Friday, January 9, 2009 Updated: January 12, 11:08 AM ET
Memories of Rickey being Rickey
Before there was Manny being Manny, there was Rickey being Rickey. Rickey Henderson, who is certain to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, made an indelible impression with his talent on the field and with his character off the field. Our reporters share some of their favorite Henderson stories.
'Gotta do what he gotta do'
Lou Brock once talked to me about the fear of the bag. Baserunners get their ankles, knees, fingers and shoulders messed up sliding hell-bent into bases and lose their base-stealing edge over time because of their fear of getting so battered.
"The one exception is Rickey Henderson," Brock told me. "He accelerates harder into the bag than anyone who ever played."
I sat in the Athletics' clubhouse during batting practice several times with Henderson during his prime in Oakland from 1989 to 1991. His knees always were taped. So were his fingers. He had elbow pads and ice on his shoulder. "Man," he'd say, "Rickey is in pain."
What amazed me was that he still was one of the best offensive players of his time, a tremendously dangerous hitter despite all the injuries that would force most hitters out of the lineup. "Rickey gotta do what he gotta do," Henderson would say. "But ship me to Boston, hit me third, forget the steals and I'd hit .330 with 35 knocks." -- Peter Gammons
There's only one Rickey
It was the off day before the start of the '93 World Series. I thought a great angle would be a comparison of the two leadoff hitters. Lenny Dykstra had had a fabulous season and had scored 143 runs, the most by any leadoff man since, who else, Henderson.
So I approached Henderson on the field and started to explain the story. He said, "Who's Lenny Dykstra?"
I laughed. Then I said, "He's the other leadoff hitter."
Henderson said, "There ain't no other leadoff hitter but me."
I tried to keep going with my angle. He didn't see it.
"What's Lenny Dykstra ever done?" he asked.
I started to give the stats. Henderson cut me off.
"Man, why you trying to compare some other guy with Rickey? There's only one Rickey."
And that was that. There was, in fact, only one Rickey. And that will never change. Ever. -- Jayson Stark
About that guy with the helmet
I had the pleasure of covering Rickey for a couple months when the Mariners signed him in the middle of 2000 -- "People who know me know I'm a great guy to be around,'' he said after he arrived -- a signing that led to the famous story involving John Olerud.
Olerud, of course, always wore a helmet on the field because of a past brain aneurysm, and according to the story, Henderson supposedly went up to him and said, "You know, there was a guy on my last team who wore a helmet all the time, too." And Olerud supposedly replied, "Yeah, that was me." It's a great story, except it never happened. It was started as a joke by a Mets clubhouse employee and just spread from there. Repeat: It never happened. But the beauty of the story, as Olerud said when I asked him about it, is that it sure sounded like something Henderson would say.
The Mariners also held a Barry White Night that summer, with the legendary musician introducing the players before each at-bat. White threw out the first pitch before the game, and Henderson caught it. I asked Henderson where that game ranked among his career highlights, and he said at the top.
Henderson is a very big Barry White fan. -- Jim Caple
Rickey was 37 years old and on the downside when I interviewed him at San Diego's spring training camp in March 1996. He was already blending seamlessly into the Padres' clubhouse dynamic, striking up a friendship with Tony Gwynn and going out of his way to tutor a young outfielder named Earl Johnson, who had stolen 80 bases in the minors two years earlier. Suffice to say, Earl Johnson would not become the second coming of Rickey Henderson.
Henderson fit right in with the Padres even though he was still carrying his stuff around in a green-and-gold A's duffel bag. "That's about to get burned,'' he told me.
If one thing in particular stood out about Henderson from my years as a baseball writer covering him long-distance, it's the respect bordering on reverence that he elicited from other players. Sure, Jimmy Rollins studied Henderson's every movement as a kid in Alameda, Calif. But Eric Young once told me that he also emulated Rickey's antics on the playground during his boyhood years in New Jersey. "When Rickey hit a home run, he would let you know, 'I got you!'" Young said. "It was the same when he stole a base. He had a little cockiness in him. I liked that.''
Rickey still seemed cocky six years later, when I interviewed him with the Newark Bears in the Independent Atlantic League. He was 43 years old then, clearly washed up, yet insistent that he could still contribute for a major league club. I'm sure when the baseball writers interview him Monday on the heels of his Hall of Fame election, he'll claim that he still has what it takes to help a team. Rickey might be the first inductee in the history of Cooperstown who thanks his managers, coaches and teammates while simultaneously lobbying for a new contract.
-- Jerry Crasnick
The Wall Street wizard
I was covering the Oakland A's in 1998. It was my first year covering baseball, and Henderson had just rejoined the A's. The A's are the last mom-and-pop store in baseball, and they still allow the reporters to take the team bus from the hotel to the ballpark.
Some of the reporters on the bus one day were talking about where they were during great moments in baseball history. They were discussing Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series, Carlton Fisk's waving the ball fair in the 1975 World Series, etc., when somebody brought up the 1993 World Series. I had been in San Francisco with my roommate Kev, a huge Philadelphia Phillies fan, who was crying his eyes out when Joe Carter of the Blue Jays hit the series-clinching home run off Philadelphia's Mitch Williams. Dave Feldman, a member of the TV crew, said where he had been. Suddenly, from the back of the bus, from behind a newspaper, a voice -- Henderson's voice -- said, "I was on second base."
Later that year, we were in Boston in the smallest clubhouse this side of Tiger Stadium, and some of the young kids were talking about the things they were going to buy. Jason Giambi had just signed his first deal -- three years, $9 million. Some of the other young guys, such as Ryan Christenson and Jason McDonald, talked about buying clothes or rims for their cars. Henderson was in the farthest corner from them in the clubhouse reading the Wall Street Journal. He walked over and began to explain the stock tables. Giambi made a comment, and Henderson walked away and said, "You laugh, but Rickey ain't never going broke." -- Howard Bryant
Just being honest
Because I covered Henderson for six years and one of his daughters went to school with one of my sons, I feel I have a better understanding of the player and person than most. But I'll always remember a run-in we had at Yankee Stadium in the mid-'90s.
He had told me something controversial the night before, and I printed it. The next day then-A's manager Tony La Russa was fuming and read Henderson the riot act. Henderson called me out on the field. I simply said, "Is that not what you told me?" He said it was. The discussion was pretty much over, and he and I got along great from that point on.
-- Pedro Gomez
What's his name?
Rickey Henderson is not only one of the greatest talents of all time; he also is one of the biggest characters ever to play the game. One of the quirky things about Henderson is that he doesn't remember people's names. When my team, the Mets, signed Henderson for the 1999 season, I learned that firsthand, as he was never able to remember my name. He would say, "Hey, GM," when he wanted me. I would have taken it personally, but I came to realize it wasn't just my name he couldn't remember.
During that 1999 season, we unfortunately fired some coaches in June. The day after the firings, a writer approached Henderson and asked him what he thought about Tom Robson (the fired hitting coach). Henderson's response was, "Who is that?" The writer explained it was the hitting coach, and Henderson said, "Oh, was that his name?"
I got a chuckle when Henderson was named the hitting coach with the Mets during the 2007 season. I found it so ironic that he had become a major league hitting coach even though he never remembered his hitting coaches' names.
-- Steve Phillips
I covered Henderson at the tail end of his career, when he made a 72-game stop in Boston in 2002. I was just a few years into covering baseball, and back then, the Boston clubhouse could be difficult to navigate. Although I don't possess a standout Henderson story like many of my colleagues, I'll always remember him and the late Rod Beck as two athletes who were gracious with their time and respectful to me as a young, female sportswriter early in her career. Henderson always greeted you, looked you in the eye and, of course, was always approachable. -- Amy K. Nelson
No gadgets necessary
When Henderson was hired as the first-base coach for the Mets a couple of years ago, Jose Reyes reached first base in his first or second game on the job. As Reyes took his lead, Henderson wasn't looking at the pitcher or talking with Reyes. Rather, he was staring down at something in his own hand. Reyes would take his lead, but Henderson's eyes continued to be averted, pitch to pitch, to the gadget in his hand.
Sitting in the press box and watching the game, I suddenly realized what was distracting him: a stopwatch. Henderson, as a first-base coach, was responsible for timing the pitcher's delivery to home plate, and he was trying to figure out how to work the stopwatch -- how to start, stop and reset it. His attention was completely absorbed by that process.
Henderson probably never bothered with a stopwatch as a player. With those incredible instincts that he had for stealing bases, he probably never had to worry about clocking a pitcher's delivery. He just read and reacted.
-- Buster Olney