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Henderson Is Ready for One Final Run

At 39, Rickey Henderson still comes with a fat-free label. Liposuction would be a wasted procedure.

The all-time stolen base leader has not been devoid of injuries during a 20-year baseball career, but the body remains sculpted, the legs by U.S. Steel.

Check with Jason McDonald.

The Oakland Athletics’ young center fielder chased a long drive into the gap in left-center on May 23, made a diving attempt for the catch, and crashed headfirst into the girder that is Henderson’s right leg.

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Henderson, who was coming from the other direction, walked off with a bruise.

McDonald, who fortunately had his head turned just enough to catch the brunt of the collision on the side, was carried to an ambulance.

He suffered a concussion, injuries to both wrists, and remains on the disabled list with no definite timetable regarding his return.

“If he had run into anybody else’s leg, that person would have been on the disabled list,” Oakland Manager Art Howe said with a grimace Monday night at Dodger Stadium, the A’s having defeated the Dodgers, 7-3, in the opener of their interleague series. “But Rickey’s lower half is unbelievably strong. Jason ran into the wrong guy.”

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The trademark measurement of Henderson’s leg strength and quickness has always come on the basepaths, and he is on the move again.

Intent, perhaps, on responding to critics of the A’s decision to rehire the free agent for a fourth time.

Motivated, perhaps, to prove that his .183 batting average with the Angels over the final two months of 1997 was an aberration.

Geared, perhaps, to turn his one-year, $1.1-million deal into a multiyear run to the top of all-time runs and walks ladders, insuring his election to the Hall of Fame, his status as the best leadoff hitter ever.

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Six months shy of 40, Henderson went to work Tuesday night tied with Tom Goodwin of the Texas Rangers for the American League stolen base lead with 23, three behind major league leader Eric Young of the Dodgers.

In a clubhouse crammed with players young enough to be his sons, the man who has stolen 1,254 bases laughed and said he could still steal 100 in a season if stealing a base was the only objective.

As it is, he said, he may reach the high 70s, which would be his top total since 1988, when he had 93 with the New York Yankees.

Eddie Collins, then 37, became baseball’s oldest stolen base champion when he stole 42 in 1924.

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“It would mean a great deal to me [to break Collins’ record],” Henderson said. “It would mean I took the challenge and proved to the young guys I can still do the job, proved it to the clubs that counted me out [last winter].

“People who say I can’t run anymore aren’t paying attention.”

Veteran A’s infielder Dave Magadan has been paying attention.

“I don’t see him slowing any, though by the time he’s 46 he may be stealing only 25 a year,” Magadan said. “It looks like he can play for as long as he wants. I mean, I think he’s got a lot of motivation coming back to Oakland and wants to prove that what he did with the Angels wasn’t indicative of what he can still do.”

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The Angels acquired Henderson from the San Diego Padres on Aug. 13 when Tony Phillips was temporarily lost because of his arrest on drug charges.

Phillips returned, however, and Henderson played only 32 games as part-time left field/designated hitter, batting that meager .183.

He did, however, steal 16 bases in 20 attempts for a season’s total of 45,

which was his highest since stealing 48 with the A’s in 1992.

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“I was very disappointed with the way it worked out [in Anaheim],” Henderson said. “I was traded at a time when I was playing well in San Diego, but I got to the Angels and Rod Carew and Dave Parker [who is now the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting coach] tried to get me to change my approach. I was puzzled and confused by that, and when Tony Phillips returned, they didn’t really need me anymore. I mean, there’s nothing more difficult than not having a role or any idea when you’re going to play. I knew I still could, but I didn’t get the chance to show it.”

Henderson showed enough for the rebuilding A’s. His on-base percentage of .422 in San Diego fit the needs of an offense that would have to create runs, Howe said, and Henderson is still among the best at working the count when at bat and distracting a pitcher when on base. He led the majors with an average of 4.34 pitches per plate appearance entering the Dodger series, was fifth in the league in walks and had six homers (including two grand slams) in addition to a .250 batting average.

While Henderson has been accused at times of playing to his own spotlight and playing only when he chose to play, Howe contends that during Homecoming IV Henderson has “gone the extra mile” to be a positive clubhouse influence, that he wants to play every day and that he is running so well there is no hesitation in employing him in center field at times, which is what Howe is doing in Los Angeles, as he adjusts a lineup devoid of the designated hitter.

“He’s exceeded our expectations, which is not to say our expectations were low,” General Manager Billy Beane recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He’s still probably the premier base stealer in the American League . . . and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”

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That would seem to suggest the A’s will re-sign Henderson, although he could be traded to a contender again before the July 31 deadline.

Henderson shared left field with Greg Vaughn in San Diego, and has played more than 100 games a season only twice in the last five years or would have even more milestones to his credit.

He had 2,606 hits entering the Dodger series, and ranked fifth on the all-time walk list with 1,812 (Babe Ruth leads with 2,056) and was sixth on the all-time runs list with 1,950 (Ty Cobb leads with 2,246).

“People focus on average and home runs,” Henderson said, “but my job as the leadoff hitter is to get on base any way I can and to score runs. Runs are what the game is all about, especially for the leadoff hitter, and that would be the record I’d most like to break.

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“I’m probably two or three years away, and it’s not entirely in my hands. It depends a lot on the team. I can get on base, but are there guys to drive me in?

“I can’t predict how much I have left, but right now I feel great, and the desire is there.

“If the good Lord keeps me healthy, I’ll continue to play because I love the game.”

Between the end of Monday’s game and the departure of the team bus about 45 minutes later, Henderson remained on the move, sprinting to the weight room to get in some toning, the steal king trying to maintain those legs of steel.

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