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Peter Gammons
October 01, 1990
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October 01, 1990

Man Of Steal


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"Heh, heh, heh. I know," says Henderson. "I'm just having fun. Not enough people have fun playing baseball. Guys like Hendu [ Oakland outfielder Dave Henderson] and I have a lot of fun. Sure, I know everyone wants to get me sometimes, but that's part of the fun."

"He used to infuriate me," says A's reliever Dennis Eckersley, who has pitched against Henderson at various times in his career. "I'd shout at him, call him every name; then he'd get on base, steal and beat me. Afterward, I'd curse him again—'bleeping little hot dog'—which is exactly what he wants you to do. He infuriates, distracts, disrupts and manipulates."

Henderson's approach to the plate is ritualistic and maddeningly slow. "It takes him less time to drive to the ballpark," says Seattle Mariners pitcher Keith Corn-stock. One leg in the batter's box, one leg out, hand up to call time, pull the left sleeve up, tug the pants over the right thigh. Even when Henderson is finally ready, in his deep crouch, a pitcher must deal with his strike zone, which opponents claim is about six inches from top to bottom. "What makes it worse is that he bitches so much that umpires give him everything," says California Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann.

"Not so," says Rettenmund. "Rickey has such a precise knowledge of his strike zone—like a Ted Williams or a Wade Boggs—that umpires bear down even harder with him. They don't like it when he disagrees, so they work harder. And he can turn an 0-2 count into a walk/stolen base/error-catcher/runner-on-third faster than anyone who ever played."

"He gives you that what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it? look," says Stewart. "And what do you do? Whatever you try, Rickey'll beat you. Hit him? He'll be on third in one or two pitches, grinning. Throw at him? You're behind in the count—and anyway, no one's ever intimidated Rickey. Throw the ball over? He hits it. In the playoffs last year, the Blue Jays worried so much about Rickey that they lost their composure."

In that series, which the A's won in five games, Toronto catcher Ernie Whitt charged that Henderson "showed me up" by not sliding on a steal. On a key play in Game 1, a Henderson slide took out Blue Jay second baseman Nelson Liriano. That slide broke up a double play and forced a wild throw, which produced the tie-breaking runs in the A's victory. "He did what he wanted, and we let it get to us," said Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston. "That isn't hotdogging, it's winning. Most players are afraid of the notoriety. Rickey flourishes with it."

Henderson has also flourished simply by being in Oakland, his hometown. The June 1989 trade that sent him from the Yankees back to Oakland to join his old schoolyard teammate Stewart was the best thing that could have happened to him. "First, there is the ring," he says. "Some people thought I hotdogged in the World Series. Heck, I was just having a ball. I'd played 10 years and never been there. I wasn't about to have anyone take away the fun of doing something I'd always wanted to do.

"Just as important, it was time to get out of New York. I never really felt appreciated there. Oh, I liked the city. I liked the players. I'd have loved to have brought a world championship to Yankee Stadium, and I'm sorry I didn't. But in New York there was always something in the back of everyone's mind: 'Rickey isn't hustling,' or 'Rickey isn't really hurt, he's jakin' it.' Everything was a crisis. Here in Oakland, there's more of a feeling of self-dignity. A person can be himself."

Henderson likes to tell this Yankee story. It was 1987. Lou Piniella was the manager. Henderson had pulled a hamstring muscle. "What good am I if I get a serious pull and can't run?" he says. "I know my body. I know what's potentially serious and what isn't. After a couple of days, Lou told me he needed me in there. 'It aches when I drive home; it's hurt,' I told him. I needed to rest to get it right. He told me, 'You're as good limping as anyone I have.' So I thought, O.K., I'll go out there. Maybe then they'll believe I care. I get a knock first time up, and I get the must-steal sign. I go and Willie [Randolph] fouls the ball off. I figure, Now they know I'm trying. Enough's enough. But I get the must-steal sign again.

"I took off and—bayahhh!—I popped it bad. They tell me I pulled something. 'No, popped,' I told them. They wouldn't acknowledge that. I was on the 15-day DL, and when the 15 days were up, I was told I was ready. I wasn't. Now George [Steinbrenner] gets mad and orders that I undergo some tests. He spent $25,000 or $30,000 for me to have some special tests to prove I was hurt. The machine showed there was a tear. George said, 'O.K., you are hurt.' After a while, you don't need to put up with that indignity day after day. In Oakland, I have always been treated with respect, from the front office to the fans. It makes it easier to play."

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