As legend has it, Rickey Henderson used to stand naked in front of a mirror for 20 minutes before each game he played, repeating the same words over and over again.
“Rickey, you are the greatest. Rickey, you are the greatest.”
Fortunately, I cannot report this as actual fact, but it certainly sounds like the Rickey Henderson we watched leave his dynamic mark on the face of baseball during a remarkable 25-year playing career that seemed as if it might never end.
In some aspects of the game – walking, stealing bases, igniting an offense as a leadoff hitter – Henderson was the greatest baseball has seen, and that’s why my Hall of Fame ballot will have a check beside his name when it goes into the mailbox today.
Perhaps more than any athlete I’ve ever covered, Henderson loved referring to himself in the third person, and yes, that includes even Herschel Walker, who loved to talk about Herschel.
One of the funniest quotes attributed to Henderson came in a phone message he reportedly left late in his career for San Diego general manager Kevin Towers.
“This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey,” the message supposedly went. “Rickey wants to play baseball.”
Two sentences, three Rickeys. That’s Henderson in a nutshell.
As another story goes, when a reporter once asked Henderson if the late Ken Caminiti’s assertion that 50 percent of the players in baseball were on steroids, Henderson replied, “Well, Rickey’s not one of them, so that’s 49 percent right there.”
It would be easy then to assume, I suppose, that nobody appreciated Rickey quite as much as Rickey did, but that might not be true.
When Bill James, baseball’s great statistician and analyst and the father of sabermetrics, was asked if Henderson should be a Hall of Famer, James quipped, “If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.”
James might be right. Henderson was a force unto himself. Let’s look at the numbers.
He’s the all-time major league stolen base leader with 1,406. To put that number in some perspective, the current active stolen base leader in the big leagues is Juan Pierre. He has 429. That means Pierre would have to steal almost a thousand more bases to catch Henderson.
Henderson also holds the single-season stolen base record with 130 (1982), one of three times he passed the century mark in steals.
He scored at least 100 runs 13 times in his career and led the league five times.
Get the picture? This was not a man any pitcher wanted to put on base. Yet, when Henderson folded up into his crouch at the plate, he looked like a human version of Reader’s Digest … everything condensed. The strike zone he presented was, as the late great Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times once wrote, about the size of Hitler’s heart.
Henderson is second on the majors’ all-time walks list, behind Barry Bonds, and easily leads in unintentional walks.
On 796 occasions, he walked leading off an inning. That figure alone is more than 50-plus Hall of Famers – including folks such as Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente and Ernie Banks – walked in their entire careers.
Yet, there was pop in Henderson’s bat, too. He stayed around too long and that brought his career average down, but he still finished at .279 with 297 career home runs. He holds the major league record for home runs leading off a game with 81.
Yet, he was known for his eccentricity and ego as much as he was for his flamboyant play, which might be why he was never fully appreciated during his career.
Once, when searching for a seat on the Padres’ team bus, outfielder Steve Finley told Henderson, “You have tenure, sit wherever you want.”
“Ten years?” Henderson replied. “Rickey’s been playing at least 16, 17 years.”
He once told New York Yankees teammates that his Manhattan condo had such a great view he could see the “Entire State Building.”
This is Henderson’s first year on the ballot and he joins a plethora of sluggers still hoping to find their way into the Hall, including Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, Mark McGwire, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy. You could put three All-Star outfields together from the names on the list, but Henderson is the one player you would want leading off for your team.
He was, in my opinion, the best leadoff hitter baseball has seen.
Henderson was still trying to play baseball as late as the summer of 2005, signing with the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the Golden Baseball League in hopes of showing a major league team that he could still perform at a top level. He was 46 at the time.
The Surf Dawgs reportedly have offered him $1 million if his Hall of Fame plaque shows him wearing one of their caps, and while Rickey might be tempted, the Hall of Fame has been determining what cap a player’s plaque will bear since 2001.
Which reminds me of one final, typical Henderson story.
Seems that Oakland’s money people were in a frantic frenzy one year in the early ’80s because their accounts were showing up $1 million off. Turns out the A’s had sent Henderson a $1 million check as a signing bonus.
Henderson had never cashed the check. Instead, he’d had it framed and hung it on the wall in his house.
It was Rickey’s money, on Rickey’s wall, and a constant reminder to Rickey that Rickey was, indeed, the greatest.
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