Art of the Steal
At 39, Rickey Henderson is still running like there's no tomorrow
This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue
Whatever happened to all the Mrs. Wilkersons? It was Tommie
Wilkerson, a guidance counselor at Oakland's Technical High in
the mid-1970s, who enjoyed watching stolen bases so much that
she promised young Rickey Henderson a quarter every time he
swiped one. "I just started running and never worried about
getting thrown out," Henderson says. "You go every chance you
get when you're stealing bases for your lunch money. Ever since
then I just never stopped running."
At 39, Henderson has run his way into a tie for the American
League lead with 23 stolen bases through Sunday, a startling
testament both to Henderson's amazing physical condition and the
lack of competition. The 20-year veteran becomes almost
melancholy when he harks back to his early days with the Oakland
A's and the spirited trash talking that took place between him
and bitter basestealing rivals such as Willie Wilson, Vince
Coleman and Tim Raines. "It's like I've been in this really long
race, and back at the start I had all these guys running with
me," Henderson says. "But now I look over each shoulder and I
say, 'Where is everybody?'"
Nowadays baseball is a world gone straight--hardly anybody
steals anymore. This season there have been only 1.35 stolen
bases per game, the lowest average since Henderson arrived in
the big leagues in '79, and the rate of thievery is down 7% just
since last season. While Henderson has stolen 80 or more bases
six times in his career, nobody has stolen 80 since both
Henderson and Coleman reached that mark 10 seasons ago. The
National League has had six different stolen base champs in the
past six seasons, and only once did the leader steal more than
60. The populace has become so law-abiding that while Henderson
holds the alltime record with 1,254 steals, Raines, with 799, is
the only other active player to possess even half of that total.
So why is stealing bases a dying art? "There is more emphasis
put on the long ball, and the best way to make big money in the
game now is to hit home runs," says Mariners shortstop Alex
Rodriguez, who had 12 steals at week's end to go along with his
21 homers. "Fans used to enjoy the stolen base more than they do
now, and that's too bad. Watch television and all you see is
home run highlights. You don't see stolen base highlights."
But the change is not only in offensive philosophy. The defense
is also becoming more creative in limiting the larceny. "In my
early days pitchers didn't have the slide step or quick moves to
home plate," Raines says. "They might throw over to first a
couple of times, but now they throw over more and they speed up
their motion. To get a stolen base nowadays, you have to hope
the catcher throws it in the dirt or the pitcher throws a
Still, the single most important factor may be a shift in the
mind-set of the modern player. "You don't get paid for stolen
bases, and management doesn't appreciate them," says Baltimore's
Eric Davis, who stole 80 while batting cleanup for Cincinnati in
'86 but hasn't swiped more than 50 since. "When I stole 80
bases, the only thing the Reds did was complain about the games
I missed because I was worn down. So I figured out what was more
important for me to slack off on--home runs, driving in runs,
playing defense or stealing bases--and it was stealing bases. If
they would understand the risk of injury, understand it and
support you, you'd have more guys stealing bases."
Henderson credits his "football-type body" for allowing him to
remain healthy throughout his long career, and he praises former
A's teammate Davey Lopes for teaching him to pick the right
pitches to steal on. He also vows to keep running despite the
fact that he takes a beating doing so. Besides the aches and
pains that come from his headfirst slides, Henderson says he
also gets banged up diving back to first on pickoff attempts.
"When you think about how much trouble it is to steal just one
base--and he's stolen more than 1,000--what he's done is hard to
even imagine," marvels the Rangers' 29-year-old Tom Goodwin, who
was tied with Henderson in the American League steals race at
While Henderson waxes poetic about the day that Goodwin or
another young challenger will steal his season record for steals
(130), he acknowledges that the philosophy of the game will have
to shift again for somebody to swipe that many bases. "You have
to be a little crazy to love the challenge of stealing bases as
much as I do," Henderson says. "I remember when I was in Little
League, my grandmother told me that if I came home with a clean
uniform, I didn't really play baseball. There just aren't that
many guys left who believe that."
Tiger in A Trance
Damion Easley's batting average was hovering around the Mendoza
line late in the '95 season when he received a letter in the
Angels clubhouse from Pete Siegel, a Marina del Rey, Calif.,
hypnotherapist. Siegel had been watching Angels games on
television and reading Easley's tortured quotes in the
newspaper, and he thought Easley might be a candidate for some
mental cleansing. At first Easley dismissed the idea as "a
scam," but as he continued to struggle with the bat, Easley
consulted his hitting coach, Rod Carew, and the seven-time
batting champion acknowledged that he had used hypnosis during
Easley contacted Siegel, and one afternoon before a game, the
therapist placed Easley in a hypnotic trance over the phone,
giving him some positive suggestions to take to the plate.
Easley cracked a single up the middle in his first at bat and
phoned Siegel the next day to sign on.
Three seasons and one trade later, Easley is Detroit's starting
second baseman and had a .312 average, 17 homers and 51 RBIs
through Sunday. He recently put together a 19-game hitting
streak, and his 34 RBIs in May were the most in a month by a
Tiger since Rocky Colavito had 38 in July '61. Though Easley is
still unheralded outside Motown, failing to make the top eight
in the latest All-Star balloting at second base, Tigers manager
Buddy Bell believes he deserves to be the All-Star starter.
"There are plenty of good second basemen out there like [the
Yankees' Chuck] Knoblauch and [the Orioles' Roberto] Alomar,"
Bell says, "but right now I would take Easley over any of them."
Says Easley, "I prefer to downplay my numbers. If I'm climbing a
mountain, I'd just as soon be climbing up the back side of it.
Everybody can wait and see me when I'm on top."
Certainly nobody noticed Easley when he was dealt to Detroit on
July 31, 1996, for righthander Greg Gohr. That was the same day
the Tigers traded Cecil Fielder to the Yankees. After pinballing
among the Angels, the minor leagues and the disabled list for
five years and admitting that he "would try to get two hits in
every one at bat," Easley thrived immediately in Detroit,
hitting .343 in his 21 games with the Tigers in '96. Then in '97
he experienced a breakthrough year, launching 22 homers, 16 more
than his previous high.
The 5'11", 190-pound Easley credits his turnaround to an
improved weight-training regimen that has kept him off the
disabled list and allowed him to play every day as a Tiger. But
the bedrock of his success is the hypnotherapy. Siegel, who has
been a hypnotherapist for 20 years, has previously worked on the
subconsciouses of Sid Fernandez and Orel Hershiser. Now he and
Easley have three or four sessions each week by phone during
which he helps Easley visualize his most successful moments at
the plate. "Damion was a hitter with great potential who was
anguishing over each at bat," Siegel says. "He just needed to
get out of his own way, to strip away all the emotional
encumbrances and just think about seeing the ball, hitting it
and having positive expectations. Confidence is like a
muscle--it needs to be trained."
Easley only recently told anyone about his hypnotherapy, fearing
that the approach would be ridiculed but finally deciding it
might help other struggling players. "I had some doubts about
whether I could succeed in this game, and I used this method to
get out of the rut," Easley says. "I've always believed that I
had the talent, but I was just stopping myself mentally. The
therapy allowed me to finally let my natural abilities take over."
High Schoolers: Avoid the Draft
Of the 1,445 players selected in last week's first-year player
draft, 805 were chosen out of college and 629 were selected out
of high school. According to research done by agent Scott Boras,
the college players have a much greater chance of reaching the
major leagues, achieving longevity in the game and reaping vast
financial rewards. "The best thing major league baseball can do
is to stop drafting all these high school players," Boras says.
While the number of players drafted out of high school is only
marginally lower than the number who are drafted out of college,
collegians make up the vast majority in the majors. According to
Boras, of the 773 players on major league rosters on Opening Day
of the '97 season, 450 (58.2%) were drafted out of college and
169 (21.9%) came straight from high school. (Free-agent players
from other countries are considered separately.) Of those 773
players, 248 had amassed six or more years of major league
service time; 148 of those (59.7%) were college players and 57
(23%) were from high school.
When it comes to earning power, time spent in college helps in
baseball just as it does in the everyday working world. Boras
says that a total of 289 players had contracts worth $1 million
or more for the '97 season; 165 (57.1%) were college players,
while 69 (23.9%) came from high school. Of the 54 players who
had contracts paying $5 million a year or more, 30 (55.6%) were
former college players and 13 (24.1%) came out of high school.
The trend remains the same even among the top prospects, the
first-round selections in the draft. In a study of first-round
picks in the drafts from 1983 to '91, there were 234 players
chosen, 132 from college and 102 from high school, yet their
earnings through the '96 season were skewed significantly toward
the college players. Nearly four times as many college players
had earned $10 million in their careers.
Boras's critics contend that he trumpets these figures hoping to
push the market toward more established college players who will
command larger signing bonuses, but Boras argues that he is
living proof of the importance of a college education for those
players who don't become stars. Boras played college baseball at
Pacific and was drafted by the Cardinals before three knee
injuries prematurely ended his career.
"Baseball's message is to sign early and make a lot of money
early, but the numbers show that most high school players don't
reach the major leagues at all, and those who make it don't
arrive any sooner," says Boras, who favors stricter limits on
the number of players drafted each year. (This year's draft was
limited to 50 rounds for the first time.) "Teams spend millions
of dollars taking chances on undeveloped high school talent.
About 95 percent of those high school kids end up doomed to a
lesser standard of life with no education and a pink slip after
four years, while baseball ends up with a big bill."
To its credit, baseball has had a scholarship program in place
since 1962, and in that time nearly 9,000 players have
negotiated funds for college into their contracts at a cost to
date of about $28 million.
El Presidente's Campaign
It wasn't exactly Pete Rose matching Ty Cobb's hit record or
Hank Aaron equaling Babe Ruth's home run mark, but on June 2 in
Milwaukee, Braves righthander Dennis Martinez finally caught
Juan Marichal. Martinez scattered a dozen hits in a 9-0 shutout
of the Brewers to pick up his 243rd career victory, tying
Marichal for the most wins by a Latin American pitcher. One of
the many well-wishers to phone the player nicknamed el
Presidente was Nicaragua's actual presidente, Arnoldo Aleman.
"He told me they were proud of me, that I was a great example to
the young people of Nicaragua," Martinez says.
Martinez was two wins short of Marichal's record when he called
it quits in June '97 after a disastrous 1-5 stint with the
Mariners. He thought his right arm--or, as he calls it, his
moneymaker--was spent after 22 seasons in the majors. But after
throwing batting practice to his 24-year-old son, Dennis Jr., in
the off-season, he felt a little life in his arm. He decided to
take another shot at Marichal's mark. (Not everyone was pleased
with his comeback. Marichal, a native of the Dominican Republic,
was quoted in the spring as saying Martinez would "embarrass"
For Martinez, though, the record goes beyond national pride or
proving a point to Marichal. Martinez is aware that Marichal, a
six-time 20-game winner, needed just 16 seasons to win 243 while
he has needed 23. But Martinez, 43, is just as proud of the fact
that he has stubbornly refused to give up playing as he is of
his 243 wins.
"My arrogance, that's what made me what I am," he says. "When I
was a kid, we didn't have much. I always had to fight for
everything, but I'd get it. When I was retired, a part of me,
deep inside of me, knew I still had some hope, still had some
For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.
In his 20-year career, Rickey Henderson has amassed impressive
career totals in some key offensive categories that are often
overlooked. Here's where he sat among the modern-era immortals
at week's end.
RUNS WALKS STOLEN BASES
1. Ty Cobb 2,245 Babe Ruth 2,057 Henderson 1,254
2. Babe Ruth 2,174 Ted Williams 2,019 Lou Brock 938
3. Hank Aaron 2,174 Joe Morgan 1,865 Ty Cobb 892
4. Pete Rose 2,165 Carl Yastrzemski 1,845 Tim Raines 799
5. Willie Mays 2,062 Henderson 1,812 Vince Coleman 752
6. Henderson 1,950 Mickey Mantle 1,735 Eddie Collins 743
7. Stan Musial 1,949 Mel Ott 1,708 Max Carey 738
8. Lou Gehrig 1,888 Eddie Yost 1,614 Joe Morgan 689
9. Tris Speaker 1,881 Darrell Evans 1,605 Honus Wagner 672
10. Mel Ott 1,859 Stan Musial 1,599 Willie Wilson 668
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
Did the Mariners know something that nobody else in baseball did
when they used their first-round pick--the 22nd selection--in
last week's draft to take lefthander Matthew Thornton, or were
they just trying to save a few bucks? A junior at Division II
Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., Thornton was on a
basketball scholarship and didn't play baseball for the Lakers
until last year. "I'm a no-name player who came from a no-name
high school to a no-name college," a shocked Thornton told the
Seattle media. He is, however, a 6'6" reliever who had 33
strikeouts and a 2.61 ERA in 20 2/3 innings this season, and the
relief-challenged Mariners can certainly use help in that area.
What were they thinking?
When the Dodgers designated struggling righthander Hideo Nomo
for assignment last week, it gave them only 10 days to deal him
and seemed to put a severe crimp in their bargaining position.
General manager Fred Claire had his reasons, though. He believed
that by admitting that Nomo was through as a Dodger, he could
minimize the upheaval in the L.A. clubhouse. Claire was aware
that as soon as Nomo heard his name mentioned in a possible deal
for the Mariners' Randy Johnson, he had demanded a trade and was
planning a press conference on June 1 to state his displeasure.
By designating Nomo for assignment, Claire diffused that
bombshell and avoided having a disgruntled player start another
game for the Dodgers. Nomo (2-7 with a 5.05 ERA at the time of
the move) had given up six runs in 2 2/3 innings after hearing
the report that he might be going to Seattle. "Our objective was
to get things quieted down," Claire says.
Claire correctly gauged that interest in Nomo would be strong.
He got inquiries from about 20 teams. But we'll never know if
Claire could have done better than the deal he got--Nomo and
righthander Brad Clontz to the Mets for righthanders Dave Mlicki
and Greg McMichael--by keeping Nomo in the rotation while
shopping him. "You couldn't have kept this quiet if you tried
to," Claire said. "It would have been a media frenzy after the