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"I used to accelerate and dive wildly every time I went in, and I was always over-sliding the bag, trying to hold on with anything—sometimes even my toes. When I stole 130 [the major league single-season record] in '82, I was called out six or seven times for oversliding. I was safe each time; I just couldn't stop. A lot of times when I was flying by the bag, I'd grab hold and feel my shoulder snap out. The last week in '82, I couldn't throw at all. I'd catch a fly and have to flip the ball to Murph [centerfielder Dwayne Murphy] so he could throw for me.
"When I was in the minor leagues and first starting to steal bases with [the A's Class A team in] Modesto under Tom Trebelhorn, they showed us some films of great base stealers. The man who had the impact on me was Ty Cobb. He went into those bases hard every time. That man did it right. I've never forgotten." (Upon breaking Cobb's American League record in May, Henderson sent the base he stole to Trebelhorn, who now manages the Milwaukee Brewers.)
What Harper describes in Henderson as the "joy of competition," others call arrogance. Says Henderson, "I hope this doesn't make me sound like a jerk, but every time I'm thrown out, I think it was a mistake. I figure I got a bad jump, the dirt was bad or maybe it was a one-in-a-thou-sand play by the pitcher or catcher. I've never hit a stretch when I've lost confidence in my ability to steal. I never think about failure."
The quickest pitchers get the ball to the plate in 1.2 to 1.3 seconds; the average for all pitchers is around 1.4. The best catchers get the ball to second base in 1.9 seconds; the average is about 2.1, and these numbers presume an accurate throw by the catcher. Henderson goes from his standing lead off first base to second base in 3.2 or 3.3 seconds. However, basestealing is not simply a matter of split seconds.
"People think basestealing is speed, period," says Harper. "There's so much more to it. There's feel. There's knowledge. Rickey'll give the opposition a lot of different starting positions—straight up, one leg back, all sorts of things—just to confuse it."
Says former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, "No one will challenge Henderson's 130-steal record for a long time, because people have gotten so good at stopping the steal." Harper agrees: "It's much harder today. Pitchers all have some kind of illegal move bending their knees. They have slide steps [i.e., the pitcher steps quickly toward the plate rather than lifting his leg as in his normal delivery]. Everyone's pitching out. Some pitchers throw over to first, time after time after time. They have stopwatches, videotape."
These things don't faze Henderson. "If some pitcher throws over 20 times in a row," he says, "I say to the first baseman, "Tell your friend I don't care if he throws over 100 times, I'll dive back safe every time. And when he finally throws to the plate, I'll steal on him. He'll never beat me. And when he does throw to the plate, he'll have wasted the equivalent of 100 pitches.' I've seen just about everything over the years. They've watered down the dirt, especially in Chicago. Eddie Murray once grabbed my back pocket to hold me up. George Brett was the one guy who used to get me once in a while. He'd get me to talking, and I'd lose my concentration. A lot of first basemen have tried to get me talking, but only one has done it, George Brett. Heh, heh, heh."
Oakland's pitchers say Henderson always seems to know when the opposing pitcher is going to throw a breaking ball—and it is a freak of nature when Henderson is thrown out on a breaking pitch. "When you run all the time, you have to study all the time," Henderson says. "You have to know all of a pitcher's shoulder and knee moves. You have to know the way certain catchers move on pitchouts. You get to sense certain pitches."
Does he actually know when a breaking ball is coming? "No," he says. "But I've got a pretty good idea. Heh, heh, heh."
Some opposing players and managers do not readily acknowledge Henderson's skills. That is partly attributable to the fact that he is the consummate hot dog: fluorescent wristbands, snatch catches, finger-twirling home run trot. When he takes the field, he is Mick Jagger. Please allow me to introduce myself....