Rickey to be Rickey at Hall induction
All-time stolen base king known for flair, colorful persona
OAKLAND -- Considered by many the greatest leadoff hitter in the game today, Ichiro Suzuki was in a playful mood earlier this month while holding court at the 80th All-Star Game in St. Louis.
Asked for his thoughts on the impending Hall of Fame induction of Rickey Henderson, widely considered the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, Ichiro thought about it for a second or two and smiled.
"I thought he was still playing," Ichiro offered.
His still-chiseled frame and unbridled enthusiasm for his hometown A's suggests Henderson might, indeed, still be able to make a difference on the diamond. But this Sunday, Henderson takes his rightful place among baseball's immortals, joining former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice in Cooperstown's Class of 2009.
"Could I play right now? You know me. You know my answer to that one," Henderson said last month while participating in a reunion of the 1989 A's team he helped lead to a World Series sweep of the Giants. "I'll probably say I can still play as long as I'm walking and talking."
Walking and talking helped make Henderson one of the most productive and colorful players in the game's rich history.
He owned the Major League record for walks (2,190) when he played the final game of his 25-year career as a 44-year-old member of the 2003 Dodgers, and he's always been a world-class gum-flapper -- polarizing and entertaining with a singular voice and perspective that, along with his flamboyance afield, greatly enhanced the baseball conversation for a quarter of a century.
"Hated the guy. Absolutely hated him," fellow A's Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley said of his impression of Henderson before they played together. "The guy would style after taking a walk! And he never stopped stylin' the whole game. He was brutal!"
But as a teammate?
"I dug playing with Rickey, and I dug Rickey as a person once I figured him out," said Eck, who played with Henderson on that 1989 team and in parts of six other seasons in Oakland. "People think he was a hot dog -- so did I, until I played with him. But he wasn't hot-dogging it, he was just being Rickey. That's who he was. It wasn't an act at all. It was just Rickey being Rickey, and Rickey was all about having fun."
That's six "Rickeys" in a six-sentence span -- a ratio many expect Henderson to eclipse Sunday during the most highly anticipated induction speech in recent memory.
Henderson, a remarkably versatile player who owns 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), was the unofficial king of third-person references during his playing days.
Yet during a 35-minute session with the media in Oakland last month, and during a lengthy Hall of Fame conference call last week, Henderson didn't drop a single third-person "Rickey."
That doesn't mean Henderson won't slip into old habits once he takes the podium. In fact, he vowed to stay true to the creative style that made him such a joy to watch.
"You know, speech and me don't even get along sometimes; I [wasn't] a doctor or professor," he said. "So me having to go up and having to try to write a speech or read a speech like that, that's kind of like, you know, putting a tie too tight on my neck. ... I don't know what I'm doing, man -- that's the whole thing about it. ... When the time comes, whatever at the time is going to feel right, what I've got to do is going to happen.
"I have no special way. I can't tell you I've got a special way to do it. I'm going to try to be creative. I'm going to try to be, you know, just me. Myself."
Just as Eckersley suggested, no matter what Henderson says or does, he's just Rickey being Rickey.
Being Rickey these days means being incredibly humbled. Named on 95 percent of the ballots issued to Hall of Fame voters from the Baseball Writers of Association of America, Henderson became the 44th player in history elected in his first year of eligibility.
"This compliment, this achievement, it's a great honor," Henderson said. "It's been fun. It's getting exciting. Now you sit back and you're seeing what kind of player that you became out there. It's exciting that [voters said], 'Hey you played it the right way, you went out and you worked, and you achieved what some of the greatest players out there have achieved.' So now you're in that class, so it feels good to feel that.
"It took a long time for me to feel that I was [that kind of] player."
Henderson was a Gold Glove-caliber left fielder whose "snatch catch" drew the ire of more than a few foes, but his career stands alone among leadoff men because he was a one-man juggernaut on offense, impacting games with his keen eye, his explosive speed and his lighting-bolt power. From the time he made his big league debut with the A's in 1979, it was clear that Henderson was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, boasting a previously unprecedented package.
"He put fear in the other team," said former A's manager Tony LaRussa. "Rickey was an intimidator in so many ways."
A 10-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger Award-winner, the 1990 American League MVP, the 1989 AL Championship Series MVP, and the AL single-season leader in stolen bases 12 times, Henderson had four stints with the A's and also played for the Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres, Angels, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mariners.
When his career came to a close -- he's never officially announced his retirement -- Henderson had amassed 3,055 hits with a .401 on-base percentage, 297 home runs and 1,115 RBIs.
"He was so good for so long," Eckersley said. "I mean, the guy was a force in his 40s."
In 2001, at age 42, Henderson stole 25 bases for the Padres to give him 23 consecutive seasons with at least 20 steals. He also broke Babe Ruth's all-time record for walks -- since broken by Barry Bonds -- and Ty Cobb's all-time runs record that season, passing Cobb with a homer punctuated by a popup slide before jumping into his younger teammates' arms.
On the final day of the season, displaying a flair for the dramatic that characterized his career, he collected hit No. 3,000.
"I just love the game," Henderson said. "Baseball was something that I dedicated my life to."
On Sunday in upstate New York, the game will, once again, love Rickey right back.
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.