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LEADING MAN AGELESS HENDERSON CONTINUES TO DO WHAT HAS COME SO NATURALLY.

SAN DIEGO - The 1989 World Series was ready to resume after an earthquake had shut down the Bay Area for 11 days. It was fitting that Rickey Henderson would provide the final aftershock.

Standing at the batting cage before Game 3 at the Oakland Coliseum, Henderson announced to the world and his Oakland A's teammates that he would be returning to the New York Yankees as a free agent the next season.

There were no maybes to his rambling. He'd jump out of the batter's box after taking his swings and start all over again.

``That's where Rickey belongs,'' said Henderson, who had been traded by the Yankees in June of that year. ``They never wanted to get rid of me. It will be great to go back there.''

With the A's two games from beating the San Francisco Giants, Henderson seemed to have his head in the wrong game. Words like focus and distraction followed him around the rest of the series - and his career.

It was the moment that probably best illustrates Henderson's long and controversial career. Despite those comments, the A's went on to sweep the Giants in four games. Henderson batted .474. He wound up staying in Oakland and was named American League Most Valuable Player the next year.

And when he steps onto the field tonight with the San Diego Padres to begin a critical three-game series with the Dodgers, Henderson will be much more than a history lesson.

Although he has moved within 15 hits of 3,000 and nine runs of Ty Cobb's all-time record of 2,245, Henderson will be batting leadoff and trying to keep the Dodgers from reaching the postseason. Already this year, Henderson has passed Babe Ruth's mark for walks (2,062).

But in the past month, Henderson has been an offensive catalyst for the Padres, who have six games remaining with the Dodgers.

Since Aug. 20, he has reached base safely 27 times in 52 plate appearances (nine hits, 27 walks), a whopping .519 on-base percentage.

``That's what makes me feel best,'' Henderson said Sunday. ``The records are something that I'll think about when I'm retired. But to still be contributing at this point and playing at a high level when a lot of people had counted me out is very satisfying.''

Despite Henderson's Hall of Fame, 23-year career, that day in Oakland 12 years ago helped create a me-first perception that never brought him the respect accorded Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. or teammate Tony Gwynn. Both are retiring at the end of the season and have spent the past few months taking a victory lap around baseball.

Ripken and Gwynn played for the same team their entire careers. Henderson is playing for his seventh franchise, including four tours with the A's. When he had no takers after Seattle released him at the end of the 2000 season, Henderson signed with San Diego and started the year in the minors.

``'No one has ever given Rickey the respect he is due,'' former A's teammate Dwayne Murphy said. ''You can't take away what he has done between the lines, but there was always more being made about things that rubbed people the wrong way. It happened with his teammates, too. A lot didn't understand that maybe he didn't need to take batting practice as long as he was up for the game.

``But there are not a lot of guys walking around with two World Series rings. Judge him on his work.''

It hasn't always been easy.

His first two years with the Yankees (1985-86) were some of his best, averaging 138 runs and 84 stolen bases.

But despite a lineup that included Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly, the Yankees did not win. Then Henderson suffered a leg injury in 1987 and played just 95 games. Although he played another 1 1/2 seasons in New York, more was made about his injuries and showboating than his talent.

``He clearly is the best leadoff hitter of all time,'' said former teammate Willie Randolph. ``It is very rare to find a player of his physical skills. Rickey is a great, great player. Like a lot of great players, they want to be heard, they want to be taken seriously. That bothered him. I don't think management was showing him the right kind of respect.''

It took Henderson just 12 years to break the stolen-base mark (938) that Lou Brock needed 20 years to set. But with Brock on hand the day the record fell, Henderson's now infamous ``I am the greatest'' speech came off as conceited and self serving.

Brock, a gracious man who is revered in St. Louis 20 years after his retirement, said nothing, but close friends say he was upset by Henderson's display.

Henderson is the career leader with 78 first-inning, leadoff homers, the same number as the next two, Brady Anderson (43) and Bobby Bonds (35) combined.

Yet, it was his incredibly slow home run trot that often infuriated opposing pitchers and added to Henderson's reputation as a showboat.

Although he led the New York Mets with a .315 average two years ago, he was released last season after failing to run out a ball he thought was a home run. The ball hit the fence and he was limited to a single. Henderson was the only Mets player who did not receive a ring for winning the National League pennant last season.

It didn't help that Henderson and teammate Bobby Bonilla were found playing cards in the clubhouse during the 1999 postseason.

``If a team wants to get rid of you, they are going to get rid of you,'' said Bonilla, now with the St. Louis Cardinals. ``But there is no way the Mets would have gotten to the World Series without Rickey Henderson. It's not fair that all they remember is the negative.''

This season he reached 20 stolen bases for a record 23rd consecutive season. But it was his stolen base late in a blowout victory over Milwaukee that angered Brewers manager Davey Lopes, a good friend and former Padres coach.

``I just got caught up in the moment and so did he,'' Henderson said. ``We're fine now. We've talked on the phone a couple of times.''

Although he idolized the late Billy Martin and loved playing for Tony La Russa, Henderson often grappled with his own managers, including Lou Piniella (New York Yankees and Seattle) and Bobby Valentine (New York Mets).

``The secret with Rickey was to keep it real,'' said La Russa, now the manager in St. Louis. ``Even though he did things that aggravated people, you never had to worry about his focus. He always was in incredible shape and nobody worked harder to stay that way. He didn't drink or smoke. And he was always a gentleman.''

Henderson's fitness level for a player who will turn 43 on Christmas is astounding. Even now, his percentage of body fat is less than 10 percent despite a daily breakfast of bacon and eggs.

He spends the offseason at his ranch in Northern California with his wife and three daughters, working more on flexibility than strength training. He has seen too many teammates bulk up as baseball has moved away from basde stealing to the long ball.

``I stretch like crazy,'' said Henderson, who never has undergone surgery during his career. ``I mean everything. Some guys lift so many weights they can't even walk. People ask me why I stretch so much. I tell them, 'That's why I'm here.' ''

He claims his .212 batting average of a month ago cannot be attributed to cholesterol. He said he became obsessed with the records and forgot the most important part of his game.

``Instead of taking pitches and getting on base, I was swinging at everything trying to get that 3,000th hit,'' he said. ''I needed to fix that and I did. I just needed to relax and let it take care of itself.''

Henderson said he would like to play another season, even if he reaches 3,000 hits and breaks Cobb's record.

He was hoping to catch on with the A's for a fifth time last February, but with Johnny Damon in left and Terrance Long in center, it wasn't a good fit. Damon is eligible for free agency at the end of the season and probably won't be back.

``Going there would be perfect,'' Henderson said. ``I enjoyed everywhere I played. New York was great. I have no regrets about anything.''

DODGERS vs. PADRES

--Today, 7:05 p.m., Ch. 5

LEADING MAN

1979: Makes major league debut with Oakland A's

1991: Breaks Lou Brock's career record of 938 stolen bases.

2001: Breaks Babe Ruth's career record of 2,062 walks and sets sights on 3,000 hits and career record for walks.

A RECORD PACE

RUNS: He has 2,237, only nine shy Ty Cobb's all-time record.

HITS: He's 15 away from becoming the 25th player to collect 3,000 hits.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, 3 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- color) no caption (Rickey Henderson today and three times in the past)

Photos by Associated Press.

(2 -- color) no caption (Rickey Henderson at bat)

(3) The ageless Rickey Henderson, left, is all smiles nowadays for the San Diego Padres.

Paul Connors/Associated Press

Box:

(1) LEADING MAN (see text)

(2) A RECORD PACE (see text)

(3) CAREER STATS
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Sep 11, 2001
Words:1568
Previous Article:FRIDAY NIGHT IS FOR THE PREPS.
Next Article:`WHERE I WANT TO BE' SHEFFIELD HAPPY IN L.A.


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