Rrrrriiiiico Henderson," New York Mets lefthander Kenny Rogers
purred, the exaggerated ri rolling from his tongue, salsalike.
"I've been with that guy on two teams, and I know how he's
At last, an answer. Steroids? Andro? Metamucil?
"Nope," said Rogers, grinning, late last Friday night, hours
after the Mets had defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 9-2 for a
two-games-to-one National League Division Series advantage. "The
guy's a robot."
"Nah," said Bobby Bonilla, laughing a few lockers down. "He
ain't no robot. He has an invisible force field around him."
The debate over what keeps Rickey ticking may never end. "He can
play forever," said Bonilla. "There's no limit."
Henderson, who will turn 41 on Christmas Day, is in his 21st
major league season, with the wrinkles and the ice packs to
prove it. But he remains an opposing pitcher's nightmare, a
major reason the Mets--featuring an All-Star catcher with a bum
thumb and a manager with a loose lip--fought their way past
favored Arizona in four games and into the Championship Series
against their archnemeses, the Atlanta Braves. "Rickey is a man
of moments," said Rogers, his teammate with the Oakland A's in
1998. "In the big game I want him on my side, bugging the hell
out of the other team."
Henderson didn't simply bug the Diamondbacks' high-priced staff;
he smacked it around and then dragged it back to an era in which
he was baseball's ultimate offensive force--a .300-average,
100-stolen-base, .420-on-base-percentage machine. Alas, it has
been years since Henderson regularly took over games, not to
This season, his first with the Mets, he put up superb numbers
(.315, 89 runs, 37 steals and a .423 on-base percentage) but did
so quietly, in the shadows of catcher Mike Piazza, third baseman
Robin Ventura, second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo and the rest of a
cast that didn't need Henderson to be the center of its universe
but simply a part of the cosmos. "I accept that," Henderson said
last Saturday, after the Mets' 10th-inning 4-3 triumph in Game
4, which they won on backup catcher Todd Pratt's homer. "But
it's like Piazza's been saying, 'You help Rickey get to the
playoffs, Rickey will help you win a championship.'"
Henderson did a number on Diamondbacks catcher Kelly Stinnett
from the outset, stealing a National League Division Series
record six bases against him. Stinnett was immediately put on
the spot in Game 1, when Henderson worked Arizona ace Randy
Johnson for two walks, two steals and a run. Taking a lead off
first, Henderson was the pesky Rickey of old, fingers dangling,
shoulders twitching, toes tapping. A fake jump here. A stutter.
Then--woosh!--off on Johnson's first move toward home. "He was
totally in Johnson's head," said Mets reliever Billy Taylor. "He
In the third inning, with New York up 1-0, Henderson walked,
then stole second on a fastball to John Olerud. Two pitches
later, after a prolonged look at Henderson, who was five steps
off second, Johnson threw a meatball of a slider to Olerud, who
sent it over the rightfield wall. The Mets eventually won 8-4 on
Alfonzo's grand slam in the ninth.
The Mets suffered a 7-1 loss in Game 2 but came back with a 9-2
win in Game 3. Henderson, who hit .400 for the series, saved his
best for the finale. The game was tied 1-1, and Arizona lefty
Brian Anderson was cruising with a three-hitter when Henderson
led off the bottom of the sixth. After Henderson had taken four
pitches from Anderson, the count was 2-2. Then: foul ball, foul
ball, foul ball, foul ball, foul ball, foul ball, foul ball,
foul ball, foul ball. Nine foul balls. On the 14th pitch, an
88-mph fastball on the inside corner, Henderson fisted a single
to right. He scored on Benny Agbayani's double. "I tried every
trick in the book: I threw fastballs, changeups; I threw from a
different arm slot," said Anderson. "I didn't want to give up,
but after 14 pitches it gets really frustrating." Anderson,
standing in front of his locker, looked ready to cry. "God, 14
pitches--that's an inning to me."
The Mets are no pushovers; there's reason for the Braves, who
beat them in nine of 12 regular-season matchups, to be wary this
time. It wasn't enough that manager Bobby Valentine's club had
to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last series of the
regular season, then beat the Cincinnati Reds in a one-game
playoff, just to earn the wild card. No, these Mets do
everything the hard way. Piazza, whose left thumb had been sore
since Sept. 17, when he was hit by a foul tip, missed Games 3
and 4 because of an adverse reaction to a cortisone shot. Also
before Game 3, a profile of Valentine, in which he was quoted
making uncomplimentary references to various members of his team
and staff, appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of SI. The article, an
"ill-timed fire," in the words of general manager Steve
Phillips, once more put the spotlight on Valentine, who faced a
barrage of questions regarding the article before the game.
"What can you do?" said Henderson. "Just another bump in the
road. Gotta still play hard."
Playing hard has occasionally been an issue with Henderson. On
Sept. 23, in a 6-3 loss to Atlanta, he jogged from first to third
on Alfonzo's double before running through third base coach
Cookie Rojas's stop sign and getting nailed at the plate. It was
an embarrassing moment for a future Hall of Famer. "Give the guy
a break," says Mets first base coach Mookie Wilson. "Look at what
he's doing at age 40. I mean, who's ever seen anything like it?"
The Mets are counting on the Braves seeing a lot of it.
Anderson, for one, knows how formidable Henderson can be. As the
pitcher prepared to leave Shea for the flight back to Phoenix,
he thought once more of the 14 pitches, of the havoc caused by a
legendary base runner. "Atlanta better be ready," he said. "That
Rickey Henderson--he's sure one tough old son of a gun."
THE SCOUT'S VIEW
SI asked major league scouts who have closely followed the
playoff teams to help prepare these reports on the four
participants in the League Championship Series. The scouts were
promised anonymity in exchange for their candor. Here's what they
Rickey Henderson LF
Tries to intimidate pitcher with great eye and tiny strike zone
but can be intimidated himself if pitched hard and inside.
Shortstop should play him to pull. Still has very good speed; no
arm to speak of.
Edgardo Alfonzo 2B
Above-average fastball hitter who rarely misses mistakes. Does
not consistently put good part of the bat on off-speed pitches.
Nibble with him, make him hit junk. Great low-ball hitter.
John Olerud 1B
Pound him inside with fastballs above the waist. Then get him to
chase changeup and slider away. Will get his singles but clogs
the bases. Above-average glove.
Mike Piazza C
Kills fastballs anywhere near the plate. Throw him fastballs
inside, breaking stuff outside. If frustrated, will swing at bad
pitches and extend the zone. Mediocre arm, but calls good game,
blocks almost everything.
Robin Ventura 3B
Swings at pitches up in the zone. Turns mistakes into doubles. A
lot of his groundouts come on changeups or slow curves that stay
down. Fine defense but every so often uncorks a wild throw to
Darryl Hamilton CF
Gets credit for being fast but can't run. Likes the ball down
and away, can get jammed late in the count. Hates changeups.
Hits outside pitches well.
Roger Cedeno RF
First-ball fastball hitter but doesn't hit breaking balls well.
Has tremendous speed. Decent outfielder, has limited arm.
Rey Ordonez SS
Much improved over last year at the plate. More of an up hitter
than down hitter. Drives the ball well to right center.
Defensive superstar--has great arm in the hole, reaches balls
other humans can't touch.
OF Benny Agbayani is a high-fastball hitter with surprising pop.
Gets poor jumps on balls in outfield.
OF-INF Shawon Dunston has never had a good knowledge of the
strike zone. Chases everything. Versatility a plus, but don't
want him having to make a big outfield play.
OF Melvin Mora has a Grade A arm and runs the bases very well.
INF-OF Matt Franco is a dead fastball guy. He can be jammed.
C Todd Pratt is an adequate backup with a sometimes dangerous
bat. A fastball hitter who swings wildly.
OF Bobby Bonilla had power but has nothing left.
Al Leiter, LHP A great cut fastball that hovers in the low 90s,
with an above-average curveball. Throws a decent slider. Doesn't
throw as hard as he used to, but when he's on, he has good
command. Go deep in the count, make him throw a close fastball,
then jump on it.
Kenny Rogers, LHP Deceptive and smart. Pitches below hitting
speed, staying 83 to 85 on fastballs while hitters expect 90 or
91. Throws fastballs to lefthanders, changeups and curves to
righthanders. Has a big slow curve that, if flat, is hittable.
Changeup looks almost like a screwball. Great glove.
Masato Yoshii, RHP Best pitch is a split-fingered fastball (84
to 86 mph) that looks like a normal heater but has more downward
movement and less velocity. Complements that pitch with an
average slider and changeup. Sometimes slips and leaves ball up.
Rick Reed, RHP Best pitch is his curveball, which is 76 to 78 mph
and goes from high to low. Also throws an 88- to 91-mph fastball.
Doesn't have great stuff, but above-average control makes him
RH Orel Hershiser doesn't have a good fastball anymore, so if
his sinker isn't moving, he's in trouble. Still a battler, though.
RH Pat Mahomes has a good curveball with a bite at the end and a
low-90s fastball that tails. Spots pitches well and eats up
LH Dennis Cook is strictly a situational guy, but his two- and
four-seam fastballs make him tough on lefthanders.
RH Octavio Dotel has a mid-90s fastball and a big curve. With
one more pitch, will be an above-average starter.
LH John Franco uses the straight fastball (88 to 91 mph) as a
show pitch, then throws a cutter that runs in on lefthanders,
setting up one of the game's best changeups.
RH Turk Wendell will challenge you with a fastball, then fool
you with a slider.
RH closer Armando Benitez throws a fastball in the mid-90s and a
hard slider with a tilt. Can be rattled; location still a problem.
HOW TO BEAT THEM
The Braves' pitchers have to keep Henderson off the bases, pitch
around Piazza and avoid making mistakes against Ventura and
Alfonzo. New York won't be intimidated by Atlanta's starters.
Save Mora, the Mets' outfielders all have below-average arms, so
take the extra base at every opportunity.