Thursday July 23, 2009
Henderson and Rice together forever
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) - Rickey Henderson knew what was expected every time he batted. So, too, did Jim Rice.
"Some way, I was going to scratch to get on base to steal that base,'' Henderson said. "I steal that base, my day was good. My pride and joy was coming across the plate.''
Said Rice: "Believe me, I wasn't paid to walk. I was paid to try to do some damage.''
Each player - Henderson, the quintessential leadoff man with an infectious smile, and Rice, the consummate power hitter with an icy glare - inflicted more than his share of damage on opponents, and they will be duly recognized for their considerable career accomplishments Sunday when they are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The pair will be the first inductees to primarily play left field since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski went into the Hall in 1989.
Former Yankees and Indians second baseman Joe Gordon, elected posthumously by the Veterans Committee, also will be inducted, while former Yankees star and longtime broadcaster Tony Kubek and writer Nick Peters will be honored as winners of the Frick and Spink awards, respectively.
"As a kid, you grow up playing the game, and you never really know what you can achieve,'' Henderson said.
A member of nine teams during his 25-year career, the fun-loving Henderson achieved more than most. He holds the all-time records for stolen bases in a season (130) and career (1,406), for runs scored (2,295) and for leading off a game with a home run (81).
"Competing against myself - I think that's what made me the player that I became,'' Henderson said. "I had a lot of desire to be a winner and play the game to the fullest.''
Born in Chicago on Christmas Day 1958, Henderson moved with his family to California when he was 7 and became a three-sport star at Oakland Technical High School. Football was his forte and he received numerous scholarship offers to play college ball, turning them down for a shot at baseball.
Henderson was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the fourth round in 1976. After excelling in the minors for three seasons (at Modesto, in 1977, he led the California League with a then-record 95 steals and became just the fourth professional player to steal seven bases in one game), Henderson made his major league debut with Oakland in late June 1979. He still led the club that season with 33 steals.
When Oakland owner Charlie Finley hired Billy Martin as manager in 1980, Henderson had the perfect partner in crime. "Billyball'' - the aggressive attack Martin relished - helped catapult Henderson to stardom.
The speedy Henderson set the American League season steals record with 100 in only his second year, joining Maury Wills and Lou Brock as the only major league players of the modern era to steal 100 or more bases a season.
"I went out there and put it together, but it wasn't just me,'' said Henderson, who eclipsed the AL record of 96 set by Ty Cobb in 1915. "Billy helped teach me how to win. He had a strategy and we worked together and achieved that. There was no doubt I was gone when you told me to go.''
Henderson quickly evolved into perhaps the most dangerous player in baseball, seemingly always able to make something from nothing. After leading the AL in hits during the strike-shortened 1981 season, the "Man of Steal'' used his trademark headfirst slides to break Brock's single-season steals record with 130 in 1982.
After the 1984 season, Henderson was traded to the New York Yankees and soon was reunited with Martin after Yogi Berra was fired as manager.
Henderson hit 24 homers and batted .314 with a league-leading 80 stolen bases in 1985, and his 146 runs scored were the most since Ted Williams had 150 in 1949.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Henderson gained at the plate by shrinking into a tight crouch, dramatically cutting his strike zone and confounding pitchers like no other player.
"Rickey just made it impossible not to be distracted by him,'' said Tony La Russa, who managed Henderson at Oakland and dreaded managing against him.
Just the 44th player elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility, Henderson retired with 2,190 career walks (128 more than Babe Ruth), and although Barry Bonds has since eclipsed that total, Henderson still holds the record for most unintentional walks with 2,129. What is most amazing is that 796 of those free passes - or 37 percent - came while leading off an inning, something every opposing pitcher and catcher desperately wanted to avoid.
"I had a strategy of my strike zone and how can I beat a pitcher, and I think I was more patient,'' said Henderson, who broke Cobb's record of 2,246 career runs and Zack Wheat's record of 2,328 career games in left field. "I loved battling against a pitcher.''
The flamboyant Henderson, who during his career frequently referred to himself in the third person and often was accused of showboating on the field with his trash talk and snatch catch - he said it was simply "Rickey being Rickey'' - also liked being paid well for his services. That led him to develop another of his fortes - leading off games with a home run.
"I'm killing myself. I was stealing all the bases, and when you had to go to arbitration they said, 'You know, only the big boys make the money,''' Henderson said. "So I got to try and figure out how to hit a home run, too.''
He learned. In 1990, Henderson matched his career high with 28 homers. He also stole 65 bases and led the majors with a .439 on-base percentage, winning AL MVP honors.
Hitting homers was second nature to Rice, who played his entire career for the Boston Red Sox. Playing at a time when offensive numbers paled in comparison to the past two decades, the so-called steroid era, Rice batted .298 with 382 home runs and 1,451 RBIs from 1974-89. He was voted to eight All-Star teams and finished in the top five in AL MVP voting six times, winning the award in 1978 when he batted .315 with 213 hits, 46 home runs, 139 RBIs and a .600 slugging percentage.
The numbers get even more impressive.
Rice drove in 100 or more runs eight times, batted over .300 seven times, and topped 200 hits four times. And he's the only player in major league history with at least 35 homers and 200 hits in three consecutive seasons (1977-79).
That it took until his final year of eligibility probably rankled every time a new class was announced. If there ever was any bitterness, though, it has long since vanished.
"You let bygones be bygones,'' the 56-year-old Rice said. "Yeah, I wish I could have gone in on the first ballot or the second, not the last. But I'm in and some guys are still out. You cherish what you have. You cherish that you're in an elite category of guys that played the game one way - hard.
"There are a lot of guys that I started with my first year in rookie ball - about 60 guys - and only one made it to the big leagues.''
Henderson says he has one regret - that he didn't retire sooner.
"You got to wait five years to go into the Hall of Fame,'' he said. "If I would have thought about it, and just went on and got them five years up early, then I'd been a little younger. Then I could have came back after I went into the Hall of Fame, but I waited too long.''