ESPN Network: ESPN.com | NBA.com | ABCSports | EXPN | FANTASY



Rickey was a run walking

Page 2 columnist



ESPN TOOLS
 
Email story
 
Most sent
 
Print story
 

I've sat around and told the story of how me and Rick met so many times, it's even beginning to bore me.

Rickey Henderson
Rickey Henderson's specialty was crossing home plate, so it's fitting that he now owns a gold-plated version.
Spring training, '79, I think, and we were sitting in the half-sun/half-shade of the ballpark in Tempe, sitting on pine planks in the dugout and spitting sunflower seed hulls at big blue-green irridescent horseflies. Rook Mariners' pitcher from the Dominican with a jheri-curl was throwing mid-90s gas warming up, and that WHOP! in the catcher's glove was carrying in the dry desert air, and was impressing the hell out of me.

Not Rick, though. Rick just knew he was an all-timer.

"Hey, Ray, I'mo take him four hundid and fiddy foot," Rick said.

"It's Ralph."

"Hunh? 'Scuse me." He went to the on-deck circle and started to swing an iron hammer.

Sure, rook, I thought. Meaning myself, I suppose.

Only took one pitch. Rick had already measured him from the dugout. I thought he was only spitting seed shells. No. That's all I was doing. Rick was the one who taught me to pay attention to the slow times at a ballgame. You pick up things. Rick took him 450 feet if he took him one, dead pull, past everything. Then Rick said, "Heh-heh," and picked at himself and trotted them pythons of his around the bags, and I knew I was onto something then.

I called it "Billy Ball." Came from Rickey. And Billy.

Billy Martin always knew. Billy Martin wasn't no real big fan of the colored or nothing. Could take 'em or leave 'em. Said he grew up around 'em in Berkeley, in that uncomfortable way people have of trying to prove that they know how to treat you by telling you who they have met before.

Billy was pretty cruel to Glenn Burke, a man who had preceded Rick in left field for the A's, way back when. Glenn Burke and Rickey Henderson were two of the most perfectly built baseball players I ever saw. Billy cut Burke loose in favor of Rick. Turned out Glenn, the inventor of the high-five, was gay. Later he died of AIDS. It ended up that Billy was right. Not because of that. Because of Rick.

Rickey Henderson
Reporters didn't always understand what Rickey was saying, but there's no confusion about his talent.
Billy told Rick that he would give Rickey the first seven innings of the game to do whatever he wanted. "Green light" is not really the phrase here. "Running bejesus amok" is more like it. Then Billy told Rick to give him, Billy, the last two innings. I sat there and watched Billy and Rickey Henderson win a division damn near all by themselves in '81. Billy said then he had the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the game. Billy would lie to you every now and then, though, so people didn't know how serious to take him about Rick.

Well, somewhere a big-nosed man is laughing right now.

First guy to drive Rickey in, on June 27, 1979, was Mitchell Page. Mitch was a shambling outfielder, lefty hitter, good pop, contact always a question, salt of the earth, hitting coach now, I think, with the Cardinals. Manager material, to me. How do I know? Oh, I went to the dog track all the time with Mitch, down in Phoenix in the spring, while Billy and his coaches were getting plastered at the Pink Pony bar and challenging guys to fights. The dog track was tamer fare.

Mitch would talk about Rick and shake his head. "I'm a big-leaguer," Mitch said, tearing up a losing ticket. "I can hit." He was right. He would sit and watch the tape of the day he had 12 total bases at Fenway Park, including two home runs and a triple.

"But it wasn't until I saw Rickey that I understood what baseball was about. Rickey Henderson is a run, man. That's it. When you see Rickey Henderson, I don't care when, the score's already 1-0. If he's with you, that's great. If he's not, you won't like it."

Later, the Yankees had Rickey for a while. We all came to New York together, almost, me, then Billy, then Rick. I was surprised when my editors at the Illy asked me to tell them what was wrong with him.

But it wasn't until I saw Rickey that I understood what baseball was about. Rickey Henderson is a run, man. That's it. When you see Rickey Henderson, I don't care when, the score's already 1-0. If he's with you, that's great. If he's not, you won't like it
Former A's teammate Mitchell Page

"From our perspective," I explained, under the delusion at the time that I was part of our, "he's what you call inarticulate, in that he'd just as soon bust a verb as look at you. He has his own way of speaking. It's so wrong, it stops being wrong after a while and starts sounding like Ring Lardner on blotter acid, or something. Thing is, Rick is simon pure. Rick don't even like lemon in his water. He's pure. And, a guy once told me he was the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history. Another guy just said, 'He's a run.' "

"But what do you think of him, Wiley?" They called me out.

"I think ... I think he scored 146 runs last year for the Yankees."

"Yeah, but he's always saying his hammy hurts."

"Well. Hmm. Here's something -- maybe his hammy hurts."

"Looks like the guy could give more to me."

"He just stole 130 bases in a year. Cobb stole 96, which was sick at the time. Forty years later, Maury Wills steals 104. Then 10 years later Lou Brock steals 118. Brock and Wills were mature, over 30. Rick comes along, steals 130 bags, puts the mark out of reach. You can't steal 130 bases and even stand up and walk after that, unless you're Rick. He does all that when he's, what, 12 years old?

"He's a genius."

It started dawning on me against my wishes that maybe the people who didn't like Rick as a ballplayer didn't like him not because he was so good, but because he was so good and black, too. See, a lot of people didn't like Jackie Robinson's style of play either. Now did Rickey Henderson go through all that hell Jackie Robinson went through? No. What Rickey Henderson went through was different. But you know, maybe he did have to go through something. After all, look in that mirror, and Rickey's preferred No. 24 becomes 42.

So Rickey protected his hammies when he had to, because nobody was going to do it for him, apparently, and played for God knows how many teams, seven or so, and he made all of them better, except for maybe the Yankees. He only scored 146 runs in one season for them. In making his rounds, he went back through Oakland and gave them the best team in baseball at the end of the '80s. In 1989, the Oakland A's of Henderson, McGwire, Canseco and Stewart won the World Series, and Rick played out of his mind.

He got upstaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The next year, the A's got upstaged by the Cincinnati Reds, swept in four games by ED, O'Neill, Billy Hatcher and the Nasty Boys. That was the year Canseco's then wife complained, "Maybe I should have worn a red dress."

Rickey was unfazed. He was hitting homers -- solo homers -- even as Jose Rijo and the Reds bullpen was sticking it to the A's.

Rickey Henderson
Henderson played for seven different teams in his career, including both New York squads.
Rickey moved on to Toronto to help push them to a repeat World Series championship in 1993. Funny. Manager Cito Gaston never once complained about Rickey. Funny. His teammates -- Robby Alomar, Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield, A-Rod, Tony Gwynn, all of them Hall of Famers one day -- rarely did.

Some opponents, and opposing managers, hated him. One time Tony La Russa complained about "pimps in the outfield," and he was talking about Rick then, and that wasn't right. But still, when La Russa had a chance to pencil Rick's name in a lineup, he always did so. The Baltimore Orioles franchise still hasn't gotten him out.

Now Rick's got himself a spread, over near Yosemite. Maybe he isn't as dumb as he sounds, or as people want to make him out to be. How smart do you have to be to score 2,246 runs in the big leagues? Well, I don't know, to tell you the truth. Probably depends on who you are.

But I will tell you this. You want Rick to do a thing, all you gotta do is have a bunch of snot-nosed boys who need something to do, a place to go that's not so terrible, like a ballfield ... all you need are some boys for whom school is a chore but who have a lust for being the best, a zest for living, confident, even though they don't seem to have much to be confident about, until you get to know them -- hell man, if you have a van full of boys like that, you can find Rickey Henderson in Oakland, and he'll give you the keys to that big house on the ranch Rick's got in Yosemite. Just so those "at-risk" boys have something to do, somewhere to go, a vision of what might be possible.

Met DiMaggio once. He threw out the first pitch in a softball game I played in at San Francisco. Later on, I told Rick about it. He said, "You score a run?" I said, "Two." He said, "Then that was what really matter."

After he scored the run that broke Cobb's record, Rickey Henderson said, "What I want outta this here is home plate. Home plate is what belong to me. That's what I work hard for."

  Now I can't help having the sneaking suspicion if Rick had been born Italian in St. Louis, somehow we would've figured a way to make him cute, even wise. If Rickey Henderson had been Italian, we might've spun him different, made Yogi Berra out of him. Ah, maybe not. Well. Anyway. Rickey could play. 
   

Now I can't help having the sneaking suspicion if Rick had been born Italian in St. Louis, somehow we would've figured a way to make him cute, even wise. If Rickey Henderson had been Italian, we might've spun him different, made Yogi Berra out of him.

Ah, maybe not. Well. Anyway. Rickey could play.

Just don't ask him to give a speech about it.

Rick's a man of few words, many grunts, and more big-league baseball all-time records than anybody this side of the Hammer.

Although I didn't always understand him at first, and often had to say, "What?" when he was talking to me, at the end of the day, at the close of the session, when the dimes hit my eyes, I'm glad.

Glad I met Rick, and saw him play baseball.

And you? Aw. Too bad.

For you, I mean.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



where's the love? 


ALSO SEE:
Ralph Wiley Archive



 
    
 
 
ESPN.com: HELP | ADVERTISER INFO | CONTACT US | TOOLS | SITE MAP
Copyright ©2001 ESPN Internet Ventures. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site. Employment opportunities at ESPN.com.