Before a game last week at the Devil Rays' Tropicana Field, Randy Winn, Tampa Bay's centerfielder, was asked to impersonate Rickey Henderson. It was just for fun. After all, Henderson is baseball's alltime stolen base king, and Winn—well, Winn is merely a fast young guy who's 1,272 thefts in arrears. He took the challenge seriously, however. He walked to the bat rack, picked out a piece of lumber and struck the stance: He placed his left foot straight out, crouched tight, lifted his right elbow and gently twirled the bat. Instant Rickey.
"Growing up, I watched Henderson all the time," says Winn, 24. "Him, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines. If I picked up anything from those guys, I'd be lucky." Lucky or not, he's plenty fast. Last season, in 109 games with Tampa Bay, Winn swiped 26 bases to lead all rookies. More intriguingly, he represented something rarely seen since Coleman started running wild in 1985—a purebred baseball larcenist. "Oh, man, will Randy steal some bases!" says Billy Hatcher, the Devil Rays' first base coach. "When Coleman was at his best, taking the perfect lead with a big jump, nobody could stop him. Randy's not there yet, but he will be."
The soft-spoken Winn doesn't yet know how this theft thing works. Sure, he can burn with the best of them, but his leads are still too short, his jumps too late, his slides too soft and his knowledge of opposing pitchers too limited. "I'm not even close to being established," says Winn, who made his big league debut last May after just two full minor league seasons. "Kenny Lofton, Brian Hunter, Tony Womack—those guys have been around and have been on top. Stealing is all trial and error. I'm still going through the trials." And the errors: Last year Winn was caught stealing 12 times.
So, he works—with Hatcher and manager Larry Rothschild—and keeps a book on pitchers, scribbling notes on their pick-off moves, deliveries and leg kicks. He watches tape. "In a way, we hurt Randy," says Hatcher. "Last year we were just going to have him pinch run, but then he played so well we kept him around. If Randy was still in the minors, he could experiment, steal every time on base and learn how to do it. Now he's learning everything in the majors."
While growing up in Danville, Calif., Winn starred in baseball and basketball—as well as in the classroom, where he was an honor-roll student at San Ramon Valley High. At Santa Clara he was a redshirt freshman on the Steve Nash-led basketball team that, in 1993, shocked Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament. "Probably my greatest sports moment," he says. Winn played two full seasons of college baseball and basketball before deciding to concentrate on a single sport. "My coach made me," he says. "I love basketball, but I knew where my future was."
So did the Devil Rays, who selected him from the Marlins in the expansion draft in November 1997. Winn hit .278 for Tampa Bay last season and this season was batting .292 through Sunday. A natural righthander, he has been switch-hitting for three years with encouraging results. He's still as raw as fresh-caught scrod, but that's fine with the Devil Rays. "Randy has everything it takes to be a star," says Hatcher. "We just have to help him get there."