Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Thursday, May 1, 2003
Updated: May 2, 1:16 PM ET
Henderson takes independent route for a reason

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- As Rickey Henderson stood in the on-deck circle Thursday night preparing to play his first unaffiliated professional baseball game, a pair of hot dogs ran past him.

Rickey Henderson
Future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson made his independent league debut Thursday at age 44. He singled and drove in a run.

Mustard edged Ketchup to the third-base finish line, becoming the season's first winner in the Nathan's Famous hot dog race and the first reminder for Henderson that he's a long, long way from the major league stadiums on the other side of the Hudson River.

Twelve years to the day of his Newark Bears debut, Henderson passed Lou Brock as Major League Baseball's all-time leader in stolen bases. Yet on Thursday, he passed dizzying bat races on his way back to the dugout. He watched a pint-sized girl race oversized teddy bear mascot Rip'N Ruppert around the bases. And he saw two other fans shove each other to the ground in a sumo match.

Eleven of Henderson's 25 Newark teammates weren't even born when he started playing professionally. Sure, former 20-game winner Jose Lima is here. But other than that, the roster is a list of has-beens and unknown wannabes.

Yet ask Henderson, regarded as baseball's greatest leadoff hitter in history, if the latest unimpressive stop in his 27-year professional career is embarrassing. First, he'll tell you, he pledges his love for the game; second, he swears no. Not one major league franchise invited Henderson to camp this spring, leaving the 44-year-old two options: Go home to retire or come here, to baseball's basement, to prove everyone wrong.

"If I went to spring training and didn't make a club, I would have hung up my shoes and gone home," Henderson said before the Bears beat the Bridgeport Bluefish 6-5 at Bears and Eagles Riverfront Park. "But I didn't get that chance. So here I am."

What's it mean for the Hall?
Rickey Henderson's stint in the minors, no matter how long it lasts, will have no effect on his Hall of Fame eligibility, meaning baseball's all-time steals and runs leader will remain on pace for induction in 2008.

The only way his status would change, says Hall of Fame researcher Brad Horn, is if Henderson appeared in a major league game. Playing in the minors, for an independent or affiliated team, or even appearing on a major league roster does not affect one's Hall of Fame eligibility unless he appears in a game.

Should Henderson pursue another playing opportunity in the majors, Horn said no player has been elected to the Hall of Fame while he was active in any professional league.

Henderson, a 10-time All-Star, has 3,040 hits while playing for eight major league teams. He has scored 2,288 runs, stolen 1,403 bases, and also holds records for walks (2,179) and leadoff home runs (80). He's five homers shy of 300.
-- Wayne Drehs

Henderson is earning the league-maximum $3,000 a month to play for the Bears. He's living in a hotel in Manhattan and using a car service to get to and from games.

His manager, former National League All-Star Bill Madlock, says that if he were Henderson, a certain future first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest major league players of all-time, he wouldn't be here. But, when trying to figure out just why Henderson won't give it up and go home for good, he also admits one of baseball's ultimate truths of the past 20 years.

"Hey, Rickey is Rickey," Madlock said. "Rickey is different."

Despite having seen live pitching only a handful of times since the end of last year, Henderson went 1-for-3 with a walk and an RBI in Thursday's Atlantic League season opener, played before 6,107 -- one of the largest ever to see a game in the Bears' six-year history. No moment was more exciting than when Henderson came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Bears trailing by two and the bases loaded. After pushing the count to 3-and-2, Henderson, baseball's all-time walks leader, walked.

"He's still giving 100 percent, but it might be 60 percent of what people are used to," Madlock said. "It was the same way with Michael Jordan."

Madlock, a star in his own right, said he understands the complex emotions a player experiences before finally admitting his career is over.

"If you can get through the first two years, you've got it made," Madlock said. "But Rickey hasn't done that.

"At first, I went crazy. You go crazy in February when you think you can still play. You're sad, you're depressed. You say, 'I can do this,' when most of the time, you can't."

Jose Canseco did the same two years ago, playing in Newark for a brief period before making his way back to the big leagues, earning a half-season with the Chicago White Sox. But Canseco and Henderson's situations are different. Two years before arriving in Newark, Canseco hit 46 homers and drove in 117 runs. Henderson hasn't hit better than .250 since 1995. Last year, he hit .223 in 72 games with the Red Sox.

"I don't look at the batting average," he said. "The stats don't mean anything. I'm 99 percent sure I can still play in the big leagues. And that other one percent is just if a team gets in the way.

"Anybody in the league right now, I can out-steal them all," Henderson said. "Anybody who can steal 40 bases, I can steal 50."

Henderson already has had the perfect ending. He homered in the 2001 regular season finale as a Padre, sliding into home plate to pass Ty Cobb's all-time record for runs scored. Teammate and close friend Tony Gwynn retired after the game and everybody figured Henderson would, too. But Rickey wasn't ready.

He's told the media he wants to return to the majors because he loves the game. He told Madlock his goal is to return to the majors so he can hit five more home runs to end his career with 300.

In the meantime, he'll patrol left field in front of a giant Stop & Shop sign and wait for that one last phone call that he's needed. And if it never comes?

"I'll come back again next year," he said. "As long as I'm having fun."

Nobody would put that past Henderson, who seemed to enjoy himself Thursday. Though he didn't stop to sign autographs, he spent a sixth-inning pitching change chatting with fans along the left-field sideline and posing for pictures. He spent pregame warm-ups giving teammates Al Benjamin and Mike Piercy tips on stealing bases.

Anybody in the league right now, I can out-steal them all. Anybody who can steal 40 bases, I can steal 50.
Rickey Henderson

And new teammate Lima, Henderson's roommate on the road, promises the two former major leaguers will have plenty of fun.

"I'm single now. I think we're going to do our thing," Lima said. "We're going to have a hell of a time. Plus, we have a plan -- we're going to leave here together."

Interestingly enough, as Henderson sat in the dugout prior to the first pitch, the PA system at Riverfront Park broadcast the Barenaked Ladies song, "If I Had a Million Dollars."

While many of Henderson's teammates drooled at the thought of what that world must be like, Henderson didn't have to. He once signed the richest contract in major league history. He has all the money anybody would need. Yet still, for some reason, at 44, he can't put his playing days behind him.

"My goal is to play until I'm hurt or tired of it," Henderson said. "They say I can play until I'm 50. So we'll have to wait and see & whatever it takes."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com.