The most arresting sight around the Oakland A's these days isn't a clutch homer by Tony Armas, another complete game from a member of their estimable rotation or even Krazy George, the Wild Bill Hagy of the West. It's Rickey Henderson at the plate.
Standing deep in the batter's box, Henderson, one of those rare players who throw left and bat right, assumes an extreme crouch, weight back, left foot edging warily forward, as if he were entering a body of cold water. "Stand up like a man," catchers tell him. Henderson ignores them. Instead, he picks on a pitch that he likes and snaps upward, lashing at the ball like an uncoiling cobra.
"I must be doing something right," Henderson says, "because kids keep telling me they're using my stance. I can see the ball better this way than standing up. Stand-up hitters see only the top half of the ball. I see the whole thing."
It's high time baseball saw the whole of the 22-year-old Henderson. Last year, his first full season in the majors, Henderson broke Ty Cobb's 65-year-old stolen-base record (96) with. 100, was second in the league in walks with 117 and batted .303. This year he's leading the league in runs (73) and stolen bases (43) and ranks among the top 10 in average (.330), hits (109), triples (five), walks (47) and on-base percentage (.416).
Defensively, Henderson is the best at his position in the league, if not the game. "I've only seen one outfielder who can run with him, and that's Paul Blair," says Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver. On the base paths Henderson routinely goes from second to third on flies to left, and he figures to improve considerably as a base stealer (he has been caught stealing 20 times this year). The final ingredient for an all-round player is power. That Henderson has only five homers this season fools no one. Batting leadoff, he generally swings for base hits, not power. "But when he hits one out, it goes way out," says Oakland Centerfielder Dwayne Murphy. To A's Manager Billy Martin, Henderson's "the best player in the game."
To opposing pitchers, the 5'10", 180-pound Henderson is as frightening, and as rare a creation, as his batting stance. "You have to be careful," says Cleveland Pitching Coach Dave Duncan, "because he can knock one out. But you don't want to be too careful because he's got a small strike zone and you can't afford to walk him. And that's only half the problem. When he gets on base he's more trouble still."
There is a sign in the Oakland Coliseum's leftfield stands that reads: HENDERSON'S HEIGHTS. It identifies a section of 50 seats that he has bought for underprivileged kids. An Oakland native, Henderson's cheering section is far bigger than that, however. When he trots out to leftfield, the fans there cheer him en masse; he responds by signing autographs, waving, blowing kisses and posing for pictures—during games. "Twice last year Rickey was looking into the stands when a ball was hit his way," says Murphy. "It's a hard habit to break." Henderson says he doesn't want to break it. "When the ball's not coming your way, you get bored," he insists. "The fans keep me in the game."
Henderson's interaction with his followers is misunderstood, according to Oakland Pitcher Mike Norris, who shares a house with him in the Oakland hills. "It's actually a very distant relationship," says Norris. "Rickey's outwardly extroverted but inwardly shy. The fans do get him up. He's got a lot of common sense, and that's one way to use it."
Another way was to listen to A's Batting Coach Lee Walls, who doubles as outfield coach. "Give me 10 minutes a day and I'll make you into the best left-fielder in baseball," Walls told Henderson in the spring of 1980. Henderson listened and became part of baseball's foremost outfield. Centerfielder Murphy (.276, 11 homers, 48 runs batted in), Rightfielder Tony Armas (.281, 21, 64) and Henderson—all natural centerfielders—have accounted for 27 of the A's 44 game-winning RBIs. Equally valuable on defense, they lead the league with 696 putouts. They have 15 assists to nine errors, a ratio that is especially meaningful because they charge all grounders and prevent most runners from even attempting to take the extra base. But their greatest contributions are more subtle than statistical: grabbing line drives hit in the alleys, holding shots down the line to singles, taking away other hits with routine catches because of good positioning.
Henderson's outfield play has been particularly notable this year. When he ran down a sinking liner by Cleveland's Jorge Orta last week and caught it with a lunge, an Oakland reporter turned to a neophyte Henderson-watcher and said, "That's about his 25th best catch of the year."