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Henderson takes some questions deep

By Nick Cafardo
July 26, 2009

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Boston only got to experience Rickey Henderson for one season, and by then the greatest base stealer in history was 43 years old, but he found himself pleasantly surprised at the response he received from a fan base he once thought hated him.

“When I went to Boston I enjoyed being there and playing there so I wish it had lasted long term. But before I went to Boston I thought the fans of Boston hated me, they always heckled me . . . so I was a little skeptical going there. But when I got there the fans were great to me, cheering me on and welcoming me into their home.’’

Henderson, entering the Hall of Fame today with Jim Rice, always will be one of baseball’s lovable characters, someone who punished his body time after time with mind-boggling numbers of steals and attempts. Imagine the wear and tear.

Henderson played 25 seasons in the majors, and to this day if someone called to ask him if he wanted to try out again, Henderson would be thrilled. Even at 50. And I wouldn’t bet against him being able to pull it off; he still looks as if he’s in remarkable shape.

He told this reporter two years ago, when he was 48 and a coach with the Mets, “If I had the chance to play in the league again every day I’d lead the league in stolen bases.’’ He said it as Jose Reyes’s base running coach.

Henderson said he hasn’t talked to anyone recently about playing again, though he keeps in touch with Kevin Towers, the general manager of the Padres. He said, “I haven’t talked to Kevin about playing again, but all he has to do is get on the phone and I’ll go out there and help him any way I can, even if it’s helping the young players and trying to make them better.’’

On a serious note, Henderson said he’s “learning life all over again. I came out of high school playing baseball and I’ve been playing baseball for 30 years. I never got into what life was all about. After baseball, this gives me a chance to relax a little bit, raise my kids, and help the community and to also work with Little League teams and kids.’’

We hope when he gives his speech today that Rickey is Rickey. There’s been a movement by other Hall of Famers to keep the speeches short. We don’t want that. We want Rickey to deliver a line or a story and to bring the house down with his natural humor. Yet one could tell he’s trying to get away from that persona, even yesterday going as far as to say that the whole topic of him speaking in the third person, or the “third party’’ as he called it, has been overblown. He said it stemmed from times when he stood in the batter’s box and reminded himself out loud of how to approach the at-bat, which other players would hear.

Henderson went to a speech class with a friend who teaches at a college to practice so that “I won’t make a mistake.’’

Yet he was a colorful player, and baseball is awaiting a colorful speech as his years of superb athleticism are now rewarded with his Hall induction.

Henderson was asked what story he’s most known for and what story about him is the most untrue.

“The most famous story people have me talk about is about signing a contract with the A’s for a million dollars and a bonus for a million dollars. Instead of me going to the bank and cashing it, I decided to hang it on the wall. Each and every day I passed by it and I reminded myself I’m a millionaire now.

“It’s true that I did have the check up on the wall for about a year. The A’s called me and told me they were trying to do their books and they seemed to be short a million dollars. They said to me when we gave you the check for a million dollars what did you do with the check? I said, ‘I put it on the wall.’ ‘You put it on the wall instead of cashing it?’ So they told me to go cash it, get a copy of it, and then put it back on the wall.’’

He said the story about him having no idea why John Olerud wore a helmet even though he was his teammate for many years was completely overblown. Henderson said while he may not have known it at first, he eventually did, but it was portrayed that Henderson never knew that Olerud was protecting his head because of an aneurysm he had suffered as a teenager.

“The media got both of us together to ask us and John told them the story wasn’t true, but the reporters still put it in the paper,’’ he said.

Oh well. The game today is lacking players so colorful and so great. Tony La Russa called him the greatest player he ever saw.

Rickey Henderson was born on Christmas Day in 1958 and he was a present to baseball. He broke the record for steals in a season in 1982 with 130. Three times he stole 100 or more bases and he ended his career with a .401 on base percentage and 3,055 hits and 1,406 steals for nine teams before retiring as a Dodger in 2003.

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