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Peter Gammons
October 01, 1990
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October 01, 1990

Man Of Steal


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Yet somehow Henderson has been the sidebar in a season of front-page stories. Teammate Jose Canseco, baseball's Madonna, has made more news with his new monster contract. So has Stewart with his no- Cy Young saga, Nolan Ryan with his 300th win and Cecil Fielder with his home runs. All the while, Henderson has been grinding away toward Lou Brock's major league career stolen-base record. At week's end he had 933, five shy of Brock's mark.

"Maybe only another base stealer can appreciate what Rickey is doing and what the man is," says Montreal Expo baserunning coach Tommy Harper, who stoic 408 bases in his major league career. "Once in a while we'll get the Oakland game on the clubhouse TV, and I'll tell [rookies] Delino [DeShields] and Marquis [Grissom], That's the greatest leadoff man who ever lived. Watch him. He's been doing this every day for 12 years, and he's still the best.' Guys coming up don't go at it that hard.

"That gunfighter thing is really true when it comes to base stealers. Ninety-nine point nine nine percent of base stealers lose their desire to be a great base stealer after a while. They're different from hitters. They tire of every part of their body hurting every day. They tire of all, the things the opposition does these days to beat the base stealer—pitchouts, slide steps, watered-down dirt. That's 99.99 percent. Then there's Rickey.

"A reporter asked me how come Rickey is going to be the alltime steal leader and [ Montreal's Tim] Raines is the [stolen-base] percentage leader. This is no knock at Raines, but he doesn't want to think about running all the time. He's a great hitter. Like most everyone else, he lost a little of that base stealer's mentality. But Rickey's the one guy who never lost it. Get a game on the line, Rickey gets on, everyone in the park knows he's going, and he goes. It's not the money; he's got millions. He's 31 years old, rich, famous, great—and he's never lost the thrill of competing."

Willie Wilson, who stole 83 bases in 1979 for the Kansas City Royals, admits that he grew weary "of the base-stealer routine, of everyone trying to get you every day, of taking the beating. After all these years, Rickey's still out there, diving headlong into bases. What he does is the equivalent of jumping out of a car that's going 20 miles an hour. And he's done it every day for a dozen years."

Says Harper, "Watch all the things that happen to a base runner like Henderson—the knees to the head, the number of times the infielders' spikes come down on the hands. You see some little guys who steal lots of bases initially, but if they played every day, they'd wear down. All the injuries would kill their offense."

"It's not only the offensive part of it," says Oakland hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "How about the defense? Rickey goes to the line and to the alley and charges balls harder and better than any leftfielder I've ever seen, even while he's doing all the rest. I was with the Reds in '75 and said the year Joe Morgan had was the most amazing I'd ever seen. That's until this year, and Rickey."

In Raines's rookie season, 1981, Brock opined that Raines could be the best base stealer of all time. "That is, if he doesn't get fear," Brock said. Asked to elaborate, Brock said, "There are two basic fears for the base stealer. The first is fear of the bag, which for a runner is every bit as great—maybe greater—than a hitter's fear of a 90-mile-an-hour fastball. To be a great base stealer, you have to accelerate into your slide and into the bag. Hit the bag wrong and you can tear up your ankle, separate your shoulder, smash your fingers. The other fear is that of being thrown out. You can't steal bases if you're worried about being out."

After years of watching Henderson's inexorable march toward his record, Brock now says, "Rickey has never known fear."

"Fear?" says Henderson. "Nah, never. Heh, heh, heh. I've never thought about what might happen. I was in Triple A [in 1979] when I started the head-first slide. A teammate named Michael Rodriguez did it. I thought it would be good. He told me it was like diving into the water. The first time I tried it, I bounced all over the place. Nearly killed myself. Heh, heh, heh. But I practiced and got used to it. I've gotten better at it over the years. I try to stay low so I won't be falling from as great a height.

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