Rickey Henderson was born on Christmas Day, 1958, in the backseat of a '57 Olds on the way to a hospital in Chicago.
He was fast from the very beginning.
There are certain figures in American history who have passed into the realm of cultural mythology, as if reality could no longer contain their stories: Johnny Appleseed. Wild Bill Hickok. Davy Crockett. Rickey Henderson. They exist on the sometimes narrow margin between Fact and Fiction.
"A lot of stuff [people] had me doing or something they said I had created, it's comedy," Henderson says. "I guess that's how they want to judge me, as a character."
Nobody in baseball history has scored more runs, stolen more bases, drawn more walks or provided more entertainment (some of it unintended) for so many teams than Rickey Henley Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter ever, a superstar so big that his middle and last names became superfluous. Rickey is the modern-day Yogi Berra, only faster. Whereas Berra contributed a new noun to the English language (Yogiism), Henderson inspired that classic rejoinder muttered by many a manager, teammate, sportswriter or, especially, general manager come contract time, "Rickey is Rickey."
"I don't know how to put into words how fortunate I was to spend time around one of the icons of the game," says San Diego Padres All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman, a teammate of Henderson's in 1996, '97 and 2001. "I can't comprehend that yet. Years from now, though, I'll be able to say I played with Rickey Henderson, and I imagine it will be like saying I played with Babe Ruth."
The legend of Henderson is real, all right, as real as the check-cashing service with the metal security gates on Broad Street in downtown Newark, which is about all the local color there is in the neighborhood of the mostly empty Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium, home to the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League—and, at the moment, to Henderson.
"We need to shift the ballpark to another location or something," he says.
At age 44 the future first-ballot Hall of Famer is here on the wrong side of baseball's tracks, not to mention those of New Jersey Transit, whose cars clackity-clack a pop fly away from his leftfield post. He signed with the Bears on April 24 and has come to downtown Newark for one last shot at the major leagues, which makes him, in every sense, an urban legend.
Speaking of cashing checks....