is nothing you can do to stop him from doing whatever he wants to do. He's from another planet. Unfortunately, you can't help thinking about him. We're only human."
In 1987, Rickey played in only 95 games, and his seven-season reign as stolen base king came to an end. Once again, the whispers surfaced of his desire, or lack thereof, which landed him in Lou Pinella’s doghouse every now and then. But after a heart-to-heart with his fiery manager in August, Rickey- in a style that was downright Yogi-ish- stated his troubles with the boss were a thing of the past:
"We'll let bye-byes be bye-byes."
Focusing on what Rickey did best, he re-captured the crown in 1988 with 93 steals (again, no one has approached that since), while his former team bashed its way into the World Series. Individual accolades aside, Rickey longed to add a ring to his resume.
And so it was on June 21, 1989 that the speedster joined the slugger(s), as the A’s brought Rickey home in a stirring trade that squashed Reggie’s return in 1987 on the excitement scale. In his third game back- and on the tenth anniversary of his big-league debut- the speedster became the slugger, crushing a two-run homer in Oakland’s 7-1 win over Toronto (the A’s first since the Rickey Reunion).
Came the playoffs and Rickey was a one-man wrecking crew, hitting and walking and running and strutting his way to the ALCS MVP. The numbers- 6-for-15, seven walks, two homeruns, fifteen total bases, eight steals, eight runs scored- only tell half the story. Oakland-born Blue Jay Lloyd Moseby tells the other half:
"Rickey hasn't changed since he was a little kid. He could strut before he could walk, and he always lived for the lights. When he was 10, we used to say, 'Don't let Rickey get to you, because that's his game.' Twenty years later, I'm telling my teammates the same thing. But it didn't do much good."
Oh Rickey got to them, all right, ruffling more than a few blue jay feathers. For which he was unapologetic, to say the least, but he was surely prophetic:
"If they think my stealing is hotdogging," he said to reporters, "I tell you what I'll do: Tomorrow I won't run. I'll just hit a couple of home runs—and go as slowly around the bases as they want."
As he did in the ALCS, Rickey hit for the "cycle" in his first-ever World Series as Oakland swept San Francisco. It took ten years but Rickey could now add World Champion to an already incomparable list of achievements.
Fresh from showcasing his many talents on baseball’s biggest stage, one had to wonder what Rickey Henderson would do for an encore. He answered in resounding fashion. In winning the 1990 American League Most Valuable Player award, Rickey posted career-highs in batting (.325), on-base percentage (a league-leading .439), and slugging (.577).
He hit 28 homeruns (equaling his best output) and topped the Junior Circuit in runs (119) for the fifth (and final) time and in stolen bases (65) for the tenth (but not the last) time. His twenty-second steal of the season was the 893rd of his career, surpassing Ty Cobb’s long-standing league record. All this and a third straight trip to the World Series for Rickey’s A’s.
Rickey entered the 1991 season with 936 career stolen bases, just two shy of Lou Brock’s major-league record. Passing the legend was going to be anything but easy. Having been thrown out twice in four of his last attempts during the previous season’s final week, Rickey swiped Number 937 on Opening Day, then was caught stealing in each of the next two games. A 15-day trip to the disabled list further delayed his date with destiny. On April 28- his second game back- he singled in the first inning, only to be gunned down at second base. In the sixth, Rickey was hit by a pitch, and this time he got his bag, tying Brock in the process. Two days later- May 1- same song, different verse. He walked leading off the first, and with 36,139 at the Coliseum cheering his every move, he was pegged at second by Yankee catcher Matt Nokes. Undeterred, Rickey reached on an error in the fourth, moved to second on a single, and shortly after took off for third. Safe! As he had done with so many other record-breaking steals, Rickey pulled up the bag and raised it triumphantly above his head.
The man who would be king (as announced by a King) went on to his eleventh stolen base crown in twelve seasons. Exactly one year after taking the baton from Brock, Rickey led off a game in Detroit with a double. He promptly stole third base, the 1,000th of his career. While his on-base and walk numbers were still Rickey-esque, he was having trouble staying healthy. 1992 marked the third straight season that he reached a career-low in games played (discounting 1981, a strike year). As he had encountered in the last year of his first go-around in Oakland, and again during his final days in New York, there were questions surrounding Rickey’s attitude. And we all know how Rickey responds to such talk.
The first ninety games of 1993 saw the Rickey of old (.327/.469/.553, 77 runs, 31 steals, only six times caught) but the A’s- winners of four division titles in their previous five seasons- were just simply old. Mired in last place in the AL West at the trade deadline, the A’s shipped Henderson north of the border to the Toronto Blue Jays for Steve Karsay and Jose Herrera. Fifty-six games in Canada, including playoffs, earned Rickey his second World Series ring, but he was right back in Oakland the following Spring.
After two uneventful seasons, Rickey joined the San Diego Padres for two more ho-hum campaigns. He finished the 1997 season in Anaheim before signing on for a fourth go-around with the A’s. Showing he still had a little left in the tank, Rickey played in 152 games, and walked a league-high 118 times. Oh, and he swiped 66 bases, to earn his twelfth stolen-base crown- an amazing eighteen years after his first, and seven since his last title. While his style of play was less glamorous than in years past (and was no doubt buried beneath the Great Home Run Race of ’98), Rickey was simply born to run:
"You have to be a little crazy to love the challenge of stealing bases as much as I do. I remember when I was in Little League, my grandmother told me that if I came home with a clean uniform, I didn't really play baseball. There just aren't that many guys left who believe that."
After leaving Oakland via free agency, Rickey played parts of five seasons, for five different teams: the New York Mets, Seattle, San Diego, Boston, and Los Angeles. It was during his second stint with the Padres that he picked up his 3000th hit, passed Babe Ruth for most career walks (he was later supplanted by Barry Bonds), and became the all-time leader in runs scored.
After a brief dip into the Atlantic League (where representing the Newark Bears he won the All-Star Game MVP), the Dodgers picked him up. It was in the third inning of a late summer night in Los Angeles that he stole the 1406th- and last- base of his career. On September 19, 2003, Rickey Henderson played his final major-league game. He entered the seventh inning as a pinch-hitter, was hit by a pitch, went to second on a sacrifice bunt, and scored on a single. His last run. And it was a Rickey Run at that.
His career numbers read like a cartoon strip, although anyone who had the displeasure of facing him would not be amused. Forget the .279 average; his on-base-percentage was .401 (curiously, that was his exact OBP for both AL and NL games played). In 3081 games, he reached base 5,343 times (3,055 hits, 2190 walks, 98 hit-by-pitch), which he turned into (worth mentioning again) 1,406 stolen bases and 2,295 runs. He is the all-time steals leader for both the A’s and the Yankees; two of baseball’s most storied franchises. He drove in 1,115. Of his 297 homeruns, a record 81 of them led off a game (including both games of a doubleheader July 5, 1993). He also hit five walk-off homers (all with Oakland, second only to Reggie).
Though critics claimed that Rickey was more about Rickey than the team, wins seemed to follow him. Aside from his two World Series rings, the 10-time All-Star played in seven League Championship Series, with five different teams.
But the man did not want to stop playing. So he didn’t. He returned to Newark in 2004, then finished out his ball-playing career with the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the Golden Baseball League. Naturally, San Diego won the league championship.
This Christmas Rickey will turn 50. But he will always be that 31-year old to me. At the absolute top of his game, on the game’s grandest stage. Twinkle in eyes, laughing, strutting, stealing, and scoring. Perhaps the best part of Rickey was that, regardless of how many other teams he played for, he was surely Oakland’s. And his career came late enough and lasted long enough for A’s followers of almost all ages to enjoy him. He wasn’t the reason I became a fan; no I inherited this ball club from my parents and older siblings. But Rickey was the reason I enjoyed them just a little bit more.
And his Hall-of-Fame induction is the reason I have blocked out a weekend trip for Cooperstown next July. It will be a big year for Rickey as it marks the 30th anniversary of his first game and the 20th anniversary of Oakland’s last World Series triumph. I have to assume a number-retiring ceremony is in the works (but which number?). And there is still the possibility of a return to the A’s in some capacity.
For Rickey Henderson there are no more bases left to steal, or to hold high above his head for that matter. No more records to break. Just one big speech left.
From a man who so often left us speechless.