Keith Richards' guitar started pounding out over the Oakland Coliseum sound system, and the Athletics took the field to begin the playoffs against the Toronto Blue Jays. When Mick Jagger began shouting Start Me Up, Rickey Henderson strutted out of the dugout. Dancing his way through the leftfield foul territory to the staccato beat of the Rolling Stones, he waved a pointing finger at the fans in rhythm with the music, like Jagger gyrating across the front of a stage. When Henderson stopped in leftfield for the national anthem, he was still working the crowd. "Who could be nervous at a time like this?" Henderson said later. "This is showtime."
By the time the Rickey Henderson Show, a record-setting speed-and-power act, had concluded its run in Toronto six days later, it had reduced the Blue Jays to an unwilling supporting cast. On Sunday, before the A's wrapped up a four-games-to-one victory for the American League pennant, Toronto outfielder Lloyd Moseby, Henderson's childhood friend from the parks of Oakland, sat in the clubhouse and smiled ruefully. "Rickey hasn't changed since he was a little kid," said Moseby. "He could strut before he could walk, and he always lived for the lights. When he was 10, we used to say, 'Don't let Rickey get to you, because that's his game.' Twenty years later, I'm telling my teammates the same thing. But it didn't do much good."
Back on the October stage for the first time since he was a 22-year-old playing for an overmatched Oakland team against the New York Yankees in the strike-warped 1981 playoffs, Henderson proved to Moseby and the Jays that he always gets to you. The Toronto scouting report began with "Keep Henderson off base." Sure. In the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, as Dave Stieb got ready to deliver his first pitch, Henderson called time, stepped out of the box and tied his shoe. "He was saying, 'I'm going to get to you, and you can't beat me,' " said Moseby. "That's Rickey."
Stieb walked Henderson, who promptly stole second base and set the tone for a five-game explosion that may go down as the best individual performance since the playoff system began in 1969. In a series that was more bitterly fought than the 4-1 outcome suggests, Henderson was, in fact, kept off base nine times. Trouble was, he went to the plate on 23 occasions. He walked seven times, and five of those times he scored. He broke Lou Brock's postseason record with eight stolen bases. He won the first game with a takeout slide, stole four bases in the second game, hit two home runs in the fourth game, got hot dog rolls thrown at him and received a standing ovation for being picked off. When it was all over, he had led the series in runs (eight), on-base percentage (.609), slugging (1.000), homers (two), RBIs (five), total bases (15), steals, walks and conversations with the fans.
October 15, 1989
"When I was traded from the Yankees [on June 20], my one regret was that I never brought a World Series to New York," said Henderson after Sunday's finale. "That's the show I've always wanted to be in, ever since I was a kid sitting in the Oakland Coliseum watching the A's. I was a fan. That's why I don't get upset when fans yell at me. I used to yell at players. I just loved a performance. So every time I get out there, I try to give them a performance."
He performed dominantly:
•Game 1. With Athletics on first and second and the score tied 3-3 in the sixth, Henderson was hit by a pitch from reliever Jim Acker, loading the bases with one out. Oakland's Carney Lansford rapped Acker's next pitch right at shortstop Tony Fernandez, who flipped to second baseman Nelson Liriano. But Henderson had gotten a running jump off first, and Liriano was taken out by his Ty Cobb-style slide. Liriano's throw went 15 feet wide of first base and two runs scored. For good measure, in the eighth inning Henderson walked, stole second, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on Lansford's single, all leading to a 7-3 victory.
•Game 2. "I tried to tell our players not to let Henderson get them all worked up," said Toronto manager Cito Gaston before the game. "The more he gets under your skin, the more he'll put it on."
Henderson likes to do a little something to prevent the opposing pitcher from delivering his first pitch when he's ready. "Tick 'em off before they get started," he says with a smile.
"That's just what he did," said Blue Jay starter Todd Stottlemyre, who watched Henderson hold up the game in the bottom of the first to rub out the back line of the batter's box. He then hit a leadoff single. In the fourth, with Oakland trailing 1-0, he worked Stottlemyre for a walk and stole second and third. A Lansford single and a Mark McGwire double put the Athletics ahead 2-1.
In the seventh inning, after getting such a jump on his steal of second that Whitt couldn't make a throw, Henderson pulled up a few steps short of second and walked to the bag. "That kind of hotdogging isn't right," said Whitt (box, page 34). The A's went on to win 6-3, and the next day Henderson was quoted in the papers as saying, "I can steal on Whitt whenever I want."
•Game 3. When Henderson was announced as the game's leadoff hitter, the SkyDome crowd—which is so noisy that the concession stands sell earplugs for $6 a pair—booed lustily. As Jimmy Key prepared to make his first pitch, Henderson stepped out of the box, turned to Whitt behind the plate and said, "How're you doing?" Whitt gave a curt "hello" and stared dead ahead. Henderson leaned closer and said with a laugh, "I can still steal on you anytime I want." Whitt stared ahead.
Henderson finally stepped in, walked and eventually scored on a sacrifice fly. In the third inning, he doubled, stole third and came home on a single. But Key, Acker and Tom Henke pitched Toronto to a 7-3 victory. Henderson, however, was undaunted. "If they think my stealing is hotdogging," he said to reporters, "I tell you what I'll do: Tomorrow I won't run. I'll just hit a couple of home runs—and go as slowly around the bases as they want."
•Game 4. Mike Flanagan became the only Blue Jay pitcher to retire Henderson in the first inning. But in the third with one on, one out and no score, Henderson drove a ball to centerfield that landed 30 feet beyond the 400-foot sign, prompting a home run trot that included a stutter-step at every base and an eight-part forearm-bashing ceremony with his teammates at home plate. "He did that in little league," said Moseby.
Later in the third Flanagan tried to get a fastball in on Jose Canseco, who sent a Concorde toward leftfield. "I just shouted, 'Oh, my God!' " said A's designated hitter Dave Parker. The ball landed in the fifth row of the fifth deck, which is as high up as the roof of an 11-story building. "Biblical proportions," said Oakland outfielder Billy Beane. While Canseco claimed the homer was only "one of my top 40," it was one of those home runs that will be remembered 40 years from now.
The two homers gave starter Bob Welch a 3-0 lead and left the fans howling at both Henderson and Canseco. As they showered Henderson with hot dog rolls and taunts, he went over to the stands between innings and started jiving with the spectators. They chanted, "Steroids, steroids," to Canseco, who flexed his muscles and laughed.
Henderson fulfilled his two-homer promise by ripping another two-run shot, off the leftfield foul pole in the fourth. The decisive run in Oakland's 6-5 win was scored in the seventh, when Canseco masterfully pushed an inside fastball into right for an RBI single.
•Game 5. Stieb started the game by, yes, walking Henderson. Yes, Henderson stole second. Yes, he scored on Canseco's single into center. In the early innings, Toronto hit one line drive after another off A's starter Dave Stewart, only to watch the Walt Weiss-Mike Gallego Ballet Company turn them into outs. Oakland hit only one ball hard in the first five innings when, yes, Henderson lined a triple into right center to score Weiss in the third and give Oakland a 2-0 lead. "It was as if Rickey said, 'Oh, I don't have one of those. I'll take a triple,' " said Weiss after the 4-3 win.
Ever since the 1985 playoffs, when Toronto collapsed after building a three-games-to-one lead over Kansas City, the Blue Jays have had to live with the stigma of being a team that folds. But these Jays erased the black mark. Under Gaston, who took over as manager on May 15, they came back from 10 games out of first. They won five extra-inning games in the tense days of September. And in these playoffs they nearly overcame a 6-2 deficit in Game 4 and a 4-0 deficit in Game 5. "If we'd played anything less than great," said La Russa, "they'd have swept us in the Dome."
But the A's never lost their confident edge. During the A's first workout in Toronto, Henderson clowned, sang and kept saying, "Isn't this fun?" He wasn't alone. "Some may think of us as bad boys, but we're just crazy," said centerfielder Dave (Hendu) Henderson. "We may have more characters than the A's of the '70s," said Rickey. Parker got a new, bigger diamond earring for the postseason. Canseco is, well, Canseco. Hendu, who is the center of all clubhouse frivolity, has his own noisy section of fans in Oakland called Hendu's Bad Boys. Even the manager has his unconventional side: La Russa is a lawyer, an animal-rights activist and a sidekick of the rock band Styx.
Partly because Oakland's kookiness and cockiness don't always sit well with its opponents, these playoffs ended bitterly. When A's closer Dennis Eckersley, who finished all four A's wins, entered in the ninth inning of Game 5 with a 4-2 lead, Gaston asked the umpires to check Eckersley's glove for a foreign substance. "He dropped something on the ground," said Gaston afterward, "then stuffed it down his pants. But they wouldn't check his pants."
Gaston claimed Eckersley and A's third baseman Tony Phillips then called him obscene names, and Gaston stood in foul territory between third base and home plate, challenging them. "I said, 'Come across the white line, if you're man enough,' " said Gaston.
While the game was being delayed and the umpires were milling around the mound, Henderson, Hendu and Canseco stood together in left center, looking toward the upper decks of the SkyDome. Three outs from the World Series and a major controversy brewing in the infield: What were the three outfielders staring at? "Girls," said Hendu. "What do you think outfielders do between pitches?"
But in the playoffs? "Better girls," said Hendu. "More fun."
And what was Henderson saying out there? "I couldn't understand him," said Hendu. "He was singing."
He may never stop.