By Fred Schruers
7 Days, May 31, 1989
Rickey Henderson was staring at second base as if it offended his eye in some way. He was standing in the familiar elbows-back, chin-up pointer stance he assumes anytime his feet are treading base-path dirt, but this was inside the Yankees’ clubhouse, and this second base, propped on end against a locker, was not your ordinary 14-by-14-inch square of canvas and stuffing but a little memento from the week before. “To Gary Ward,” it said in Rickey’s oversize scrawl, “Best of luck always, Rickey Henderson.” Just below was the good part: “800 SB 4/9/89.” If 800 was an arbitrary milepost, the very base Rickey bellyflopped on to set the mark was a nice farewell gift to Ward (unconditionally released that day) and a significant totem of this crazy-quilt Yankee season in which Rickey must now or probably never emerge as the Franchise.
Being the club’s top draw and source of punch is a role he likes, especially this year, his financially crucial option year. Still as remote as the day he arrived, somehow he has stayed out of range of Steinbrenner’s hoo-haaing—deaf and dumb to it, more his own man than any other Yankee star. He’s mercury (with a capital M as well), and you can’t trap him on the ever-ringing anvil of Yankee frustration. Rickey retains the aspect of a visitor, a guy doing a guest spot in the Yankees’ endless Star Trek episodes. He operates in what he’s called “Rickey Time,” and as Willie Randolph said a while back, “Rickey at half-speed is still better than just about anyone else.” He’s simply Rickey, alone with his unknowable emotions.
The Yankees’ slim playoff chances depend on him coming up big. Sure, the Yankees have two other $2 million men, but Dave Winfield had back surgery, can just about carry a coffee cup now, and may make it back for the club’s, er, stretch drive, and slow-starting Don Mattingly’s average is still lower than George Steinbrenner’s weight. Steve Sax has been an effectively pesky addition to the Yankees’ featherweight lineup but he seldom jolts opponents. Meanwhile Rickey, batting around .250, is leading the club in walks, steals, runs, pretty plays, and spurned interview requests. Not a Rickey year just yet, but he’ll certainly crank it up before the all-star break—his announced first deadline for a deal.
Infamous in Oakland for his verbal and body-English dialogues with fans, he once explained simply, “I get bored.”
His diverse gifts are unmatched in any other single player. Only three men have stolen as many bases, and their landmarks—Ty Cobb, 892; Billy Hamilton, 937; and Lou Brock, 938—should fall by the middle of next season if Rickey stays healthy. His waist-high grabs of dying liners would be spectacular grabs for a slower left fielder, and underlying his base running is the slugging potential that means you could bat him anywhere from first to fourth. “He’s an offense machine, the most dangerous Yankee,” says Royals wise man Bob Boone.
And yet, though Rickey occasionally proclaims his leadership, he seldom shows it. As he squats in the outfield stretching his hamstrings between pitches, he reinforces the idea that it’s Rickey’s world and the other uniformed guys out there are just visiting. Still there’s something comfortably corny in the way he judges himself—he hears the fans first, before his manager, teammates, or agent. Infamous in Oakland for his verbal and body-English dialogues with fans, he once explained simply, “I get bored.” Just watch when he has an easily stolen base and some candy-ass shortstop clouts him with a late tag—a flash of anger yields to consternation, condescension, imperial indifference, and finally, as he dusts his shirtfront and takes a lead, that kidlike joy he finds in making pitchers feel his cleats eagerly tapping the dirt behind them.
No contemporary works the count any harder. When the ump calls a bad strike, he’ll stare fixedly at the spot where the ball passed by. He uses body language to nudge the whole ballpark into looking closely, and without being too obvious about it, he’ll give the TV cameras some too.
“He’s one of the rare players in any sport,” says Milwaukee manager Tom Trebelhorn. “He can do things in a way that just draws attention to him—part of the entertainment package in our game.” Trebelhorn should know. Even more than Billy Martin, he is Rickey’s mentor—dating back to his second year managing pro ball in Boise, where 17-year-old phenom Rickey arrived late in the season, straight from the unkind streets of Oakland’s Bush Rock Park district.
Traded to the Yankees for a row of good journeyman ballplayers, he turned up in 1985 for spring training with this winning line for the media horde: “Don’t need no press now, man.”
Rickey’s mother, Robbie, had raised him and six siblings alone. (Born in Chicago on Christmas Day in 1958, Rickey was the fourth child of a father who decamped when Rickey was quite young.) As a largely unmolested ballcarrier at Oakland Technical High, Rickey was recruited by USC as a tailback but took his mom’s counsel and held his .716 high school batting average under the Oakland A’s nose. He reported to the club in Idaho, says Trebelhorn, as “a fine young man with very good values. I think his mother did a marvelous job with him, instilling basic, common-sense values.” Trebelhorn saw Henderson’s hunger to succeed and was canny enough to immediately set to work on the one major league tool Rickey didn’t arrive with, a threatening throwing arm. Raw speed gave him 29 steals in 46 games that first year, and Trebelhorn worked on the crouch that would give Rickey a minuscule 10-inch-high strike zone to draw walks with, but mostly they met around a fungo bat.
The next year he had 95 steals, and it was in his third year, at Jersey City in the Eastern League, that fellow Oakland prospect Mike Norris became his roommate. Norris would burn up his extravagant talent (22 and 9 for Oakland in 1980) with drug and alcohol bouts. He spoke recently by phone from Phoenix, where he was trying to pitch his way onto the A’s Tacoma farm club. When they played together, Rickey hadn’t yet married high school sweetheart Pamela Palmer (their daughter Angela is 2 now), but, says Norris, “He was never too much a partying type as far as going out into the city….I made those trips alone. He’s very goal-oriented: he might say, ‘Well, I need four bases this week, or four bases this night, to get to that number I’m trying to accomplish.’”
Ten seasons have changed Rickey some. He says he’s stealing bases for the team now, and he and Roberto Kelly do make a nice, shiny hinge in the ninth and leadoff spots. Kelly sees juicy fastballs with Rickey up next, and Rickey sees fastballs because Kelly will steal you blind, too. The crouching strike zone Trebelhorn helped him perfect has inched open as he has tried to get his homers back to a 1986 high of 28, and the theatrically nonchalant “snatch” catch that appeared along the way (“Oh,” says Trebelhorn, subtly eschewing any blame, “I think he’s kind of added that”) is not open to managerial discussion. Rickey compares it to the basket catches by another number 24, Willie Mays. “Does anyone,” he asks, “think Mays was a hot dog?”
“I told him if he ever misses one of those catches, just keep going,” says Norris. “Don’t come back to the dugout.” In fact, the snatch appeared only after Billy Martin left the A’s, but the manager who treated Rickey like a man knew when to blink and keep going. In Baltimore once, recalls Norris, Billy pulled Norris late in a game, hoping to preserve a 4-2 lead. Oakland lost, and Billy, right before the famished Henderson’s eyes, swept an elaborate seafood buffet onto the clubhouse floor. “Motherfucker’s crazy,” said Rickey. “I know Billy heard it,” recalls Norris. “Billy just kept going.”
So did Rickey, as his 130 stolen bases in 1982, almost every one signaled in by Billy, wiped out Lou Brock’s record of 118. Traded to the Yankees for a row of good journeyman ballplayers, he turned up (late, due to injury rehab) in 1985 for spring training with this winning line for the media horde: “Don’t need no press now, man.” He’d lead the American League in steals the next two years (with Vince Coleman starting to breathe down his neck from the National), then 1987 would become the year of the pulled hamstring (known affectionately as the Hammy), with manager Lou Piniella hinting Rickey was jaking it. For ’88, the club moved him from his fatiguing center field spot to left, and again he led in steals, but slipped to a miserly six homers. He finally hit his first of this year—in late April—the day Dallas Green told him not to be shy about swinging for the fences.
The kind of press Rickey didn’t need was precisely what he got in spring training this year when he characterized certain Yankees (mostly departed pitchers) as boozers and then asserted the Yankees were a racist organization. Worst of all, to usefully gruff incoming manager Dallas Green, was Rickey’s delayed arrival at camp. When Rickey did show, he went into Green’s office and soon came out laughing with the big man. Green looked like a marvelously pragmatic fellow. “I’m a listener,” the Ray-Banned Green told me during batting practice before a Yankee spring game against the Dodgers. “I listen to what people say and I respect everybody’s feelings. At the same time, I told Rickey there can be only one boss and I’m it. I haven’t seen anything yet to make me believe that Rickey Henderson is not a superstar.”
If part of the clubhouse Rickey is the brash actor who wrestled Mel Hall to see how many bricks that worthy had in his load, another part is the happy sibling who gave Alvaro Espinoza a $2 haircut (“I paid too much,” says Espy). The haircut came on the same day that AI Leiter put a ten-penny nail in the coffin of his local aspirations by serving the Dodgers nine hits worth of juicy fastballs. “He was horseshit,” opines Green. “He was a thrower, and that ain’t good enough for major league baseball.” (Now Jesse Barfield is here to stand in Rickey’s light, but the pinstripe kryptonite has hit him too.)
So, if the Yankees have a chance to scrap around near the top of the haywire AL Least, it rests on the ever-volatile Rickey. Watch him in the ballpark at Fort Lauderdale on a soft spring night, trading turns in the batting cage with Gary Ward, strolling up a walkway where the fans poke fingers, paper, and pens through the chain-link fence. His grin is guarded but not unfriendly as he grinds his hands on the handle of his scoop-top bat and banters with them. How many bases ya gonna steal this year? they ask, and he says, “Ya never know.” Gonna make the 40-40 club? Gonna steal 60 bases? A squint: “More ’n that.” You bettah. Again, that half-flinching, half-threatening swivel of the raptor head: “Don’t never say better.” Hey, Rickey, says a cute blond in short-shorts, know what you can do for me tonight? “What’s that?” he says, teasing back. Hittah home run. Another grin, half-turning away, then a stretch that hoists the bat over his head and he’s gone, strolling back to the cage.
It was few weeks later that he was to be found in the clubhouse, staring at the base he’d signed—not knowing then that Gary Ward would catch on with Detroit. A valuable object in its own right, in this era of baseball’s collectibles madness, but surely a gift from the heart. “He doesn’t throw his money around,” says Mike Norris, having said that Rickey quietly steered some his way during Norris’ hard times, “and he doesn’t throw his heart around to get stepped on.” Now Rickey stands looking at an empty row of lockers—here once sat Claudell Washington, gone to the Angels for the want of a few grand; there sat Winfield, back God knows when, and just possibly never; Gary Ward, gone but not quite forgotten. Do you miss him? “Yeah, yeah, I miss him.” A small, open-handed gesture that takes in the emptied row, and a look of futility and some anger at the circumstances of being a Yankee. “I miss all my friends.”
[Photo Credit: Rick Dikeman c/o Wikimedia Commons]