Rickey Henderson looks back on Hall of Fame career: all-time stolen-base king has great memories of a 25-year career that featured 3,000 hits, the lifetime record for runs scored, an MVP award and two World Series titles.
A two-sport star at Oakland's Technical High in the mid-1970s, Henderson was a 5-foot-10,175-pounder built of muscle and speed, a good baseball player who was completely devoted to football.
Notre Dame wanted the high school All-American to be the Irish's next star running back. Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA were among two dozen schools offering him full rides to play football. They didn't reckon on Bobbie Henderson.
Rickey's mom wasn't crazy about her son getting hit by high school defenders, and she absolutely was not going to see it happen at the hands of bigger, stronger college players.
"My mom said I was too small to play football," Henderson said. "It was the right decision, and she made that decision."
He did have an option beyond football. The A's, his team growing up, drafted him in the fourth round in 1976, and with Bobbie Henderson's blessing, he signed and headed out to play rookie ball in Boise, Idaho. To say the least, it was not easy. A left-handed thrower who batted right-handed, Henderson found he'd been signed by an organization that thought he'd be better off learning to switch-hit. He was miserable.
"They tried to get me to switch-hit because I was fast," Henderson said. "But I didn't take to it. I failed. I had so much trouble that first year I wanted to leave and go back and play football. But my mom told me to stick with it."
He did, and two years later he was in the A's outfield as a 20-year-old. For the next quarter century, Henderson brought his special combination of speed, power and batting eye to a game that had never seen anything quite like him before.
When his big league career came to an end, Henderson wasn't done. He appeared in 30 games with the Dodgers in 2003, his last major league season, but played two seasons of independent ball after that just because he liked playing the game.
"Those were good days," Henderson said. "Sometimes you think about what you go through playing the game, and you think of all the fun you had playing the game. To me, sometimes, I don't know if the kids have as much fun playing the game as we did.
"We saw films of the great ballplayers. We listened when they talked and we patterned ourselves after them." As much as anyone, Lou Brock was the man Henderson patterned himself after. Brock, who completed a Hall of Fame career in 1979--the same year that Henderson debuted--was the most prolific basestealer the game had ever seen, and he saw in Henderson a kindred soul.
Brock was working as an analyst for ABC's "Monday Night Baseball" in 1980 when he saw Henderson in a June 16 game against the Boston Red Sox. Henderson went 1-for-3, walked twice, stole two bases and scored three runs. And Brock sought out his kid in the A's clubhouse.
"It was fantastic," Henderson said. "He came down after the game and said, 'You are the type of player who doesn't have no fear and you are going to be the one who will break my record.' I had no clue what he was talking about at the time. His records seemed so far out of reach to me. But he saw something." They talked that night and by phone many times during that season.
It was inspiration. Henderson had 31 steals in 40 attempts at the time of the talk with Brock. He would try to steal another 86 times the rest of the season and was safe on 69 attempts to record 100 steals for the year. Two years later he'd steal 130 bases to erase Brock's single-season record of 118.
Ultimately, Brock's record of 938 career steals would be buried by Henderson's 1,406.
An Oakland native, Henderson played his first four-and-a-half seasons believing he'd be in A's green and gold as long as he played.
"I thought I was going to be an Oakland Athletic all my life," he said. "I came up through the organization; I came up through their minor league system. I was from Oakland, I was a top player, and so I thought I was always going to be here."
But his manager from 1980-82, Billy Martin, was now in New York, and Martin saw him in pinstripes. And boy did he lobby. Martin talked up the glories of playing for the Yankees to Henderson, and he talked up the glories of Henderson to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
"We always had a great relationship," Henderson said of Martin. "The A's weren't playing well and he would say to me, 'You are a winner and you need to be a Yankee.' So he told George: 'You've got to get this guy,' and that's how I wound up going to New York."
Henderson was an All-Star four times in five years with the Yankees, but New York never made it to the World Series. Oakland, meanwhile, had retooled with the help of three consecutive A.L. Rookie of the Year winners in Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss, and had landed in the 1988 World Series.
Injuries to Canseco, Weiss and closer Dennis Eckersley in the first three months of the 1989 season left the A's needing a jumpstart. Enter Henderson, who came back in a June 21 trade. He'd been hitting .247 in what he now says was "just about my worst stretch ever," but the return home revitalized him. He hit .294 with Oakland and led the A's to the World Series title. Along the way he was named MVP of the ALCS.
"I was having the worst season of my career, and then came the trade," Henderson said. "And I started playing, things started clicking, and for maybe that first month or so I was hitting like .400. I got fined in kangaroo court because they said I was embarrassing the rest of the club. We had a great bunch of guys there, and you can never beat kangaroo court.
"When I got traded back to Oakland and we went on to win the World Series, that was the best time of my baseball career. It all clicked so perfectly. You couldn't do it any better."
Maybe not, but he and the A's tried. They made it back to the Series again in 1990 in large part on the strength of a monster season from Henderson. He batted a career-high .325, matched a career best with 28 homers, stole 65 bases and scored 119 runs. He had little competition for the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award.
"Next to the World Series, that was the best for me," Henderson said. "It was an MVP-type season from start to end."
Henderson had a shot at what would have been his only batting title, but he was a fraction behind Kansas City's George Brett on the final day of the season. Brett sat out the first few innings and didn't play until it was statistically unlikely for Henderson to pass him. Henderson went l-for-3 to finish at .325. Brett went 1-for-l with a sac fly in the Royals' season finale to finish at .329.
"They dogged me in Kansas City," Henderson said, breaking into a big laugh. "I admired George Brett. Every time I see him now I remind him of that as we laugh. It was a good season, once-in-a-lifetime really, even without the batting title."
Once again Henderson believed he was in Oakland to stay, but once again he was wrong. The A's made it to the playoffs in 1992, but an aging roster meant the club was out of contention in 1993. General manager Sandy Alderson came to Henderson with a proposition. If Henderson would waive his no-trade clause and let Alderson send him to Toronto, the A's would make a legitimate play for him in free agency after the season ended.
"I didn't think I would leave again, but there was a pitcher Sandy wanted so, so bad, with a big curveball, Steve Karsay," Henderson said. "I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay home. Sandy said if you let me get this pitcher, I'm giving you the opportunity for a chance to win, but we're out of it right now. He said that after the end of the season, I'd be a free agent and he'd bring me back, and he did."
Henderson returned for his third stint with the A's after having secured a World Series ring with Toronto. He'd be with the A's for the next two seasons, then began the life of a baseball gypsy. From 1996 through his MLB retirement after the 2003 season, he played for the Padres, the Angels, the A's for a fourth time, the Mets, the Mariners, the Padres for a second time, the Red Sox and the Dodgers. He was 44 at his last stop, but still wanted to play.
"I always loved to play the game, and I was lucky that I didn't get injured much," Henderson said. "A lot of people wonder how that can be with all those headfirst slides, but in the end they weren't as punishing as they looked."
For that, Henderson has to thank the pilot of the A's charter plane in the early 1980s.
"We flew once into Chicago, there was a lot of turbulence and when the plane hit the ground, it bounced," Henderson said. "Then we flew to Oakland, no turbulence, and there was this real smooth landing. When I was getting off the plane, I stopped and asked the pilot how to get a smooth landing like that.
"He said, 'With the turbulence you can't get as low. And you want to get as low as possible for a smooth landing. Gravity is about how low you are to the ground.' And then I started working on stuff and how low I could get to the ground. It took a lot of learning, but I didn't feel as much pounding as people think I did. It's all about gravity and about not having as far to fall."
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a football player's body.
"I never got to play football, but I think I was built to be able to take on a few line-backers if I had to," he said. "I took a pounding with those slides, but I learned to make the pounding hurt less."
These days the only pounding Henderson's body takes is that of the business traveler. He did spend a year as a coach for the Mets, but it never caught his fancy.
These days Henderson flies the country in his role as an A's minor league instructor, visiting Oakland's minor league franchises, talking with prospects about his love for the game, his history and about how the kids can make themselves better.
"I'll always be around baseball. I love the game," he said. "I love the kids. Big leaguers, some of them have their own ways and you can't teach them as much as you would like. I feel like there's nothing more important than helping the kids, giving back the knowledge I've been given by the veterans who tried to keep me on the right track.
"To help them understand the game, that's what I enjoy more," added Henderson. "I have more time when I roam around the minor league system, I get the one-on-one time and they look up to you probably based on what you've done. You have their full attention as they try to get better. I'm trying to build confidence. We have a lot of laughs, but we're serious about going out and playing the game." BD
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|Title Annotation:||TURN BACK THE CLOCK|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2015|
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