Henderson reflects on storied career

Henderson reflects on storied career

NEW YORK -- The baggy cream-colored jersey draped over Rickey Henderson's shoulders, hiding the vintage physique that you swear could still fit right in on a Major League diamond.

This team, the Hall of Fame roster Henderson officially joined Monday, is technically Henderson's 10th. For a man who wore nine different big league uniforms -- including his immortalized one, that of the Oakland A's, four times -- it is also his last.

"Wearing so many uniforms says that you played the game right," Henderson said. "A lot of teams were interested in you helping their ballclub. I remember a time that they were saying to go out and 'rent Rickey' for the playoffs. I was a money player. For a big game, they would want me out on the field."

The National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Tuesday that Henderson's plaque will feature the "A" that Henderson wore in gold and green for 14 of his big league seasons.

It is an appropriate fit: a Bay Area product who excelled in three sports at Oakland Technical High School, Henderson joined the Athletics in 1976, setting his course for the remarkable sequence of achievements that would soon follow.

"It means a great deal," Henderson said. "It's my hometown, the city of Oakland, where I lived and grew up. My friends in the Bay Area get the opportunity of knowing that I went in as an Oakland A. When I think back on how I got drafted as a ballplayer, Charlie O. Finley was coming to the ballpark to see me play."

That would be Finley, as in the eccentric Athletics owner who actually attended some of Henderson's amateur games in lieu of dispatching a scout. Some in the know were hesitant to draft Henderson because he batted right-handed and threw left-handed, an odd combination that rarely yielded big league success.

2009 Hall of Fame Inductions
2009 Results
PlayerTotal VotesPercentage
Rickey Henderson51194.8%
Jim Rice41276.4%
Andre Dawson36167.0%
Bert Blyleven33862.7%
Lee Smith24044.5%
Jack Morris23744.0%
Tommy John17131.7%
Tim Raines12222.6%
Mark McGwire11821.9%
Alan Trammell9417.4%
Dave Parker8115.0%
Don Mattingly6411.9%
Dale Murphy6211.5%
Harold Baines325.9%
Mark Grace224.1%
David Cone213.9%
Matt Williams71.3%
Mo Vaughn61.1%
Jay Bell20.4%
Jesse Orosco10.2%
Ron Gant00%
Dan Plesac00%
Greg Vaughn00%

But Henderson was always good about rewriting the books. Playing four seasons in Oakland's farm system, Henderson developed the trademark crouch and dime-sized strike zone that would make him such a tenacious presence on the diamond.

"I learned and developed how to get on the basepaths," Henderson said. "I was being patient at the plate. Once I learned how to get on the basepaths, my intention was to create some movement. I knew the pitcher was paying attention to me."

A perfect fit to Billy Martin's aggressive style of play in Oakland, Henderson became a standout with the A's, racking up league-leading numbers in the categories of runs scored and stolen bases -- career records he'd eventually bring back to the Bay, cementing his status as an unstoppable force pointing toward Cooperstown.

"I always liked the challenge between pitchers and catchers," Henderson said. "A home run hitter has to beat the pitcher. As a basestealer, I had to beat the pitcher and the catcher.

"I used to like to look at the face of the pitcher when you'd steal a base. I used to walk up to the catcher and tell them, 'If you don't give me a pitch to hit, I'm going to be on third base.'"

Henderson would leave Oakland for New York in a seven-player deal before the 1985 season, a four-plus-year stay that the stolen-base king said produced one of his biggest regrets.

Henderson lauded some of his teammates, like Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, but still scratches his head at how those talented clubs -- with all of George Steinbrenner's bankroll to back them -- could not reach postseason success.

"Billy Martin believed in his heart that I was supposed to be a Yankee," Henderson said. "The thing that is a little disappointing is that when I was playing with the Yankees, we had such a great team. We just could never get over the hump."

Dispatched back to the A's midway through the 1989 season, Henderson led Oakland to a title in the earthquake-interrupted World Series, then went on to help the Blue Jays in similar fashion come '93.

Henderson's "hired gun" experience in Toronto yielded one of his personal favorite "Rickey stories," though it wouldn't come to fruition for years to come. With the Blue Jays, Henderson was a teammate of first baseman John Olerud, who manned first base while wearing a helmet -- the result of a brain aneurysm suffered in college.

As the oft-repeated story goes, Henderson would encounter Olerud with the Mets in 1999, remarking about how he had once played with a guy who also wore a helmet while playing first base. Olerud is supposed to have responded, "That was me." It is a remarkable story, but, as both insist, not true.

"You'd hear it and hear it," Henderson said. "They'd come to me and ask, 'Is this true?' Then they'd go to John and ask, 'Is this true?' It's not true, but it sounds good."

There were other memories, like the day Padres owner John Moores escorted Henderson back to an empty stadium to dig up home plate after shattering Ty Cobb's record for runs scored. That plate is mounted in Henderson's home, to be passed down through his family.

Henderson has more to pass on. Hired by the Mets as a special instructor in 2006, Henderson sees glimpses of himself in speedster Jose Reyes, believing that Reyes could possibly steal 100 bases in his budding big league career.

Of course, Henderson had already accomplished it three times by the time he was Reyes' age -- Reyes' high, to date, was his 78 swipes in 2007, a mark Henderson nearly doubled with 130 in 1982. And true to his confident form, Henderson still believes that there's a little more running left in his own bones.

"I feel that he can go out and try to achieve some of the records that I had on the basepaths," Henderson said. "As I look at him running and stealing bases, I feel that I can go out and steal probably as many bases as Reyes steals."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.