Stealing Bases Is Grand Larceny for Henderson, Coleman, Yelding
Rickey Henderson has turned the 90 feet between bases into paths of glory in pursuit of Lou Brock’s career record of 938 stolen bases. Henderson’s 12-year journey to the all-time record will have covered 16 miles, which breaks down to 84,510 feet, the length of 281 football fields. His larceny has been grand.
“It’s really determination,” said the Oakland Athletics’ left fielder, who leads the American League with 60 steals this season. “It’s like the great home run hitters. Every year they want to go out and hit. It’s a matter of wanting to do something that no one else can do. I take pride in that.”
Henderson’s run at the record has created an endless cycle of tumult for the opposition as it tried to cope with the disruption caused by his legs. He is seven steals away from tying Brock, and along the way Henderson even managed to upend an earlier base-stealing pioneer. Maury Wills surmises that he lost his big-league managerial job in part because of a young upstart named Rickey Henderson.
“I managed against Rickey when I was with the Mariners,” Wills said of the 1981 season. “It seemed to me as if he said, ‘Hey, Maury Wills, let me show you something.’ He just killed us. He ran bases like you wouldn’t believe, like I couldn’t believe. He led to my being dismissed because we didn’t win much when we played Oakland. I wanted to walk up to him and say, ‘Rickey, you’re a hell of a player.’ I said to myself, ‘Nah, he’s killing my team, maybe I’ll just tell him some other time.”
The art of the steal was rediscovered by Wills, who stole 586 bases in a 14-year career, including a then-record 104 in 1962. He was the most powerful offensive weapon the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960s had behind pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. The long ball and one-base-at-a-time philosophy had supplanted base stealing before Wills’ arrival. Stolen bases were out of vogue for most of the period between 1923, when Max Carey stole 50, and Wills’ revival in the ‘60s. In the entire decade of the 1950s, Willie Mays stole 179 bases to lead the majors. “In 1959 Willie Mays led the National League with 27 stolen bases,” Wills said. “And I stole more than that in a month.”
But Wills found strife in the fast lane. The constant pounding of his 5-11, 170-pound body being hurled at one base after the other took its toll. “In the 1963 season there was one time I actually took off for second and then came back because I didn’t want to slide,” he said. “I got this phobia. I had to take hypnosis.”
Henderson, who adopted the head-first slide to save his valuable legs, is a phobia to pitchers; call it fear of flying off first. There is an effortlessness to his work, a magical quality, a sleight of foot. “They know I’m running, but they can’t stop me,” he said. “It takes brains, but I don’t give my secrets, some pitchers might figure out the things I do. I don’t talk technique. I will say you have to keep your body strong and young. You take a lot of pounding but you overcome it if you keep yourself healthy. I can take the pounding. I was gifted with that type of body. Stealing is my way of giving something to the fans, an excitement that they deserve.”
If there is a commonality among base stealers, it appears to be their attitude. Henderson, a cocky, confident player, has said he expects a statue in his honor when he breaks Brock’s record.
Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals, the major-league leader in stolen bases this season, said: “Having that egotistical attitude is going to give you the confidence that you are the best in the world and best out there on the basepaths. No matter what the pitcher does there’s no way he can throw you out. So that’s the attitude that I’ve been carrying throughout my career.”
Contrast that attitude with other players who merely steal bases as a sideline. Not every player, even a capable one like the Philadelphia Phillies’ Lenny Dykstra, has the same desire. “I don’t steal to just steal,” Dykstra said. “I steal if I know I’ve got a good chance to make it.”
While catchers take the statistical heat for base stealers, Wills said most steals are made off pitchers. “Ninety-five percent of stealing is off the pitcher. The catcher, no matter how well he throws, is not going to throw the good baserunner out if the pitcher doesn’t do a good enough job. I’m not talking about the average guy, I’m talking about the great base stealers like Rickey and Vince Coleman.”
Coleman agrees. “People steal off pitchers. There is no way possible that you could steal off a catcher,” he said. “The pitcher is going to indicate some kind of movement to the plate, and that’s what you key off, that’s what you analyze. Once you’ve analyzed that and pick it up, you take off right away.”
One pitcher who did have exceptional success against base-runners was Art Mahaffey, who had a seven-year career, mostly with the Phillies, in the 1960s. He had a great pickoff move, and, surprisingly, was right-handed. “They didn’t keep records in those days,” Mahaffey said, “but I used to pick about 28 to 32 guys a year off first base. As a rookie, I picked off the first three guys off first base that got on against me.
“It was something natural. I was able to turn across my body and leave my right foot on the rubber and throw to first base with no problem at all. It looked like I was going home. You could try to teach it, but I don’t think one out of 20 guys could actually turn their bodies, throw to first base and keep their right foot stationary. One All-Star game I played in I walked Mickey Mantle. I picked him off first base and the umpires called him safe because they were looking home. And Mickey laughed because he was out. But they didn’t see it.”
Right-hander Kirk McCaskill of the Angels was ranked as the toughest pitcher to steal on in 1989. He allowed 0.21 steals per nine innings. He said Henderson always provides the severest test. “Number one, you have to be relaxed enough to be able to stand on the mound and hold the ball,” he said. “Rickey has a way of unnerving pitchers, forcing them to do things they don’t ordinarily do.”
Right-hander Kevin Brown of the Rangers, third on the list with 0.28 steals over nine innings last season, does try to challenge Henderson. “Rickey is at the top, you have to be aware of the fact that he will run,” Brown said. “Then you have to make an effort to keep him close. You can’t just get the ball, throw the ball (to the plate), the same every time. You have to have a game plan to try and keep him in check. I don’t think I concede a stolen base to anybody. I am pretty quick to the plate. But there is no doubt that Rickey is a disrupter.”
Theories on stopping the best base stealers come down to one. Bob Boone, who has played in both leagues during his 19-year career as one of the game’s top defensive catchers, said: “The big trick is to try and keep them from getting on. That’s the way to stop them. There was no essential difference between Henderson and Lou Brock in terms of the way they stole bases. You knew they were going to go ... anytime they got on.”
Catcher Dave Valle of the Mariners has one of the best arms in baseball. He threw out 41.5 percent of would-be stealers in 1989. Henderson, he said, upsets that equation. “First of all, the havoc starts when Rickey stands in the batter’s box,” Valle said. “I believe that he causes all the fielders to be a little more tense because they know he’s hitting. When this guy runs, everything has got to be rushed, everything has to be perfect. In a way, I know that the only way I’m going to throw Rickey out, which I’ve done only one time, is if my pitcher does a great job holding him on, if he’s quick to home, if I get a good pitch to throw and if I make a perfect throw.”
But speed is not Henderson’s only attribute. A base stealer needs cunning and guile, too. “I don’t think there’s anybody faster than Bo Jackson,” Boone said of his Kansas City Royals’ teammate. “But he’s not a good base stealer ... (Royals Manager) John Wathan holds the modern day record for catchers. (He stole 36 in 1982.) He knew how to do it. There’s certainly an art to stealing bases.”
Jackson, who can bowl over huge NFL lineman, cannot easily gain the 30 yards of daylight between bases. Bo doesn’t know base stealing. “Bo hasn’t hooked up with the craft -- of knowing when to break,” Otis Nixon of the Montreal Expos said. “Sometimes you can rely on your speed, but over the long run that’s not going to work for you.”
Wathan said stealing bases cannot be taught. “You have to have baseball instincts,” he said. “Some people have them, some don’t. I have tremendous admiration for Rickey Henderson; I was never able to throw him out.”
Henderson, 32, has said he expects to end his career with 1,500 stolen bases. He may need that cushion if Coleman, 28, continues his own torrid pace. Coleman has stolen 100 or more bases three times in his career. Henderson has done it three times, the last in 1983. Coleman has 549 career steals, 77 this season.
Coleman says he will surpass Henderson’s record, whatever the final numbers turn out to be. “Rickey’s been playing for 12 years now, and this is only my sixth year. I reached 500 stolen bases faster than he did. So that puts me on a pace of getting there a lot quicker than he did, even though Rickey has been blessed with a good eye and is on base a lot more than I am.”
Henderson knows Coleman is on his trail. “You always want your record to stand forever, to last as long as the game lasts,” Henderson said. “Nowadays, everything is being broken. I think Vince is an outstanding base stealer, but to get in my class, you have to learn to get on base. They always told me when I was a kid you can’t steal first base. I think if Vince can get on first base a lot he can do exactly what I did.”
Then there is Eric Yelding, the Houston Astros’ outfielder who has 56 stolen bases this season and 67 overall. Yelding is unyielding in his confidence. “I was a daring kid, always living on the edge, always in trouble,” he said. “I’m not going to pattern myself after anybody. I know that I could steal 70 and 80 bases every year. I’m going to be up there with Coleman and Henderson.” At the very least, he’s got the same arrogance.