WHAT A SALARY DRIVE

The brilliant season of leftfielder Rickey Henderson has been lost in the Athletics' plunge into the cellar of the American League West. Leave it to the temperamental Henderson to be riding high when the team is struggling. At week's end he was tied for third in the league in hitting (.327), second in on-base percentage (.469), tied for sixth in runs scored (70) and fifth in steals (29). He also led Oakland in home runs, with 16.

Since the All-Star break Henderson had 18 hits in 39 at bats (.462), including three doubles and four home runs. After watching him hit two homers in Boston last Thursday, Oakland manager Tony La Russa said he had seen Henderson in hot streaks before, but "he's on a higher level now. He can put a team over the top."

A contender, that is. Henderson would make the Red Sox the clear favorite to win the American League Hast. The same would apply if he were with the Yankees or the Blue Jays, even though both those teams need a pitcher more than an outfielder. Henderson is simply one of the top five players in baseball. He can hit any pitcher, he manufactures a run or two a game, and, at 34, he is in remarkably good shape. La Russa figures Henderson can play five or six more years.

But because he can be a free agent after this season, 1993 might be Henderson's last year in Oakland. He says he wants to stay with the A's, but he wants a huge contract even more. Look for Henderson to follow the big money, and it isn't likely to be in Oakland, which is on a tight budget.

If the A's don't think they can afford Henderson, it would make sense for them to trade him to a contender for the stretch run. That, however, could get complicated. First, Henderson would want a big chunk of money from Oakland just to waive the no-trade clause in his contract. Then he would want his new team to extend his contract four or five years.

BIDS NOW BEING TAKEN

Two National League pitchers might wind up settling the American League divisional races, depending on which contenders can strike a deal before the trading deadline passes on Saturday. Rival general managers have been playing a high-stakes poker game, each waiting to see if one of his counterparts makes a move for these starters:

•Dennis Martinez, Expos. The Blue Jays, Orioles, Royals, White Sox and Yankees are among the teams who have expressed interest in Martinez. He is eligible for free agency after the season and is expected to leave Montreal. Expo general manager Dan Duquette says he's leaning toward keeping Martinez and getting two draft choices as compensation when Martinez goes the free-agent route. A Montreal source says it's "99 percent sure" that Martinez won't be traded.

•Tim Belcher, Reds. He too can be a free agent after the season. The White Sox won't part with any of their top pitching prospects (Jason Bere, Scott Ruffcorn and Jim Baldwin), killing a possible deal with Cincinnati. The Mariners, Rangers and Yankees have approached the Reds about Belcher, who has already cleaned out his locker expecting a trade.

WALKS ON THE WILD SIDE

On July 21 Astro shortstop Jose Uribe walked in the fifth inning of a game in Pittsburgh—even though the count was 3 and 2. Home plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt lost track of the pitches, as did the scoreboard operator and most everyone else. As for Uribe, when Wendelstedt said "Ball 4," he just took off for first.

"About 12 guys on our team sort of saw it," says Pirate third base coach Rich Donnelly, who the next day reviewed videotape of the game and confirmed the error. "It's the wave of the future: Three balls for a walk, and two strikes and you're out. It would make the games shorter. We tried to do the same thing the next night. Jay Bell took a slider in the dirt on a 2-2 pitch and ran to first. It didn't work."

The night after Uribe's unexpected free pass, Travis Fryman of the Tigers drew a legitimate base on balls, and then circled the bases on three wild pitches by the Royals' Enrique Burgos. "I've never seen that before in my life," said a veteran scout. "And I hope I never see it again."

STRIKING OUT

Don Fehr, the Major League Players Association's executive director, caught a number of players by surprise at the All-Star Game on July 13, when he said Labor Day loomed as a possible strike date. While a walkout remains unlikely, the American League's player representative of the MLPA, Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach, says, "It's definitely an option. It's potentially very serious."

Steinbach, who met with union associates in New York City after the All-Star break, says there has been no movement in talks with the owners about a new collective bargaining agreement, even though it was the owners who had reopened the current labor contract in December. A strike in September could jump-start the talks, Steinbach says, "because we can't let it get into January, February, March. You can't get it done then."

The MLPA is waiting to see if the owners come out of their next meeting, from Aug. 11 through 13, in Kohler, Wis., with a negotiating strategy. Steinbach says he is well aware of how damaging a strike would be in the middle of some terrific divisional races, not to mention an assault on .400 by Toronto first baseman John Olerud. "But we've got to look at all our options," says Steinbach.

SHORT HOPS

After trying Juan Bell, Kim Batiste and Mariano Duncan at shortstop, the Phillies may have found their man in 23-year-old rookie Kevin Stocker. He was hitting .372 with two errors in 11 games at week's end, and he had impressed everyone with his instincts for the game since being called up from Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre on July 6. And please, no more talk that a team can't win with a rookie playing shortstop. Fifteen teams have won either a division or a pennant while starting a rookie shortstop....

If the Giants' Barry Bonds drives in 100 runs and San Francisco wins the National League West, he will become only the second National League player to drive in 100 runs for a first-place team four years in a row. (George Kelly did it for the New York Giants from 1921 to '24.) Bonds had 100 or more RBIs with the Pirates, who won the East the last three years....

Hooray for Andy Benes! A righthander with the Padres who will be eligible for free agency after the 1995 season, he has informed San Diego that he doesn't want to sign a long-term contract because he wants to be with a winner. That's one factor the payroll-slashing Padre ownership has overlooked: By unloading its high-salaried stars, the team has become so bad that the players it plans to build around, like the 25-year-old Benes, don't want to wait out the rebuilding process. Pitchers Greg Harris and Bruce Hurst won't have to wait; they were traded to Colorado on Monday night....

Last Saturday, on the 10th anniversary of the famous Pine Tar Game, in which the Royals' George Brett had a home run taken away because he had pine tar too high on his bat, Brett hit two homers against the Tigers—with a bat that had no pine tar on it. The bat was clean because he had just starting using it the previous day. Brett said none of his teammates kidded him about the Pine Tar Game "because 10 years ago, most of them were in high school or college." The pitcher who gave up Brett's two homers on Saturday, Sean Bergman, was 13 at the time of the Pine Tar Game.

PHOTO PHOTOOTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT USAAs free agency looms, Henderson is running up big numbers.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)