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"He's a great player, one of the greatest ever," says Athletics vice president Sandy Alderson. "Why shouldn't he be treated the way he deserves? There's no conscious effort to treat Rickey Henderson any special way. My only gripe is that people around the game don't appreciate what a great player he is."
In Oakland, when Henderson says he's hurt, he's hurt. "The important thing isn't the number of games Rickey plays," says A's manager Tony La Russa. "It's how Rickey plays when he's in there. What did Don Mattingly say last year when Rickey was traded? [Mattingly said, "No one's played harder on this team all season than Rickey Henderson."] That's the way it's been here. He's flat out all the time. He wants to be out there every day. He loves it. He's a physical superman, and he knows when something is wrong with that incredible body of his. We want him at 100 percent. Why force him to play when he's hurt, then risk his being 70 percent in September and October?"
Despite hamstring pulls in July and August, Henderson is third on the A's this season in games played, after first baseman Mark McGwire and infielder Mike Gallego. "Tony cares," says Henderson. "He understands the long season."
As an example, Henderson recounts an episode from last year. The A's were playing a hot Saturday afternoon game in Anaheim in mid-August. The next day, they were to face the Angels' Bert Blyleven, who has always been tough on most of the Oakland hitters but whom Henderson hits well. La Russa approached Henderson in the dugout in the top of the ninth inning. "What are you doing tonight?" asked La Russa.
"I'm bushed," said Henderson. "I'll be in bed by seven. Stew goes tomorrow. I always play for Stew."
La Russa showed Henderson a list of Cleveland's pitching rotation for the A's upcoming series. "Who would you like the day off against?" asked La Russa. Henderson pointed to the Thursday afternoon starter, John Farrell. Says Henderson, "We were off Monday, so he was giving me two days off in advance."
In the first two games of the 1989 playoffs, Henderson got on base seven times in nine plate appearances. After Toronto won Game 3, all Henderson did the next afternoon was hit two in-your-face home runs. Over the five-game series, he stole eight bases; hit two homers, a double, a triple and two singles; and scored eight runs and knocked in five. Along came the San Francisco Giants, who fell in four straight games in the World Series. Henderson was on base five times in the first two games. A couple of weeks later, after play had resumed following the Bay Area earthquake, Henderson, leading off in Game 4, hit Don Robinson's third pitch over Candlestick's leftfield wall. "I didn't want to wait for the ring," says Henderson now. "Heh, heh, heh."
And while he takes aim at a second ring, there is also the small matter of Brock's record. "It's going to come," says Henderson, showing little sense of urgency. "I'm going to have the record. This isn't Rickey Henderson's final season. And I want to make sure I'm 100 per cent healthy for the playoffs and World Series. That's where it's really important to do my thing. To be honest, winning the batting title would be the individual thing I'd like most. I'd like that. The MVP? I have no control over that. I don't vote. I can hit, so I'd like to catch George Brett and win that batting crown. I might not get another shot at a world championship or a batting title. I will break the steal record, sooner or later."
And when the dust clears, Henderson may at last get his due. Says Rettenmund, "The stolen-base record and his postseason play will finally bring Rickey the appreciation he's long deserved but, for various reasons, hasn't gotten. Sure, he's cocky, but he's good. He knows it and he isn't afraid to let everyone know he knows it. Not many players want that pressure. By the end of this season, when he has broken the record, won the MVP and, I hope, had another great postseason, almost everyone will say, ' Rickey Henderson is one of the greatest players who ever lived.' And it'll be about time."