Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Inimitable Rickey

Halls of Fame are inherently ridiculous. The more heated the debate about a certain player’s credentials, the more meaningless it is. The whole point is to enshrine greatness, and if we have to spend 10 years arguing about whether or not you were great, you probably weren’t.

Rickey Henderson was great. He will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame later this year. His combination of power and speed changed the way the game was played. Well, that might be too grand. But it certainly changed the way the games in which he participated were played. He’s the all-time leader in stolen bases, and his 1,406 swipes is currently the record in baseball hardest to imagine being approached, much less surpassed. The last time he led the league in the category he was pushing 40 years old.

His arrogance and difficult personality are as legendary as his talent. Roger Angell, who’s seen his share of baseball, recently wrote about Henderson on one of The New Yorker’s blogs:
Everything about him made you wince and gasp at the same time. How does a major-league ballplayer, for instance, end up playing for nine different teams, while also rejoining his first team, the Oakland Athletics, four times? Why would a major-league outfielder insist on grabbing oncoming flyballs with an angry-looking one-handed slicing motion, as if they were, well, horseflies? . . . It was all on purpose, of course. Rickey’s plan, from the first day, was to get into the minds of the other team’s pitcher and the other team’s manager and the other team’s infielders, and their fans, too, and get them thinking about Rickey instead of the business at hand. . . . This is still happening. Twenty-eight baseball writers voting in this year’s Hall of Fame election failed to put Rickey Henderson’s name in any of the ten available slots on their ballots. Thinking about Rickey again, they’d lost their minds.
Henderson is also -- and this counts in baseball maybe more than any other walk of life -- a character for the ages. This site lists 25 memorable non-playing moments from his career. It’s just a start, but a good one. It includes his infamous habit of referring to himself in the third person:
This wasn’t too long ago, I think it was the year he ended up playing with the Red Sox. Anyway, he called San Diego GM Kevin Towers and left the following message: “This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.”
His conversations with himself:
This one happened in Seattle. Rickey struck out and as the next batter was walking past him, he heard Henderson say, “Don’t worry, Rickey, you’re still the best.”
And his sense of humor (expressed, of course, in tandem with his arrogance):
During a contract holdout with Oakland in the early 1990s, Henderson said, “If they want to pay me like Mike Gallego, I’ll play like Gallego.”
Henderson is a world-class flake, no doubt, but I’ve always liked him. Among other things, he had a terribly hard time leaving the game, and I always find that poignant, especially when the game defines someone to themselves as much as it seemed to define Rickey. Along those lines, I highly recommend this New Yorker profile from three years ago, which followed Henderson during his time as a San Diego Surf Dawg, when, at 46, he was playing in the minor league for the minor leagues, hoping for one last shot at the bigs. It includes this detail, which immediately brought back a crystal-clear image of how he plied his craft:
He said that the final touch was the slide. Before Henderson, the great base stealers typically went feet first. Henderson decided that it would be faster—not to mention more daring and stylish—to go in head first, the way Pete Rose, who was never a major base stealer, occasionally did. Yet each time Henderson tried the head-first slide he would bounce violently, brutally pounding his body. Then, one day, while he was flying to a game, he noticed that the pilot landed the plane in turbulence without a single bump. Henderson recalled, “I asked the pilot, I said, ‘How the hell did you do that?’ He said the key is coming in low to the ground, rather than dropping suddenly. I was, like, ‘Dang. That’s it!’ ” After that, Henderson said, he lowered his body gradually to the ground, like an airplane.
(Via Miles)

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