The signs have to be there.
As baseball’s all-time greatest leadoff hitter shuffles out of bed on this morning, it would make him only normal if life’s little reminders tapped him on the shoulder as an observance of his half-century on the planet.
After all, 50 years leave signs of wear and tear. Those who have reached the big five-oh can attest to it. Fifty means fighting stiff muscles, achy joints and wrinkled skin. It’s the reality of gray or thinning hair, the sensation of reduced energy.
These things, you’d think, might be tugging at Rickey Henley Henderson on Christmas morning.
Then again, has there ever really been anything to suggest that Henderson is part of the normal world? Even his birth – in Chicago on a snowy Christmas morning in the back seat of a ’57 Chevy with his mother, Bobbi, staring up at a star – hinted that someone unique was at hand.
So it is that the man who has scored more runs and stolen more bases than any other player probably won’t shuffle out of bed today so much as he’ll explode out of it, sliding headfirst.
“He’s got too much energy,” Bobbi Henderson said, laughing at the thought. “That’s how he was as a kid. He liked to run a lot. He was a busy little boy. He had too much energy then, and he’s got too much energy now.”
It seems sports were created with athletes such as Henderson in mind. “Genetically gifted,” as former teammate and childhood friend Dave Stewart puts it, Henderson was built to excel at everything he tried, and in baseball, he found an avenue for his energy.
It kept him occupied at the highest level of his profession for 25 years, and provided the stage for which he could showcase his talents “and his foibles,” as longtime San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s broadcaster Lon Simmons said. But as a man ages, we tend to remember what he has achieved along the way, not necessarily the missteps he occasionally took to get there.
So what stands out as Rickey blows out his candles and braces for his election to baseball’s Hall of Fame on Jan. 7 – “How is he not unanimous?” former teammate Dave Henderson asked earlier this year are not just the 2,295 runs and 1,406 steals. There are also the 2,190 walks (second only to Barry Bonds’ 2,558), the 297 home runs (“He could’ve hit 400 had he been needed in that role,” St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said) and the 81 home runs to lead off a game. Glance at the back of his baseball card, and you’re reminded that he hit .279 and collected 3,055 hits and 510 doubles, all while playing 3,081 games.
Then the question arises: What’s a 50-year-old man to do with such energy?
“He’s not slowing down, I can tell you that,” said Fred Atkins, one of Henderson’s closest friends since childhood.
That said, the free time of retirement is nice, too. Who hasn’t spent a lifetime with his high school sweetheart (Pamela, whom Rickey married a few years back) or raised three children (daughters Angela, 22, Alexa, 17, and Adriann, 15), and not be in love with the concept of free time?
“Very devoted family man,” Stewart said. “The reason you didn’t hear and don’t hear very much about his family life is that unlike most of us, Rickey did a great, great job of keeping his family protected. … He’s a great dad, but you can’t forget Pam. She’s been very, very supportive of everything Rickey did in this game. She’s a strong mother, and kept her own life in order.”
Henderson is known for his energy, and 50 is hardly time for the retirement home. Remember, this is an individual whose lasting image might not be so much his strike zone – “as small as Hitler’s heart,” legendary sportswriter Jim Murray once put it – but fingers wiggling, legs bent, eyes honing in on the pitcher like the scope on a rifle.
This is a man who liked to stand in front of mirrors, naked, gazing at the body that today doesn’t look much different, all while saying, “Rickey’s the best.” This is a guy whose ego often was a bigger story than his ability – and to answer Dave Henderson’s question, that’s why the vote won’t be unanimous. It’s a player who found himself on nine teams, including the A’s on four separate occasions.
Think he didn’t rub a few folks the wrong way?
“He talked a lot of propaganda then,” Stewart said. “He talks a lot of propaganda now. But you know. That part comes from the areas that we came from. It was a show of ability. People call it being a hot dog. We called it showing ability. It was indicative of where we came from. Folks misunderstood that about Rickey.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.