Rickey Henderson has been in Oakland the last six years, but he talks like he’s been on Neptune. And, despite what San Franciscans might tell you, those places are not one and the same.
If ignorance is bliss--or if feigning ignorance is--then Rickey Henderson is the happiest New York Yankee of all time. He’s also the newest. And New Yankee and Happy Yankee, unlike Oakland and Neptune, are one and the same.
Imagine, if you can, a Yankee who admits he has no firsthand knowledge of George Steinbrenner giving anyone a hard time.
Imagine a Yankee who signed an $8.6 million, five-year contract, stayed in Florida with a sprained ankle while his new team struggled through the first two weeks of the season, flew into town Monday, then said he felt no pressure three hours before making his Yankee debut Tuesday.
In center field, no less. Some guys played a bit of center field for the Yankees before Rickey Henderson. Guys like DiMaggio. Guys like Mantle. But talk DiMaggio and Mantle to Rickey Henderson and you might as well be talking Abbott and Costello.
“I don’t care about them,” Henderson said. “I never saw DiMaggio and Mantle play. It’s Rickey time.”
The immediate temptation was to back away from Henderson as quickly as possible, so as not to be struck dead by the thunderbolt that was surely headed his way. But none came. It was enough to make an old Yankee-lover wonder if there really is a God.
And Henderson was right. When he ran out of the first base dugout to loud applause to take his place in center field, there to guard the sacred ground leading to the monuments to the all-time Yankee greats, his massive legs carried him with nary a quiver.
“I don’t know about it,” Henderson said about Yankee tradition. “So I can’t think about it.”
Santayana once wrote that those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But in Henderson’s case, how can you blame a guy for forgetting to remember what he never knew in the first place? He’s 26, a proud member of the “Me” generation. If it didn’t happen to him, it doesn’t count. Ask Rickey Henderson about current events, and he’d probably tell you about his ankle.
You shouldn’t be surprised. There are people out there who’ve grown up thinking Paul McCartney’s first group was Wings. Just as there are people who grew up thinking DiMaggio’s main contribution to society was pitching Mr. Coffee. We just never realized we’d live to see any of them grow up to be the Yankees center fielder.
And if they did, like Henderson, we hoped they’d at least learn to say the right thing when the time came for them to carry the torch. For Henderson, the time came Tuesday, but he chose to take a called third strike.
“Center field is no thrill,” Henderson said. “All the fields are just the same. I’m not going to put pressure on myself. I don’t care what they (others) do. I care what I do.”
What Rickey Henderson does is steal bases better than any man alive. He has averaged 82 steals over his six major league seasons, including a major league record 130 in 1982. He stole 66 in 1984 to lead the American League for the fifth straight season. As a team, the 1984 Yankees stole 62. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why they got him.
But the Yankees and publicity-mad Steinbrenner would like Henderson to steal more than bases. They’d like him to steal the thunder from the New York Mets, who got off to their best start ever this season. The Mets are led by their newly acquired superstar, Gary Carter, who talks an even better game than he plays. With Carter, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the Mets could win a pennant and an even bigger prize: New York.
So far, it’s no contest. With Henderson still in Florida and the Yankees struggling, Carter was all over local TV and radio, not to mention opposing pitchers.
So when Henderson arrived Monday, and his first act was a verbal stiff-arm to a group of eager writers--"I don’t need no press now, man,” he said--Steinbrenner had to be embarrassed. And when was the last time George Steinbrenner felt embarrassed about anything?
“I ask you to be patient,” Steinbrenner pleaded. “Give him a few months in New York and see if you don’t see another Rickey Henderson. He’s getting some advice from people who aren’t giving him the right advice. But that will be handled.”
But while Steinbrenner was only talking about how to handle the Yankees’ newest superstar, Red Sox starter Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd was doing it. He got Henderson, batting leadoff, to pop to third in the first inning and ground to third in the third.
In the fifth, with runners on first and third and one out, Boyd induced Henderson to foul out on a checked-swing pop-up to first baseman Bill Buckner. As Henderson returned to the dugout, the crowd booed. His brief honeymoon was over.
Henderson got his first hit in the seventh, a single to center, but ignominy awaited him in the eighth. With the score tied, 4-4, Red Sox reliever Bob Stanley intentionally walked Bobby Meacham with one out to load the bases for Henderson.
Time for a storybook ending, like when Carter hit a 10th-inning home run to win the Mets’ opener at Shea. Time for Rickey Henderson, one of baseball’s fastest men, to win the game.
He hit into a double play.
It might have ruined some people’s opening day. Not Henderson’s.
“Opening day’s past,” Henderson said, grinning, before the game. “I missed that one.”
Rickey Henderson has missed a lot more than opening day. He just doesn’t know it.