RRRRRIIIIICO Henderson," New York Mets lefthander Kenny Rogers purred, the exaggerated ri rolling from his tongue, salsalike. "I've been with that guy on two teams, and I know how he's survived."
At last, an answer. Steroids? Andro? Metamucil?
"Nope," said Rogers, grinning, late last Friday night, hours after the Mets had defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 9-2 for a two-games-to-one National League Division Series advantage. "The guy's a robot."
"Nah," said Bobby Bonilla, laughing a few lockers down. "He ain't no robot. He has an invisible force field around him."
The debate over what keeps Rickey ticking may never end. "He can play forever," said Bonilla. "There's no limit."
Henderson, who will turn 41 on Christmas Day, is in his 21st major league season, with the wrinkles and the ice packs to prove it. But he remains an opposing pitcher's nightmare, a major reason the Mets—featuring an All-Star catcher with a bum thumb and a manager with a loose lip—fought their way past favored Arizona in four games and into the Championship Series against their archnemeses, the Atlanta Braves. "Rickey is a man of moments," said Rogers, his teammate with the Oakland A's in 1998. "In the big game I want him on my side, bugging the hell out of the other team."
Henderson didn't simply bug the Diamondbacks' high-priced staff; he smacked it around and then dragged it back to an era in which he was baseball's ultimate offensive force—a .300-average, 100-stolen-base, .420-on-base-percentage machine. Alas, it has been years since Henderson regularly took over games, not to mention series.
This season, his first with the Mets, he put up superb numbers (.315, 89 runs, 37 steals and a .423 on-base percentage) but did so quietly, in the shadows of catcher Mike Piazza, third baseman Robin Ventura, second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo and the rest of a cast that didn't need Henderson to be the center of its universe but simply a part of the cosmos. "I accept that," Henderson said last Saturday, after the Mets' 10th-inning 4-3 triumph in Game 4, which they won on backup catcher Todd Pratt's homer. "But it's like Piazza's been saying, 'You help Rickey get to the playoffs, Rickey will help you win a championship.' "
Henderson did a number on Diamondbacks catcher Kelly Stinnett from the outset, stealing a National League Division Series record six bases against him. Stinnett was immediately put on the spot in Game 1, when Henderson worked Arizona ace Randy Johnson for two walks, two steals and a run. Taking a lead off first, Henderson was the pesky Rickey of old, fingers dangling, shoulders twitching, toes tapping. A fake jump here. A stutter. Then—woosh!—off on Johnson's first move toward home. "He was totally in Johnson's head," said Mets reliever Billy Taylor. "He had him."
In the third inning, with New York up 1-0, Henderson walked, then stole second on a fastball to John Olerud. Two pitches later, after a prolonged look at Henderson, who was five steps off second, Johnson threw a meatball of a slider to Olerud, who sent it over the rightfield wall. The Mets eventually won 8-4 on Alfonzo's grand slam in the ninth.