Simply Baseball Notebook perspectives March 2003

Maybe He'll Play Forever

Henderson turned 44 on Christmas Day.

Much has been written and spoken lately about Rickey Henderson's attempts to land a spot on a major league roster.  The all time leader in runs, walks, and steals showed up uninvited at the Oakland A's Fan Fest in February and openly campaigned for a job.  He then flirted with the idea of going to a Colorado Rockies tryout camp and is now rumored to be considering signing with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League.
Most of the discussion centers on the notion that the 44 year old is a delusional old man that is tarnishing his legacy by groveling for a job and should salvage the remaining scraps of his dignity and retire.  Don't expect Rickey to listen to it though, he never has.  Rickey Henderson has always done things his own way, the great ones usually do.
Many years ago there was another player like Rickey, one that always seemed to be a step ahead of father time.  Unlike Rickey he was denied a shot in the major leagues during his prime, but like Rickey he could not get baseball out of his blood.  That man was Satchel Paige.  Paige, like Henderson, seemed oblivious to what those around him were thinking, saying, or writing.
On the surface there seems to be a critical difference between Satch and Rickey.  While Paige used the media as an effective promotional device, the press has always been a constant source of angst for Henderson.  This difference however, is more a product of the time period in which they lived than an indication of their personalities.
During the 1940s, when the mainstream press first discovered Paige, media coverage was much less intense.  While everyone that spent a significant amount of time around Paige could plainly see that he was self absorbed and his lifestyle was less than exemplary, that side of his personality was not shown to the public until after his death.  Instead, the writers of the time would keep such juicy items for smoke-filled back rooms where they made for good gossip.
"Ole Satch" was portrayed as a one dimensional, cartoon-like character whose well of goofy, witty one-liners never ran dry.  While he was never openly criticized for his lifestyle, he was put into a patronizing context that supported the racial stereotypes of the time.
Today's media is cutthroat.  Throughout Henderson's career the focus has been on his arrogance and indifference to those around him.  When he feeds them one of his many Paige-esque one liners, they respond with a condescending snicker. 
Neither approach tells the true story of the man.  On the surface, they would seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum:  Paige being happy-go-lucky and Henderson an arrogant malcontent.  Upon further examination however, they are a complex mixture of the above and much, much more.  
We could spend months comparing and contrasting these two enigmatic figures, but let's get back to Rickey's current situation.  While the argument that Henderson has hung on too long does have some merit; who are we to tell him when to quit?  Henderson began playing professional baseball in 1976 as an 18 year old and has been playing ever since.  What else do you expect him to do? 
How many times has a company CEO, a television broadcaster, a politician, a football coach, etc.,  kept working into well into their 70s or even 80s?  We aren't hollering for Dan Rather to step down, Senator Strom Thurmond got reelected in his 90s, and Penn State's Joe Paterno is an icon.  Are any of them as sharp as they were 10 years ago?  Of course not, but there is no outcry to for them to retire.   They are usually treated with reverence.  Why then, are we so harsh on athletes?
We say that a great athlete is "tarnishing his legacy" when he plays too far past his prime, but during their Hall of Fame induction no one remembers that final season.  We remember them at their best - that is how they are immortalized. 
Satchel Paige pitched in his final big league game in 1965 at the age of 59 and went on barnstorming well into his 60s.  His exploits are legendary and he remains a marvel of endurance.  This generation's Satchel Paige, Rickey Henderson, is just 44 - he's got a lot of baseball left in him.  
Play on Rickey - play whenever and wherever you can. Play forever.
-David Zingler
-photo by Sebastian Vannavong 

Henderson's page @