Keith Richards' guitar started pounding out over the Oakland Coliseum sound system, and the Athletics took the field to begin the playoffs against the Toronto Blue Jays. When Mick Jagger began shouting Start Me Up, Rickey Henderson strutted out of the dugout. Dancing his way through the leftfield foul territory to the staccato beat of the Rolling Stones, he waved a pointing finger at the fans in rhythm with the music, like Jagger gyrating across the front of a stage. When Henderson stopped in leftfield for the national anthem, he was still working the crowd. "Who could be nervous at a time like this?" Henderson said later. "This is showtime."
By the time the Rickey Henderson Show, a record-setting speed-and-power act, had concluded its run in Toronto six days later, it had reduced the Blue Jays to an unwilling supporting cast. On Sunday, before the A's wrapped up a four-games-to-one victory for the American League pennant, Toronto outfielder Lloyd Moseby, Henderson's childhood friend from the parks of Oakland, sat in the clubhouse and smiled ruefully. "Rickey hasn't changed since he was a little kid," said Moseby. "He could strut before he could walk, and he always lived for the lights. When he was 10, we used to say, 'Don't let Rickey get to you, because that's his game.' Twenty years later, I'm telling my teammates the same thing. But it didn't do much good."
Back on the October stage for the first time since he was a 22-year-old playing for an overmatched Oakland team against the New York Yankees in the strike-warped 1981 playoffs, Henderson proved to Moseby and the Jays that he always gets to you. The Toronto scouting report began with "Keep Henderson off base." Sure. In the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, as Dave Stieb got ready to deliver his first pitch, Henderson called time, stepped out of the box and tied his shoe. "He was saying, 'I'm going to get to you, and you can't beat me,' " said Moseby. "That's Rickey."
Stieb walked Henderson, who promptly stole second base and set the tone for a five-game explosion that may go down as the best individual performance since the playoff system began in 1969. In a series that was more bitterly fought than the 4-1 outcome suggests, Henderson was, in fact, kept off base nine times. Trouble was, he went to the plate on 23 occasions. He walked seven times, and five of those times he scored. He broke Lou Brock's postseason record with eight stolen bases. He won the first game with a takeout slide, stole four bases in the second game, hit two home runs in the fourth game, got hot dog rolls thrown at him and received a standing ovation for being picked off. When it was all over, he had led the series in runs (eight), on-base percentage (.609), slugging (1.000), homers (two), RBIs (five), total bases (15), steals, walks and conversations with the fans.
"When I was traded from the Yankees [on June 20], my one regret was that I never brought a World Series to New York," said Henderson after Sunday's finale. "That's the show I've always wanted to be in, ever since I was a kid sitting in the Oakland Coliseum watching the A's. I was a fan. That's why I don't get upset when fans yell at me. I used to yell at players. I just loved a performance. So every time I get out there, I try to give them a performance."
He performed dominantly:
•Game 1. With Athletics on first and second and the score tied 3-3 in the sixth, Henderson was hit by a pitch from reliever Jim Acker, loading the bases with one out. Oakland's Carney Lansford rapped Acker's next pitch right at shortstop Tony Fernandez, who flipped to second baseman Nelson Liriano. But Henderson had gotten a running jump off first, and Liriano was taken out by his Ty Cobb-style slide. Liriano's throw went 15 feet wide of first base and two runs scored. For good measure, in the eighth inning Henderson walked, stole second, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on Lansford's single, all leading to a 7-3 victory.
•Game 2. "I tried to tell our players not to let Henderson get them all worked up," said Toronto manager Cito Gaston before the game. "The more he gets under your skin, the more he'll put it on."
Henderson likes to do a little something to prevent the opposing pitcher from delivering his first pitch when he's ready. "Tick 'em off before they get started," he says with a smile.
"That's just what he did," said Blue Jay starter Todd Stottlemyre, who watched Henderson hold up the game in the bottom of the first to rub out the back line of the batter's box. He then hit a leadoff single. In the fourth, with Oakland trailing 1-0, he worked Stottlemyre for a walk and stole second and third. A Lansford single and a Mark McGwire double put the Athletics ahead 2-1.