Simply Baseball Notebook cover stories Sept 2002

 Meet the REAL Rickey Henderson


Perception is reality, or so the cliche goes. The perception of Rickey Henderson has too often been that he is arrogant and selfish; he cares more about Rickey than about the team. The reality, however, couldn't be more different.

Simply put, Rickey Henderson is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He owns the all time records for stolen bases, runs, and walks - all set while he was compiling over 3,000 hits. Henderson has spent the last 24 years doing the little things - the dirty work - all in the name of winnning. Forget everything you've heard about Rickey Henderson; most of it simply isn't true.

Now with Boston, his eighth team, the proud Henderson has had to adjust to a part-time role. "I don't think I'll ever be comfortable (with playing part time), but I know how to deal with it," he explained. "This isn't exactly what I want to do, because I've been an everyday player all of my days. I want to just continue playing a lot, instead of (part time)."

When he looks back at all he's accomplished, the all time record for runs scored is what Henderson takes the most pride in. "I think the runs scored record is going to be the most important to me," the ten time All Star said. "I been known for stealing bases, but I think the runs scored record is the most important. It is a sign of what baseball is all about."

Henderson believes the record hasn't recieved the attention it deserves, "I think it's under-appreciated because the team that scores the most runs wins games and gets to the World Series. It was Ty Cobb's record. Ty hasn't gotten the recognition, that I would probably say, he deserves. But he was a controversial guy, so that's probably why."

He believes all of his records will be tough to break, "I would say the walk record might be the one to get broken. The runs record depends on how long you play and the guys have to drive you in. The stolen base record is something that is untouchable I think."

Henderson broke Lou Brock's record of 938 stolen bases on May 1st 1991 while an Oakland Athletic. He gave a speech that day that has come to symbolize his career:

"It took a long time, huh? (Pause for cheers). First of all, I would like to thank God for giving me the opportunity. I want to thank the Haas family, the Oakland organization, the city of Oakland, and all you beautiful fans for supporting me. (Pauses for cheers). Most of all, I'd like to thank my mom, my friends, and loved ones for their support. I want to give my appreciation to Tom Trebelhorn and the late Billy Martin. Billy Martin was a great manager. He was a great friend to me. I love you, Billy. I wish you were here. (Pauses for cheers). Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing. But today, I'm the greatest of all time. Thank you."

This sounds like the standard victory/award speech. Henderson thanked God and his mother, as well as the people that helped him in baseball. All that is remembered, however, is the "I am the greatest of all time" quote, which has been taken out of context to support the notion that Henderson is selfish and arrogant.

It has been more than a decade since Henderson made that speech, and even he is surprised he's still playing. "You never know when your career is going to be over, when you are going to play, and how long you are going to have success. It's been amazing to me that I've been able to break a record, and stay in the game as long as I have and still be stealing bases."

Despite all he has done for the game, and his clean record off the field, Henderson feels the media never has given him the respect he deserves. "I've always felt misunderstood by the media. I don't know why, somebody has to do it and I guess I was the chosen one to do it," the veteran explained.

Former teammate and future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor agrees. "I played with Rickey in Toronto in '93; I got to know him pretty well up there. He's a different person than you see as a player on the opposing side he could, especially when he was younger, get under the opposing team's skin quite a bit because of his style," Molitor said. "He'd be the first to tell you that he was kind of a hot dog out there, but that was part of his game - a little bit of intimidation and style, it made him a very entertaining player."


"When I got to know him, there's no question he was very much into winning and was very unselfish. Finally, after I had (developed) a relationship, more than just a fellow professional baseball player, I felt I became a friend," Molitor went on to explain. "He's a lot smarter than he leads on sometimes. He'll talk about himself in the third person and be a little aloof at times, but if you get him at the right time, he's got a lot of knowledge and can communicate it very well."

Possibly the most amazing thing about Henderson, who will turn 44 on Christmas Day, is his longevity. While many criticize him for "hanging on" too long, Henderson still loves playing the game, stays in great shape, and feels he can still contribute. He has definitely earned the right to play as long as someone will have him.

Henderson credits his off-season conditioning routine for his perfectly sculpted body and remarkable durability. "My work habits during the off-season (are the key). When they are not playing baseball is when a lot of guys get out of shape," he commented. "A lot of guys get into shape and stay in shape during the course of the season, but when the games are over it depends what they do to stay in shape."

Lifting weights has become overrated by today's players, Henderson believes. "I don't lift weights as much (as a lot of players). Nowadays the new generation is lifting weights trying to get big. I believe in flexibility doing a lot of push ups and sit-ups," he said.

Teammate Johnny Damon says there is "no chance" his own career will last as long as Henderson's has. "His longevity (is amazing), he's built better than all of us young guys. He's had dedication since day one; he still has that dedication and will until he retires," the outfielder said.

Molitor, who had a 21 year career of his own, is impressed by Henderson. "I think (his longevity) is a tribute not only to his athleticism, but the fact that he's been able to put the work in to extend his career into his 40s. The tremendous amount of slides he's had to do in his career, especially head first, takes a very significant physical toll - I can attest to that," the seven time All Star explained.

"He still tries to play the same style of game; he's maybe not as efficient as he once was, but it's been pretty amazing to watch him play the way he does at this stage," Molitor went on to say.

Although Henderson may not be the same player he was 10 years ago, he is still a valuable contributor. While his batting average hovers in the .230-.240 range, his on-base percentage has been near .370 - good for sixth in the American League.

He does the dirty work - working the count, drawing walks, extending every at bat; all of which help his teammates get a better read on the pitcher and his pitch pattern. When on base, he is still the ultimate pest, drawing countless pick off throws, disrupting the pitcher's rhythm - not real glamorous stuff, but just the little things that often go unnoticed by fans. But those "little things" certainly are noticed by his teammates and especially the opposing players.

"(Henderson is) one of our higher on-base percentage players on the ball club," said Red Sox manager Grady Little. "He has been all season; when he's got a chance to play he's been able make things happen. Rickey is important to this team whether he's playing or not - he does a lot of things."

Often characterized as a flashy player, Henderson firmly believes it is the finer points of the game - the less glamorous things that lead to victories. "We've got to play fundamentally, move the runners overdo the little things. We've got some guys on our ball club - they just think they can just hit the ball over the Green Monster; but then when you are on the road you've got to play a different game - you've got to do the little things, you've got to move the runners over - you got to try scoring - especially late in the season. When you are in a (pennant) race ... it's the little things that are going to win ball games - not the big things, like hitting home runs. The key to winning ball games is scrapping, getting as many runs as you can."


Often portrayed by the media as selfish and aloof, Henderson has always had a great relationship with his teammates. Damon, for instance, has picked up a lot from Henderson in a short time. "The way he approaches the game - he seems to have fun. He has that confidence level - he says he's the best - and if you have that type of confidence you can definitely go out and do more," the former Royal explained.

Henderson not only brings out the best in his teammates, but also motivates the opposition - the mark of a great player. "I always took it as a personal challenge when I was a leadoff man in Milwaukee when he came into town," Molitor said.

It seems as though Henderson will play forever, but the end is near. "(I plan on playing) one more year. It would be 25 years, if I am going to do it; I think I'll stop at 25," the all time leader in lead-off home runs said.

He's not picky about where he plays. "I could see myself in Boston. I could see myself anywhere that I could get an opportunity to play and help the team win."

"I'd love to finish my career in Oakland, but wherever I can finish my career when the time comes will be fine, because I'll still be playing baseball," Henderson said.

As for the Hall of Fame, the logical choice would be to go in as an Athletic, but Henderson said that might not be the case. "(Oakland) is the team that I grew up with, so there is a good chance (I'll go into the Hall of Fame as an Athletic). There are also the other (teams) I've played for - in the end it depends on the appreciation," he explained.

Although he is truly one of a kind, Henderson says there are a few players out there that remind him of himself. "I think (Alfonso) Soriano of the Yankees reminds my of myself because he steals bases and hits some home runs, so he reminds me of me," he commented. "I always felt Kenny Lofton, in his day, was my type of guy. I thought the guy that would set the record for stolen bases was Roger Cendeno of the Mets, but he's slacked off."

Henderson listed the Athletics' 1989 World Series victory as his career highlight and named Dave Stewart and Don Mattingly as his best friends in baseball. But he is noncommittal about the greatest player he has played with. "Nowadays it was probably Alex Rodriguez. Don Mattingly, back is his day, was the greatest player I'd played with. When I played with Jose (Canseco), he was the greatest player," the veteran said. "At different times, on different teams, they were all great players."

A man whose career is littered with records and milestones, Henderson has one last statistical goal in his sight. "I think about 300 (home runs), that's a good number. When I was coming up at the beginning of my career, 300 would classify you as a home run hitter. Now it really doesn't because there are so many guys hitting home runs left and right," explained Henderson, who hit his 295th career home run on August 17th. "But, being a lead off hitter - getting that many home runs and being on the base paths it's just another plus to my game."

"(300 HR) is the last (milestone) I think I can reach, unless I've got 20 more years left in me," he joked. "Being a leadoff hitter that did a lot of walking - at least (it shows) I can put the bat on the ball."

After seeing many of his younger contemporaries, including Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, ride off into the sunset, Henderson says he feels "blessed" to still be playing. He does, however, have something in mind when he does finally call it quits. "Maybe I'll try to coach first base, Davey Lopes told me that would be a good job for me," he explained. "We (Lopes & I) are scientists of base stealing. We can read the pitchers and help the guys move to the next base."

Since the passing of Ted Williams in July, there has been a lot of discussion about who the greatest living baseball player is. Henderson, however, gives it little thought, and believes his name should not yet be entered into the discussion. "I don't think about it. We've still got some of the great legends that played the game before my time that would get the recognition before I do. I feel that the guys that are still living, like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays - they are the greatest that played the game," Henderson said with a tone of reverence.

Rickey Henderson is a lightening rod, the mere mention of his name can draw out a wide spectrum of emotions from fans and the media. While his public perception hasn't always been positive, a closer look reveals that Henderson is a proud, yet basically humble man who loves the game of baseball and has played it at its highest level for almost a quarter century.

Perception is reality, right?

-David Zingler

- photos by Sebastian Vannavong

Rickey's Career Path


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