Monday, January 12, 2009

Rickey Henderson (Aaron's iFAQ #4)


I have no recollection of the first time I saw Rickey Henderson play.

I do know that it wasn't on June 24, 1979 – the day of his Major League debut when he went 2 for 4 with a stolen base. Nor was at anytime during the 1980 season, when he finished 10th in the AL MVP balloting (.303 BA/.420 OBP/100 SB) behind – among others – four future Hall of Famers.

It might've been in 1981. I'd pledged my sports loyalties to all things Oakland after the Raiders won Super Bowl XV. I spent the rest of second grade calling myself an A's fan. Although, that was the year that our family moved to North Carolina due to my dad's military service. Those were the dark ages of fandom when the three hour time difference meant games played on the West Coast weren't covered in the "news-paper" until 36 hours after the final out.

I do remember watching Rickey Henderson in 1982.

That was the year he broke Lou Brock's single season stolen base record. For the time, it was pretty big news, which is to say it merited a mention during the three minutes allotted to sports at the end of our local news broadcast. There was also a segment on it at the top(!) of This Week in Baseball.

I'd only see Rickey Henderson sporadically for the rest of his first run with the A's. He always seemed to be in All-Star Games, so we had a standing summer date with an agreement to cross paths one or two other times each year – always on Saturday afternoons or Monday nights. Thankfully, he had someone send me a recent picture at the start of each season.

I didn't see enough of him to be too torn up over the trade that sent Rickey Henderson to New York at the end of the 1984 season. Plus, by now, the Los Angeles Raiders had won another Super Bowl and were on television six to seven times more than the A's. 25 years later, who knew that would be the apex of my Raiders fandom?

Ironically, even though Rickey Henderson was closer to me geographically, I lost touch with the guy. I very vaguely remember highlights and soundbites of Don Mattingly's monster 1985 season, but it would be years later before resource sites like baseball-reference.com came along to show that Donnie Baseball stole the MVP Award from, of all people, Rickey Henderson.

By the start of the 1986 season, my family had moved back to Southern California. With the California Angels playing less than an hour away, I finally had a chance to see A's games with relative regularity. This was the balanced schedule era, so each team played a pair of home and a pair of road series against everyone else in the league. Six to eight A's games on TV!

In 1988, my A's won 104 games and the American League pennant. Rickey Henderson couldn't have been farther from my mind. These A's were all about The Bash Brothers, Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley. Besides, who needed Rickey when left field was in the capable hands of Luis Polonia and Stan Javier?

I do remember where I was when the A's reacquired Rickey Henderson in June 1989. M'man Smitty and I were at my house playing some old school Nintendo when our friend JP called with the news – on a landline, no less. Of course, none of us could trust JP as far as we could throw him, so we sought independent verification from our local NBC affiliate/liberal media elitists.

It was true!

Two months later, the A's played the Angels in Anaheim for first place in the American League West. On August 11, 1989, I finally got to see Rickey in person. He went 0 for 5, but the A's won 5-0 in front of 61,696 fans. Rickey hit .294/.425/.438 with the A's after a sluggish start of the season with New York. In the playoffs, he won the ALCS MVP with an eight stolen bases performance that was his coming out party on the national stage.

The following year, Rickey Henderson transcended to superstar status (.325/439/.577) and pretty much cemented himself as my all-time favorite player. The 1988-92 A's team played with a rock-star cockiness that endeared them to no one. So, it was quite the exclusive club (outside of Alameda County) for those of us who thought Rickey could do no wrong.

And, even when Rickey DID do wrong, I couldn't stay mad at him for long. In 1991, he went to war with the A's front office over his contract. He was beginning the second year of a four year deal, which he signed the offseason before baseball's salary structure shot through the stratosphere. Uh, for the first time. Uh, in the 1990s.

Rickey came to camp late, moped through spring training and famously quipped, "If they're going to pay me like [light-hitting teammate] Mike Gallego, then I'll play like Mike Gallego." Then, Rickey went 2 for 4 on Opening Day with two runs scored and a stolen base. He always had a way of making things right, again.

Unfortunately, whatever goodwill Rickey had accumulated with the media after returning to Oakland had been emptied out during his salary dispute. On May 1, 1991, Rickey broke Lou Brock's career stolen base record. But, the oft-reported out-of-context "news" from that event is Rickey's "I (pause) am the greatest of all time" soundbite. You know he DID say a few other things!

"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. [Pause 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. [Pause for cheers] Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing. But today, I'm the greatest of all time. Thank you."

Ultimately, those A's team underachieved and by 1993 they were an old, unwatchable lot. Rickey was traded to Toronto in a deal I applauded at the time. He'd get another crack at a World Series ring, while the A's would finally begin the rebuilding process. Fun fact: before Joe Carter walked-off into highlight reel history, Rickey opened the bottom of the ninth with a walk.

The 1994 strike took a lot of the luster off of Rickey's third tour of duty in Oakland and by 1995 – while living on my own and without cable television or an internet connection – it was right back to the Rickey-free days from a decade earlier.

It's weird how the two biggest Rickey-related transactions indirectly involved some of my best friends. On December 29, 1995, I was hanging out with a guy we all call "Thai" when news broke that Rickey had signed a free agent contract with the San Diego Padres. San Diego! My adopted hometown as of three months earlier!

With my strike-related malaise lifted, during the 1996 season, I was able to see more of my favorite player on TV than ever before. I only managed to catch one game at Qualcomm Stadium, though. And, unfortunately, it was on September 13. "Unfortunate" because by then, the Padres had acquired a grotesquely "swollen" version of Greg Vaughn and relegated Rickey to the role of revolving fourth outfielder.

Oh, and on the way to the ballpark, we heard that Tupac had died. Rickey struck out as a pinch-hitter. Kind of a bummer day all around, y'know?

Rickey would play for five different teams from 1997-2000, including an underwhelming fourth stop through Oakland in 1998. And, speaking of the A's, they were on their way to getting good again after nearly a decade-long lull. However, that didn't diminish my excitement when Rickey signed with the Padres near the end of spring training 2001.

With more disposable income since Rickey's last stint in "America's Finest City", the future Mrs. Bootleg and I caught him live several times. For the most part, it was a depressing experience. Rickey looked…old. And, not in that comical Otis Nixon way, either.

A five-week 14-for-104 (.135!) slump had Rickey's average at .209 on June 15. He could still reach base a very good clip, but only because he could no longer catch up to good fastballs or consistently make contact with even average breaking pitches. He'd foul-off his way into 3-2 counts, then keep the bat on his shoulder and hope the umpire would give him the call on reputation alone.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the glue factory. Rickey got hot. OK, it wasn't Rickey hot, but from September 1 until the end of the season, he hit .278/.398/.444 and stole nine bags in ten attempts.

The Padres returned from their final road trip of the season with Rickey one run behind Ty Cobb's all-time career record. I couldn't find anyone to go with me to the game on October 3, so I bought an $8 nose-bleed seat and watched Rickey tie the mark on a Ryan Klesko RBI double. I had two tickets for the following afternoon, but my friend bailed at the last second. Mrs. Bootleg couldn't get away from work, so it was just me.

Rickey homered in the bottom of the third inning to enter the record books. Again. A few days later, on the final day of the season, I was there with Mrs. Bootleg and a small army of friends as we watched Tony Gwynn's final game Rickey's 3,000th hit.

I'd prefer not to remember Rickey's mediocre runs through Boston and Los Angeles in 2002-2003. And, as far as I'm concerned his stints with the Independent League Newark Bears and San Diego Surf Dawgs – much like his two months with the hated Angels in 1997 – never, ever happened.

Rickey Henderson isn't just my all-time favorite player…he's the last favorite player I'll ever have. I'm too damn cynical (and too damn old) to get attached to anyone on my A's today. Last year, my four-year-old son determined his favorite A's were Bobby Crosby, Emil Brown and Eric Patterson. It just so happens that they were three of my least favorite A's on the 2008 team.

I'm inclined to let Jalen slide, though. As I said, he's only four. But, in a few years, I expect him to have perfected the "favorite player" selection process.

Just like his old man.

8 comments:

Jeff Hansen said...

"Fun fact: before Joe Carter walked-off into highlight reel history, Rickey opened the bottom of the ninth with a walk."

Tying run! Working off memory, but I gotta think that Alomar would have been the go-ahead, not White. Maybe Alomar can follow Rickey into the HOF? Please?

NY Jon said...

Holy shit, Cam! Now THIS is a tribute post! Rickey related things you missed though:

Rickey's 1992 autobiography. Pretty sure I've still got a copy in my mom's basement. It still stands as a solid 101 on the 100 point unintentional comedy scale.

Rickey's neon green batting gloves.

Rickey's "man of steal" poster where he's blankly staring into the camera while assorted "catchers" are tied up in neon green rope.


I cannot wait until July 26!

Jeff Hansen said...

Finally tested my memory, and it was Paul Molitor. Not like he had a memorable World Series or anything. (1.517 OPS???? Insane!)

JPinAZ said...

Ahhh memories...
You & Smith thought the big news was Cookie Rojas getting fired.

And if you were such a huge Rickey fan, why were Smith & I the only ones who brought the "auto"biography and 9/6/82 issue of SI to the games to get signed? Wasn't it you who called him a "dog"?

That Bootleg Guy said...

*Sigh* For the last time..."dog" = bad, "dawg" = good.

JPinAZ said...

So what did it mean when you called him puppy "dawg"?

Tom said...

Have you been to Cooperstown before?

That Bootleg Guy said...

I have not. I work with someone who grew up 30 minutes from there and went to the Tony Gwynn ceremony a few years ago.

I'm told it's *slightly* more rural than San Diego.