Rickey Henderson was born on Christmas Day, 1958, in the backseat
of a '57 Olds on the way to a hospital in Chicago.
He was fast
from the very beginning.
There are certain figures in American
history who have passed into the realm of cultural mythology, as
if reality could no longer contain their stories: Johnny
Appleseed. Wild Bill Hickok. Davy Crockett. Rickey Henderson.
They exist on the sometimes narrow margin between Fact and
"A lot of stuff [people] had me doing or something
they said I had created, it's comedy," Henderson says. "I guess
that's how they want to judge me, as a character."
baseball history has scored more runs, stolen more bases, drawn
more walks or provided more entertainment (some of it unintended)
for so many teams than Rickey Henley Henderson, the greatest
leadoff hitter ever, a superstar so big that his middle and last
names became superfluous. Rickey is the modern-day Yogi Berra, only faster. Whereas Berra contributed a new noun to the English
language (Yogiism), Henderson inspired that classic rejoinder
muttered by many a manager, teammate, sportswriter or, especially, general manager come contract time, "Rickey is Rickey."
"I don't know how to put into words how fortunate I was to spend
time around one of the icons of the game," says San Diego Padres
All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman, a teammate of Henderson's in
1996, '97 and 2001. "I can't comprehend that yet. Years from now,
though, I'll be able to say I played with Rickey Henderson, and I
imagine it will be like saying I played with Babe Ruth."
The legend of Henderson is real, all right, as real as the
check-cashing service with the metal security gates on Broad
Street in downtown Newark, which is about all the local color
there is in the neighborhood of the mostly empty Bears & Eagles
Riverfront Stadium, home to the Newark Bears of the independent
Atlantic League--and, at the moment, to Henderson.
"We need to shift the ballpark to another location or something,"
At age 44 the future first-ballot Hall of Famer is here on the
wrong side of baseball's tracks, not to mention those of New
Jersey Transit, whose cars clackity-clack a pop fly away from his
leftfield post. He signed with the Bears on April 24 and has come
to downtown Newark for one last shot at the major leagues, which
makes him, in every sense, an urban legend.
Speaking of cashing checks....
Once in the late 1980s, the New York Yankees sent Henderson a
six-figure signing-bonus check. After a few months passed, an
internal audit revealed that the check had not been cashed. Brian
Cashman, then a low-level executive with the club, called
Henderson to ask if there was a problem with the check.
"No problem," Henderson said. "I'm just waiting for the money
market rates to go up."
And speaking of money....
Over 24 seasons in the major leagues, Henderson never spent his
meal money. Before each trip players get an envelope filled with
cash equal to the daily rate as negotiated by the Players
Association ($73 this year), multiplied by the number of days on
the road. Henderson would take the envelopes home and put them in
shoe boxes. Whenever his daughters, Angela, now 18, Alexis, 11,
and Adriann, 9, did well in school, Henderson would allow them to
choose an envelope from a shoe box, a little game he called Pick
It. The jackpot was getting an envelope from one of those 13-day,
four-city trips. The girls would keep the money.
"They do what they want with it," he said. "It gives them
motivation for their school and something to do, like a job."
Rickey's Best Lines about Money
1. "If they're going to pay me like [Mike] Gallego, I'm going to
play like Gallego."
2. "All I'm asking for is what I want."
On the subject of contracts....
Henderson signed a minor league deal last year with the Boston
Red Sox that included an invitation to spring training and a
$350,000 salary if he made the team. After he played his way onto
the Boston roster with an impressive spring, Henderson groused
that the Red Sox were underpaying him.
Interim general manager Mike Port reminded Henderson of the
conditions he had agreed to.
"Oh, that?" Henderson replied. "I canceled that contract."
Says Port, "It was the first and only time I've ever had a player
tell me he canceled his contract."
Red Sox president Larry Lucchino telephoned San Diego G.M. Kevin
Towers, asking how Towers had appeased Henderson during their
contract squabbles in the past. "I was on the golf course late in
spring training one year when Rickey called to close a deal,"
Towers says. "I was putting, and my wife took the call. I said to
her, 'Ask him what he wants.' She said, 'He wants a living
allowance.' And I did it. That's how we closed the deal."
Lucchino liked that idea. The Red Sox agreed to pick up the tab
on the suite Henderson was renting at the Boston Ritz-Carlton,
which ran $10,000 a month.
Then there was the time....
Henderson was ready to sign a $1.1 million contract with Oakland
in 1998 when he demanded a suite on the road. Athletics general
manager Billy Beane told him it was club policy not to give such
clauses. Henderson insisted.
"Tell you what," Beane said. "As general manager I get a suite on
the road. I don't make a lot of trips. I'll give you my suite
whenever I don't go."
And while we're on the subject of contracts....
After he signed a four-year, $12 million deal with Oakland in
1989, Henderson complained every spring about being underpaid. To
underscore his unhappiness, Henderson made a habit of reporting
to spring training after the team's reporting date, though before
the mandatory date established by the Basic Agreement. Trouble
was, one spring teammate and star rightfielder Jose Canseco
adopted the same tactic.
"Rickey was in town in Arizona," traveling secretary Mickey
Morabito says. "But he didn't want to report before Jose did. So
Rickey would drive into camp, and if he didn't see Jose's car
parked there, he'd drive back out. Rickey made sure he was the
last one to report."
Rickey's Favorite Pregame Routines
1. Flexing and swinging a bat naked or in his underwear in front
of a full-length mirror, saying, "Rickey's the best."
2. Playing cards.
3. Playing dominos.
4. Ignoring meetings to review opposing pitchers. Henderson prefers knowing nothing about what they throw.
Henderson has played for eight major league teams, including the
Athletics, with whom he has had four stints. It's easy for him to
lose track of his teammates (box, page 78).
"There're countless guys that he's been teammates with, he has no
idea of their names--countless," says Colorado Rockies bench
coach Jamie Quirk, who played with Henderson for three years in
Oakland. "It's not like if you got brought up from Triple A and
walked in the locker room, Rickey's going to stick out his hand
[to greet you]."
Henderson lockered next to Beane, then an outfielder for the
Athletics, in 1989. Oakland sent Beane to the minor leagues. Six
weeks later, Beane was called back to the Athletics.
"Hey, man, where have you been?" Henderson said. "Haven't seen
you for a while."
There was another time....
Art Kusnyer was a coach on the Athletics staff. One day during
the season, after Kusnyer threw batting practice, Henderson told
him, "You throw good BP. Are you comin' on the road with us?"
A similar thing happened with the New York Mets....
In June 1999, when Henderson was playing for the Mets, the club
fired hitting coach Tom Robson. Henderson saw reporters scurrying
around the clubhouse and asked a teammate, "What happened?"
"They fired Robson," was the reply.
"Robson?" Henderson said. "Who's he?"
Which calls to mind another story about how when Henderson joined
the Seattle Mariners in 2000 he saw first baseman John Olerud,
his former Mets teammate, fielding grounders while wearing a
batting helmet and remarked, "That's strange. I played with a guy
in New York" who did the same thing. Alas, the story, though it
appeared in many publications, is one of the rare Rickey tales
that falls entirely on the side of Fiction, having been
fabricated by members of the Mets' training staff.
Then again, in San Diego....
Padres G.M. Towers is often called KT. Fred Uhlman Jr. is his
assistant. The two of them would often walk into the clubhouse
together to meet with manager Bruce Bochy. Whenever Henderson saw
Towers and Uhlmann he would say to his two bosses, "Hi, Kevin.
There was another time in San Diego....
Henderson was boarding the team bus, walking toward the back to
sit near Hoffman and catcher Brian Johnson. Tony Gwynn, seated
near the front, stopped Henderson and said, "Rickey, you sit up
here. You've got tenure."
"Ten?" Henderson said defiantly. "Rickey got 20 years in the big
Ah, yes. If Henderson is not best known for his speed or his
strike zone ("Smaller than Hitler's heart," the late Jim Murray
wrote), it must be his penchant for referring to himself as
Rickey. Or as Rickey says, "A lot of times people talk about [my
using the] third party."
One off-season, in search of a team, he left a message on
Towers's voice mail that went like this: "Kevin, this is Rickey.
Calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball."
"One time," says Mariners catcher Ben Davis, who played with
Henderson on the Padres, "Rickey came walking into the clubhouse
with this denim outfit and big suede hat. And he goes, 'Rickey
got a big ranch [in California]. Rickey got a big bull. Rickey
got horses. Rickey got chickens and everything.
"And Rickey got a 20-gallon hat.'"
"In 2000," said Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who played with
Henderson that season in Seattle, "Rickey was scuffling down the
stretch, and there was some speculation that he wouldn't even be
on the postseason roster. Rickey would say, 'Don't worry about
Rickey. Rickey's an October player. Rickey's a postseason
player.' And he was. He helped us beat Chicago.
"Sometimes he'd come back to the dugout after an umpire called
him out, and I'd go, 'Rickey, was that a strike?' And he'd go,
'Maybe, but not to Rickey.'"
Rickey's Rules for a Long Career
1. Run three to five miles every other day. "Some guys, once the
season starts, they relax, eat, do nothing. I feel sluggish that
way. I got to get up and do something, get the blood back
circulating and get the oxygen back in my body."
2. Do 200 sit-ups and 100 push-ups a day. "I don't do a lot of
weights. Some guys, they want to be Hulk Hogan. Not me."
3. Stretch before bedtime. "Do your stretching before you sleep.
That way you wake up loose."
4. Eat plenty of ice cream. "I like to eat ice cream at night. I
got to have something sweet before I go to sleep."
Late one night, after a game in New York, Henderson ordered room
service, but the order wound up going to Bochy's room.
"I couldn't believe it," the manager says. "A huge bowl of ice
cream and a big slab of cheesecake with sauce on it. I'm
thinking, Where does it go?"
Henderson led the league in stolen bases at age 39, the oldest
player to do so, with 66. (The Florida Marlins' two-time stolen
base champ Luis Castillo, 27, has never had that many in a
season.) When Rickey was 40, his on-base percentage was .423. He
has played 24 big league seasons; no outfielder has played more.
At 44, according to Bears teammate Mike Piercy, 26, "His
flexibility is amazing. I'd get hurt if I tried to stretch like
him. He's like Bruce Lee. I grew up idolizing him. And he doesn't
look any different now."
Henderson's durability is remarkable considering the pounding his
body has taken from his baserunning and hundreds of headfirst
slides using a technique borrowed from ... commercial airliners.
"It was really like a dream," he says. "I learned that the more
closer to the ground [you are], the less pounding you take. We
were going to Kansas City in an airplane, and we came in and
bounced. Boom, boom, boom. Then we left there, came in I don't
know where, and the plane came in smooth. I thought [the pilot]
got lower to the ground, and that's how I developed my slide. I
started to see how low I could get to the ground."
Tony La Russa managed Henderson for parts of seven seasons in
Oakland. He reached an agreement with Rickey: Henderson would
tell him directly, rather than through the trainers, when he
needed a day off.
"He rises to the occasion--the big moment--better than anybody
I've ever seen," La Russa says. "But when he was tapped, he'd
take a couple of days off. One day [in 1993] he came in and said,
'My head's not right.' It turns out he was mad about the rumors
he was getting traded. I wasn't going to push him. If you pushed
him and he didn't want to play, he played like a cigar-store
Indian. He'd take an 0 for 4, and you were better off playing
There was that one time....
Mets manager Bobby Valentine removed Henderson from Game 6 of the
1999 NLCS, replacing him with Melvin Mora. New York lost on a
series-ending bases-loaded walk by Kenny Rogers. Henderson
reportedly was in the clubhouse playing cards with teammate Bobby
Bonilla when the deciding run scored.
Asked about the incident, Henderson offers a qualified denial:
"Kenny Rogers came in the clubhouse, and we was playing cards? If
Kenny Rogers made it off that mound and we was playing cards,
everybody in America, even the press, would have been there when
we were playing. So you can't say that.
"Was it an excuse? These two guys [Henderson and Bonilla], you
had took us out. We tied the game up, and you took me and him
right back out of the game. What for? For defensive purposes that
you said? Moore [sic]. That's your judgment and you're my chief
and you're the manager. And I have no say-so. Does it frustrate
me? Yes, because during the postseason I feel that's when the
people that's gonna rise to the top should rise to the top, and I
feel I was always one of them type of players."
Henderson is an avowed card shark and competition junkie. He will
play almost anything with scoring, especially if it involves a
friendly wager. Two years ago Shooty Babitt, a former Oakland
teammate and current Arizona Diamondbacks scout, chided him for
not playing well in spring training.
"Next thing you know we're playing Strikeout [a simple
pitcher-versus-batter game] on the tennis court next to where he
was staying," Babitt says. "He challenged me. We played for an
hour--with a tennis ball. And he still owes me 50 bucks for a
game of H-O-R-S-E we played."
"Every day," says Yankees third baseman Robin Ventura, who played
with Henderson on the Mets, "there would be a big argument in the
clubhouse, with guys accusing Rickey of cheating at cards. He'd
get up and say, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I'm
That Christmas morning when Rickey was born in the backseat? His
mother, Bobbie, had gone into labor late on Christmas Eve. It was
snowing in Chicago. She telephoned her husband, John Henley, to
come home and drive her to the hospital. John said no, he didn't
want to rush home right away.
Rickey's father was playing poker--and he was winning big.
Rickey's Rankings on Alltime Lists
1. Runs: First (2,288)
2. Walks: First (2,179)
3. Stolen Bases: First (1,403)
4. Leadoff home runs: First (80)
5. Times on Base: Third (5,316)
6. Games: Fourth (3,051)
Baseball is designed to be an egalitarian sort of game in which
one player among the 18 is not supposed to dominate. Basketball
and football can stop the proceedings and design a play to put
the ball in the hands of a chosen player. A starting pitcher, who
begins the action in a game, takes four days off for every one he
works. Yet in the past quarter century Henderson and Barry Bonds
have come closest to dominating a baseball game the way Michael
Jordan could a basketball game.
"If you're one run down, there's nobody you'd ever rather have up
at the plate than Rickey," says Mariners coach Rene Lachemann, a
former Oakland coach. "You didn't want to walk him, because that
was a double--he'd steal second--but if you didn't throw it over
the plate, he wouldn't swing. And if you did throw it over the
plate, he could knock it out of the park."
There was one time....
Henderson was taking a lead off first base when he held up two
fingers toward Baltimore Orioles third baseman Floyd Rayford.
Rayford was perplexed ... that is, until Rickey was standing next
to him two stolen bases later.
And another time....
In the 1989 World Series, during which the A's swept the San
Francisco Giants, Henderson reached base 11 times in the four
games and stole three bases. Giants catcher Terry Kennedy grew so
weary of seeing Rickey at first base that he grumbled, "Just go
ahead and steal the base!"
With his showman's style--he invented the snatch catch and the
slo-mo home run trot--Henderson was hated as an opponent, beloved
as a teammate.
"One of my favorite teammates of all time," Brian Johnson says.
"I grew up in Oakland, and he was an icon to me. When I was in
San Diego I lockered next to him, and my biggest fear was that he
was a bad guy. It was a breath of fresh air to find out he was
the nicest guy, a genuine good guy and a great teammate."
"One of the best teammates I've ever had," Rodriguez says. "He
made the game fun every day,"
Says La Russa, "In the clubhouse, on the plane, on the buses,
Rickey was anything but the egotistical superstar who kept to
himself. He was right in the middle of all the conversations, the
cutting up. He is so much better a teammate than is the
perception. If you asked anybody on those Oakland teams, I would
bet you'd find that everybody liked Rickey as a person."
"Let me tell you something," Towers says. "I get e-mails daily
from fans saying, 'Sign Rickey.' I get up to 100 a day. I get
more calls and e-mails about him than anybody. I understand.
We've had some special players come through San Diego. But
there's an aura about him nobody else has."
Rickey's Top Forrest Gump-like World Series Whereabouts
1. Joe Carter's series-ending home run in 1993: on second base
(which caused pitcher Mitch Williams to use a slide-step and
hurry his delivery).
2. The 1989 earthquake: on a clubhouse toilet.
It shouldn't end like this for the Greatest Leadoff Hitter Ever,
not here on Broad Street, not here with only about 1,000 people
in the stands and kids in hot-dog costumes racing around the
bases; not here, where players have to slip 75 cents into a
vending machine if they want a soft drink in the clubhouse and
the meal money is $18, which doesn't make for a very exciting
game of Pick It.
"I wish he wouldn't have done it," Quirk, Henderson's former
teammate, says of his signing with Newark. "I played with him
three years. I wish he would retire, wait his five years and go
to the Hall of Fame and live happily ever after. I don't know why
he needs to do what he's doing. But who are we to say?"
Rickey played sparingly for Boston last year, getting 179 at
bats. He hit .223 with five homers, 16 RBIs, eight stolen bases
and a .369 on-base percentage. (The league average was .331.)
John Vander Wal, Ron Coomer, Carlos Baerga and Lou Merloni all
had similar seasons or worse. All of those veterans were invited
to big league camps this spring and are still playing. No one
offered Henderson that chance. His main team, the Athletics,
invited Ron Gant (.338 OBP last year) to camp as a
righthanded-hitting backup outfielder.
The word among G.M.'s was that Henderson's bat had slowed and
that he appeared to have trouble accepting a limited role after
years of stardom. "His bat had slowed two years ago," Towers
says. "I think he's a decent platoon player. But if he's a
part-time player playing once a week, people think he would have
a hard time handling that. Rickey's game has always been about
being out there every day and putting on a show. It's tough for
him to sit and watch. We're going with young players right now,
but I can tell you I'd hate to see him go out the way he's going
out. If he's still there in September, I'd like to think we could
work something out to see him back in the big leagues."
Rickey has interpreted the silence of the general managers
differently. Instead of hearing a no-confidence vote on his
skills, he heard them challenging him to a game of Strikeout. Oh,
yeah? Bring it on. I'll show you.
Rickey knows that he can still play baseball. He can still lay
off pitches dangerously close to the strike zone, he can still
make a pitcher perspire just by taking that cocksure lead off
first base, he can still fly close to the ground, jetlike, into
second base, and he can still give value to a paid admission.
Newark isn't Utopia. But it is baseball. And, on balance, he is
paying to play it. He took the job for $3,000 a month and rented
an apartment in Manhattan for $4,000 a month. He travels with a
longtime friend to every home and away game (except those in
Nashua, N.H., where he stays at the team hotel) by commuting,
like some Pony League player, from Manhattan. Sometimes his ride
home takes two hours. At week's end the Bears' leadoff man was
hitting .352 with a .477 on-base percentage.
"If I feel I don't have the skills, I'd be happy to hang up my
shoes and go be with my kids," he says. "But I know I have the
skill. The speed guys who can score runs? I think I'm better than
the guys in the major leagues. Will I get the chance?"
Henderson sits on a gray folding metal chair in front of his
locker in the Bears' clubhouse. These are gym lockers--red metal
lockers with doors and vents--not the cherry wood stalls you find
in plush big league clubhouses. Strips of adhesive tape serve as
name tags for the has-beens, never-weres and hardball lifers of
the independent team, including one for the impossibly named
Damon Ponce DeLeon, a pitcher.
One of the two overhead television sets carries the news that
David Cone, four years younger than Henderson, has retired, this
time for good. It was Jim Bouton who wrote that a ballplayer dies
twice--once like everybody else, but first, when his career ends.
Cone has found his baseball mortality. Then Henderson is told
that the Athletics have cut Gant. His eyes moisten on that news.
He cannot help but think that was his roster spot, his shot.
"I'm trying to figure what's the problem," he says. "Why I can't
get a chance. Who did I step on? Who did I do something bad to?
If [that's it], I apologize, because I'm not that kind of
Rickey needs a Day. He needs the microphone, the gifts, the
goodbyes, the proper eulogy for a Hall of Fame career. "If I was
still playing baseball and went off that way, it would be fine,"
he says. "If I'm not playing baseball, I don't feel that is the
way I'd want to go. Why bring me back [only] for a Day when I can
play the game?"
Boston gave him a Day last year, though it was more an
appreciation than a send-off.
And that was the time....
One of the team's owners, Tom Werner, asked Rickey what might be
a good idea for a gift from the team.
"I always wanted a mobile home," Rickey said.
Werner, staggered, said, "A mobile phone?"
"No," Rickey said, "a mobile home."
Werner asked Rickey for another suggestion. He asked for "John
Henry's Mercedes," referring to the vehicle of another of the
team's owners. Werner explained the club might have difficulty
finding and taking delivery of the same make and model on short
"No, I mean John Henry's Mercedes," Rickey said.
Henry wasn't about to hand over his car. On Rickey's Day, a new
car was being delivered to Fenway Park just as Henderson arrived.
It was a shiny red Thunderbird.
"Whose ugly car is that?" Henderson said.
That was the car the Red Sox purchased for him as a gift. "It's
an old man's car, and I'm not an old man," Henderson said. He
told the club it would have to pay to have the car shipped to his
home in Arizona. He gave the car to Angela.
Yes, he needs one last Day in a big league park so the ending
isn't so messy. And so people can get together and tell their
favorite Rickey stories.
Like the time....
Rickey was pulled over by a police officer after a night game in
San Diego for speeding with his lights off. As the officer
approached the car, Rickey, without saying a word, lowered his
window only about an inch, just far enough to stick out two
fingers holding a $100 bill. (The officer let him and his money
Or the time....
Rickey was asked if he owned the Garth Brooks album that has the
song Friends in Low Places. "Rickey doesn't have albums," he
answered. "Rickey has CDs."
Or the time someone asked him what he thought about speculation
that as many as 50% of big leaguers used steroids. "Well, I'm
not," he said. "So that's 49 [percent] right there."
Or the time he developed frostbite in August. The Blue Jays used
a newfangled ice treatment on his ankle. "What is Rickey, a
guinea pig?" he asked.
Or the time he bragged that his Manhattan apartment had such a
great view he could see "the Entire State Building."
Or the time he settled a feud with Yankees manager Lou Piniella,
saying, "Let bye-byes be bye-byes."
Until that Day he waits and wonders. He thinks about winter ball
after this and maybe Japan if the majors still haven't called. He
is one of the treasures of the game, and he is left behind in its
basement--Sinatra playing the Catskills, Olivier doing summer
stock, Toscanini at the Elks band shell.
"If they say your skill's gone and you can't do nothing, then I
can see it's time, but I ain't had a club yet that says that,"
Henderson says. "And that's the shame. As long as I've been
playing the game, what I accomplished ... for me to be in this
situation, really, it's a shame to major league baseball.
"But that's life. And I digest it. Because I believe the Good
Lord has put me here for something. And He never tells me that
road I'm going to put you on is always going to be gravy."
A road without gravy is no sort of place for this kind of story
to end. And so, at 44, ever independent, the legend goes on.
RICKEY BY THE NUMBERS
28 Seasons playing professional baseball for Henderson (the 93rd
player taken in the 1976 amateur draft), the most among any
active player in the four major sports. Jesse Orosco, in his 26th
year, ranks second.
11 Players selected for last year's All-Star Game who were not
born when Henderson's pro career began, including Andruw Jones,
Alfonso Soriano and Barry Zito.
6 U.S. presidents in office during Henderson's pro career--from
Gerald Ford to George W. Bush.
641 Major league teammates of Henderson, ranging alphabetically
from Kurt Abbott to Paul Zuvella.
712 Games played with Henderson by centerfielder Dwayne Murphy,
the most by any Henderson teammate.
2 Times that Henderson was traded in deals involving righthanded
reliever Eric Plunk. Henderson was traded four times in his
career, for 12 different players.
407 Players with more career triples than Henderson's 66.
3 Hall of Famers (Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro and Dave Winfield) who
played with Henderson. Likely future enshrinees among his
teammates are Roberto Alomar, Dennis Eckersley, Tony Gwynn, Pedro
Martinez, Mark McGwire, Paul Molitor, Jack Morris, Mike Piazza
and Alex Rodriguez.
25 Players, including Henderson, with 3,000 hits.
5 Hitters among those 25 who never had 200 hits in a season. The
players are Cap Anson, Henderson, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield and
10 American League All-Star selections. He has never made the NL
1 AL MVP Award (1990).
6 Times he finished in the Top 10 in AL MVP voting between 1980
0 MVP votes after 1990.
1 Gold Glove (1981).
--Compiled by David Sabino