What does the perfect power hitter look like? Does he have Babe Ruth's legs, Hank Aaron's wrists, Mickey Mantle's arms or Ted Williams' mind? Does the perfect strikeout artist have Greg Maddux's brain, Walter Johnson's fastball, Sandy Koufax's curve or Pedro Martinez's changeup? Does the slickest-fielding shortstop have Ozzie Smith's legs, Cal Ripken's build or Shawon Dunston's arm?
Perfection in baseball, as in life, is maddeningly elusive. It is found not so much in one player, but in many, across generations, and the memory of it is seen differently and vividly on an endless loop played in the minds of a million fans.
When it comes to envisioning the perfect leadoff hitter, though, there is no need for speculation or debate. Simply picture Rickey Henderson, in his prime, shirt unbuttoned (an Oakland A's jersey, of course). But how do you recall him best? Is it of him scrunched way, way down in the batter's box, with a strike zone that was famously referred to by the late, great Jim Murray as being "smaller than Hitler's heart"? If so, you'll remember the man who ranks second all-time with 2,190 walks, the man who amassed 3,055 hits and a .401 on-base percentage or launched a record 81 leadoff home runs.
Or do you picture him on the basepaths, one arm resting on his knee, the other hanging loose, fingers dancing back and forth in anticipation while he stretched his lead to dangerous and exciting lengths? This is the Henderson who would obliterate every stolen base record that ever mattered, and invent a few that didn't. The one who swiped 130 bases in a season and 1,406 in his career. The one who scored a major-league record 2,295 runs.
It is the magic and majesty of Henderson that, somehow, he managed to be both of these players. Choosing an all-time team in baseball is nearly impossible, but if you had to make out a lineup card for a single game with your life riding in the balance, the name of Rickey Nelson Henley Henderson would be at the top of it.
As he prepares for his induction into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, this is the Henderson we should be remembering, not the cartoonish version who bounced from team to team over the last several years of his career while referring to himself in the third person and leaving behind a trail of yes-he-really-did-that tales. To be sure, this will be the most eagerly anticipated induction speech Cooperstown has seen since Phil Rizzuto in 1994, but focusing on the unintentional comedy in store on Sunday does a disservice to the man who will be speaking because it paints him as a caricature while diminishing his achievements that are unmatched in the game's annals.
This is a man, after all, about whom fellow American League All-Star Rich Gedman said before the 1986 Midsummer Classic, "He's built like Superman. When you play against him, you try to say, 'Don't let him bother you,' because there are times there is nothing you can do to stop him from doing whatever he wants to do. He's from another planet. Unfortunately, you can't help thinking about him. We're only human."
If those sentiments reflected the conventional thinking at the time, it wasn't long before Henderson's greatness was being taken for granted. And while he did eventually join the ranks of mere mortals, that didn't mean he stopped being a game-changing dynamo. But he did stop being appreciated as he had in his earlier days even though he remained a force to be reckoned with into a fourth decade in the majors. He made the last of his 10 All-Star teams in 1991, at age 32, and while most players began slowing down at that age, Henderson went on to play 12 more seasons. And while he was past his prime, he remained arguably the best leadoff hitter in the game most of the rest of that decade.
The Blue Jays acquired Henderson on the day of the trade deadline in 1993 and he helped them to their second straight World Series title. He posted an OBP of .400 or better seven of the next eight years (his worst over that time was .376 at age 39, the same year he led the American League in stolen bases and walks). The next season, a 40-year-old Henderson batted .400 with six stolen bases for the Mets in their NLDS triumph over the Diamondbacks. By the time he finally retired -- it's probably more accurate to say, "by the time teams stopped asking him to play" -- he ranked fourth on the all-time games played list.
Henderson could also be dismissed as a hot dog, and though he has a sizable ego -- "I put fear into pitchers," he once told me and insists he could still play today, at age 50 -- it was not a put-on. "People think he was a hot dog -- so did I, until I played with him," Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersely told MLB.com this week. "But he wasn't hot-dogging it, he was just being Rickey. That's who he was. It wasn't an act at all."
With all due respect to fellow inductees Jim Rice and the late Joe Gordon, it is Henderson who is the star among stars this weekend in upstate New York. The game has seen its share of power-speed combos throughout its history, from Ty Cobb (legend has it Cobb once hit two home runs in a game against Ruth's Yankees just to prove he could hit them when he wanted to) to Willie Mays to Barry Bonds, but none managed to maintain their dominance on the bases for as long as Henderson did, while also providing impressive pop, especially at the top of a lineup. In other words, even among the immortals he will now be forever enshrined with, he was unique. And that, more than whatever malapropisms dot his speech this weekend, is the true measure of Rickey being Rickey.
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