MLB

Rickey Henderson the ultimate Christmas gift

Nobody has stolen more bases. Nobody has scored more runs. Nobody has hit more leadoff homers — or celebrated them as magnificently. 

He’s the greatest leadoff man in MLB history. And the ultimate Christmas present to the baseball fan.

Rickey Henderson was born in Chicago on Christmas Day in 1958, and the baseball world had no idea at the time what a momentous gift had just been bestowed upon it. Let’s break down the many ways in which Rickey brought us joy throughout a Hall of Fame career that spanned a quarter of a century.

The stolen base was Henderson’s calling card. His first came in his first MLB game, the opener of a doubleheader between the A’s and Rangers on June 24, 1979, at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, fewer than 10 miles from where the A’s drafted him — Oakland Technical High School.

Henderson’s last came 24 years later (fittingly for a man who wore No. 24 most of his career), when he stole second base for the Dodgers in the third inning of a game against the Rockies at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 29, 2003. And he swiped 1,404 bags in between.

Henderson led the American League in steals 12 times and led the Majors in six of those years. He stole more than 100 bases in a season three times, including a record 130 steals in 1982 for Oakland. In 1991, with a swipe of third base against the Yankees at the Coliseum on May 1, Henderson eclipsed Hall of Famer Lou Brock with his record 939th career steal. Then he ran away with the title — Brock remains in second place all-time, 468 steals behind the stolen base king.

Henderson revolutionized the head-first slide, violently flying into the bag he was headed for. There had been head-first slides before — think Pete Rose — but the fluidity and aggression with which Henderson perfected it added a flair reminiscent of the end of a quick paint brush stroke. He turned the stolen base into art.

The home runs were glorious

Henderson hit 297 home runs during his career, including a career-high 28 in 1986 with the Yankees, as well as in a 1990 AL MVP campaign with the A’s. He set the benchmark for the leadoff hitter in every conceivable way, and that includes power — he hit a record 81 home runs to open a contest.

And when it came to admiring his homers, Rickey was unmatched in his creativity. There was the helmet tap, the tugging of the jersey collar, the wide — and we mean wide — turn around first base, and the good old-fashioned bat flip.

As with everything he did, Rickey brought something extra to his homers. And the power-speed combination made him unique among leadoff hitters in his era, when contact/slap-hitters who could beat out infield singles and then use their wheels to help manufacture a run were ubiquitous. Sure, Rickey could do that. But he could do everything else, too.

Henderson drew more walks in his career than Babe Ruth. It’s no wonder he finished with a .401 on-base percentage. Until Barry Bonds broke it in 2006, Henderson owned the all-time record for career walks, with 2,190. Henderson still owns the all-time record for unintentional walks, with 2,129.

Henderson’s legend is perhaps most revered for the element of sheer domination he brought to the diamond every time he stepped onto it. You walk Rickey Henderson to open the game, the saying would go, and you’re already down a run.

The quintessential demonstration of this came during the 1989 AL Championship Series between the A’s and Blue Jays, when Henderson was named MVP after hitting .400 with a double, triple, two homers, eight steals and eight runs scored in five games. He made 23 plate appearances and reached base 14 times (.609 on-base percentage). Four of his steals came in Game 2 alone. And he wasn’t thrown out trying to steal once.

Henderson was also famously known for referring to himself in the third person. MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds shared a story for “MLB Network Presents: School of Rickey” in which he described a phone conversation with Rickey the day after winning the AL stolen base title in 1987 (Henderson was limited to 95 games that year due to injury; it was the only year in the 1980s he did not lead the league in steals).

“I go over and pick up the phone,” Reynolds recalled, “[and he said] ‘Henderson here,’ because he speaks in the third person regardless. … He says ’60 stolen bases? You ought to be ashamed — Rickey would have 60 at the All-Star break.’ Click. Hung up.”

Stories about Henderson abound, and they’ve become the stuff of legend. Some are true, some aren’t. But they’re all tremendously entertaining.

Take, for instance, the tale of when Rickey got his signing bonus upon being drafted in 1976 — he got a call one day that December from the A’s accounting department, asking why he hadn’t cashed his $1 million check yet. Henderson later confirmed what his response was: “I said [the check] was on my wall.” Rickey determined as a kid that when he became a millionaire, he’d frame the check. He’s a man of his word.

Or how about when Rickey, a Mariner at the time, was standing around the batting cage with some teammates, including John Olerud?

Olerud is remembered as a great hitter, one who flirted with a .400 batting average deep into the 1993 season with the Blue Jays — Henderson was his teammate on that club, too. Olerud is also remembered for always wearing a helmet while in the field at first base because of a brain aneurysm he had in college.

According to Henderson lore, Rickey asked Olerud about it one day, and then mentioned he once played with a guy in New York who did that. “Yeah, Rickey, that was me,” said Olerud, as the story goes. (Olerud and Henderson were teammates on the Mets from 1999-2000)

There will never be another Rickey Henderson. It’s always fun to look back on his illustrious career, since it gives us the chance to watch in awe all over again as he does things no one did before, nor has since. Since there’s never a bad time to watch Rickey highlights, it’s a good thing his birthday is easy to remember.

He is, after all, one of the greatest Christmas presents baseball has ever received.


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