Sometime in late September, Rickey Henderson might become the 25th player in history to reach 3,000 hits (he has 2,976 entering Thursday's games). We will celebrate the grand achievement, yet perhaps not with the same reverence in which we glorified Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn when they reached the milestone. That is a shame.
It is true that Henderson has played for seven teams, not one. It is true that he hasn't presented the game as positively as both Ripken and Gwynn, but not out of lack of respect, but because he's unsophisticated with the language and the media. He often mumbles and has said things that he certainly regrets. It is true that he has done some silly things, including holding out during spring training following his MVP season in 1990 and playing cards in the clubhouse as the Mets were making a comeback in the 1999 NLCS.
It is not true that Rickey Henderson is a bad guy or a bad teammate. He doesn't drink or smoke or do stupid things off the field. He has kept himself in remarkable shape without lifting weights -- "just push-ups and sit-ups every night," he says -- for 23 seasons. With a few exceptions, he has shown up early and played hard, especially in big games.
On the field, Henderson's career has, in its own way, rivaled if not surpassed even those of Ripken or Gwynn. Henderson is a freak. There really is no one like him in the history of baseball.
Ty Cobb was a fabulous basestealer and a remarkable hitter, but if Henderson passes Cobb in late September for first on the all-time list in runs scored (he trails by 18 through Wednesday), he will have about 185 more home runs, 500 more steals and 900 more walks than Cobb. Henderson has hit 288 home runs in his career, more than both Will Clark (284) and Roger Maris (275). Henderson has more extra-base hits in his career (846) than Jim Rice, Joe Morgan, Orlando Cepeda and Mark McGwire.
Is he better than Cobb? Of course not. Yet according to Total Baseball's 100 greatest players of all-time, Henderson is ranked 15th (going into the season), ahead of, among others, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial. Debatable? Certainly. But he is the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time -- his 79 leadoff home runs are the most ever, 35 more than anyone else.
He has won an MVP (1990) and a Gold Glove (1981). Few left fielders in baseball history have ever gone to the left-field line and came up throwing quicker than Henderson. He has played on World Championship teams in Oakland (1989) and Toronto (1993) and once had a 15-game hitting steak in the postseason. He has 447 more steals than anyone who ever played. And, depending on the day, he's in the top 100 in homers all-time.
First in stolen bases, first in walks, soon-to-be first in runs scored, 100th in homers. Longevity has played a large part in the compilation of such outrageous numbers, but it is difficult to fault a player for being good enough to play most every day since before Rafael Furcal was born. But let's not forget how dominant Henderson was as a young player. He broke Lou Brock's career stolen-base record in 1991 at age 32 -- after his first seven seasons, Henderson had 573 steals, Brock had 334 after his first seven.
Henderson is the only AL player with three 100-steal seasons, all by the age of 25. In 1985, he scored 146 runs, the most since Ted Williams scored 150 in 1959. In 1989, his 126 walks were the most by an AL hitter since Frank Howard's 132 in 1970. Only 11 players got to 1,000 walks quicker than Rickey.
And now as Henderson gets older -- he's 42 and still sliding head-first; that in itself is incredible -- he becomes the answer to even more and more trivia questions.
Who are the only players to steal a base in four decades? Williams, Tim Raines and Henderson. Now that Paul O'Neill has 20 steals at age 38, who has the most steals in a season in AL history at that age or older? Henderson, with nearly 30 more than Otis Nixon. Which player has the most at-bats in history among right-handed batters and left-handed throwers? Rickey Henderson. This isn't even close. Only three players since 1900 have played 1,000 major-league games, exclusively as hitters, batting right-handed and throwing left-handed. Henderson has played nearly 3,000 games. No one else on that list played even 2,000 games.
So if Henderson gets to 3,000 hits, or if he breaks Cobb's record for runs scored, stand and cheer. And even if he doesn't, stand and cheer the last time he comes to your ballpark. This may be his last season. He's definitely one of the greatest, and most unique, players in baseball history.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail email@example.com.
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