Whatever happens to Rickey Henderson, at least it’s going to take place on a fitting canvas.
Maybe he was raised and made his name in Oakland, but his talent is pure New York. And Yankee Stadium, where Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio captured the town, is the stage he deserves.
Few baseball players today have more ability. And perhaps no player has more tantalizing little flaws--cracks in the grain of the raw marble--that could turn a statue into rubble.
If anybody in baseball ought to be ready to take his show from the sticks to the big city, it’s Henderson. That the Yankees would trade five players to get him, then offer $8 million to sign a five-year contract, is entirely consonant with his deeds and his imminent promise.
Because his first five-and-a-fraction seasons were spent in the Oakland Mausoleum, Henderson, at age 26, is merely a star and not a budding legend.
But that doesn’t change the facts.
Henderson already is the best base stealer in history; for the last five years, he’s averaged 105 thefts per 162 games. Nobody’s ever been close to that over a comparable period.
With his .400 on-base percentage and his amazing rate of 110 walks per 162 games, he’s already well on his way to being among the best leadoff men ever. The game has rarely seen a player with all three ideal traits of a No. 1 hitter: a great eye, fabulous speed and a high batting average (.291 career).
Though it’s unprovable, Henderson could be the best defensive left fielder ever. “I think I am,” he said last week. His arm is powerful and his release quick; he charges grounders like an infielder, yet has the instincts to run down fly balls like no other left fielder of his period (not even Willie Wilson). Henderson also loves the daring and dangerous play.
With all this on one side, isn’t it just a matter of time before Henderson gets a plaque in the Hall of Fame? With his handsome face, flair for clothes, exuberant smile and patience with fans, isn’t he a natural for all the perks of New York City celebrity?
Probably. But not certainly.
“I wasn’t happy to be traded,” Henderson said the day he reported to the Yankees’ camp. “I was an Oakland man. My backyard was there. I’m glad to be here, but I don’t know if I’m a New York type person or not.
“I’m really a quiet kinda person, sort of a loner. I’m outgoing around a ballpark because that’s what a ballplayer does on his job. . . . But I need my peace of mind to play, especially when things go bad. . . . You have to keep your eye on what you feel is important, not what everybody else says. Relax, get a grip on yourself.”
For Henderson, whose closest friends have always been his old Oakland neighbors and especially his mother, the 3,000-mile move could be traumatic.
Henderson felt some of the burdens of fame when he broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record in 1982 with his astonishing 130 thefts. However, Henderson surpassed the old mark of 116 so easily that there was no pressure and relatively little media blitz.
“I’m not worried about who’s footsteps I’m stepping in . . . comparisons are not what I want to hear,” Henderson says. “Everybody talks about all the great center fielders and where you’ll fit in.
“Well, there have been generations of players, plenty of them greater than myself. I can’t carry ‘em on my back. Maybe some day I’ll fit in. . . .
“The question (for now) is can I make myself as great (in center field) as I was in left field.” As if homesickness and New York pressure, plus a huge new contract, were not enough complicating factors, Henderson has two other weights.
First, he is widely seen as baseball’s most obnoxious hotdog. No one takes so long to fiddle in the batter’s box, or waltz to first base after a walk, or stroll to left field while the stadium waits or adjust his batting glove. In a dozen ways, Henderson delays the game to call attention to himself.
“I drive ‘em all crazy,” says Henderson with a mischevious grin. His tactics, encouraged by ex-Oakland manager Billy Martin, may have a certain virtue as psychological warfare, but they’ve made Henderson plenty of enemies among rival players.
Also, last season Henderson started developing a reputation as a pouter. He was miffed at being taken to arbitration by the A’s. He was unhappy with teammates who wanted to swing when he wanted to steal. He missed 20 games although he had no major injuries. And he left the impression that he was only willing to steal enough bases (66) to edge Dave Collins for the title.
“People said, ‘He’s not playing. He’s ticked off,’ ” says Henderson. “I don’t think that’s true. I was trying to satisfy everybody except myself. The club said it wanted me to start hitting home runs, and that’s not my game.
“I stopped stealing because the guys hitting behind me didn’t want me to run. Joe Morgan didn’t like me running. Carney Lansford didn’t want you to run with more than one strike on him. And Dave Kingman, jeez, he used to get so mad at me. I like to play the game with everybody happy.
“That’s not how it was last year. If they won’t take a pitch every once in a while, it’s like somebody is trying to take your talent away from you,” continued Henderson. “It all ended with me messin’ up my own head. I thought, ‘This is embarrassing myself’
“Playing for the Yankees in a pennant race ought to get me pumped, bring out the best. . . . This year, I’m going to play to satisfy myself.”
That should be good enough to satisfy everyone else. Even in Yankee Stadium, where memories are long and standards, especially for center fielders, are extremely high.