07/26/09 7:13 PM ET
Hall induction leaves Rickey 'humbled'
'Man of Steal' -- always the entertainer -- thankful on big day
By Mychael Urban / MLB.com
Stewart, to whom Rickey Henderson referred as his "best friend" Sunday during the one of the most anticipated induction speeches in the history of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, stood off to the side of the stage after the ceremony and smiled contentedly, his eyes still ringed red.
"My proudest moment in the game," said Stewart, who grew up with Henderson in Oakland, Calif., and later played alongside him with the A's. "My proudest moment in the game, today."
The announced crowd of 21,000, along with millions watching Induction Day on MLB Network, surely expected Henderson to be entertaining. That's what Rickey's always done: He was the game's ultimate showman -- from the snatch catches, to the chats with his bats, to the collar-popping tater trots.
And as evidenced by the video that played on the big screen to the left of the stage before Henderson claimed his place among baseball's immortals, many expected him to leave listeners occasionally befuddled or amused.
A portion of the video was dedicated to what became known as "Rickeyspeak," a colorful -- and sometimes convoluted -- steam of consciousness that, from time to time, featured a rapid-fire string of "Rickey" references.
In the run-up to his induction, however, Henderson bristled at the notion that he was a third-person purveyor, and there wasn't a single such reference while he was at the microphone Sunday.
Instead there was a calm, balanced, evenly paced narrative of his childhood, career and family life.
"I was very nervous," Henderson admitted after the speech, noting that his only regret was forgetting to include the name of his three daughters, Angela, Lexi and Adriana. "As most people say, I talk faster than I'm thinking. I was trying to slow my speech down and trying not to make a mistake."
"When he slows down, as he did today," Stewart said, "his personality comes out."
It came out in a variety of ways.
Henderson's sincere expression of thanks to his wife, Pamela, for the sacrifices she made while chasing his dream, showed off a softer side rarely seen.
He gave credit to his first Minor League manager, Tom Trebelhorn, for helping hone the baserunning skills that serve as the bedrock of the Henderson legend, illustrating the respect Henderson had for those who shaped him as a player.
And when the "Man of Steal," whose plaque in Cooperstown features a synopsis of his career that starts with "Faster than a speeding bullet ...," spoke of his reverence for his favorite manager of all, he looked -- for a fleeting moment -- as though he might turn to the Man of Mush.
"Mr. Billy Martin always got the most out of me," Henderson said of the late A's and Yankees skipper, pausing slightly to collect himself. "I miss you very much, and I wish you were here with me today."
Rickey being Rickey, there was plenty of humor during the 14-minute speech. One such moment came in the wake of a story about one of his childhood heroes, former A's slugger and fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
Henderson, who said he also idolized Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron as a boy, said he'd go to A's games in the early 1970s and wait outside the players' parking lot, hoping to get Jackson's autograph.
"I'd ask him, and he'd pass me a pen with his name on it," Henderson said. "He never gave me an autograph!"
With that, Mr. October, seated behind and to the right of Henderson on stage, fell out of chair laughing.
Earlier in the speech, Henderson shared with the crowd the genesis of his life in baseball; a youth coach "tricked" him into playing by picking him up at his house armed with glazed doughnuts and hot chocolate.
Later, Henderson said, a counselor at Oakland Tech High "bribed" him into playing for the school's team by pledging to give him 25 cents for every hit, run scored and stolen base.
"After our first 10 games," Henderson said, "I had 30 hits, 25 runs and 33 stolen bases."
As the fans roared, he added a perfectly timed punch line: "Not bad money for a kid in high school."
Henderson also went the mom-knows-best route in praising his mother, Bobbie, for forcing him to focus on baseball. He said his childhood dream had been to play for the Oakland Raiders, but "my Mom was afraid I'd get hurt playing football."
His hometown A's, as well as the other eight teams -- Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Mariners, Padres, Blue Jays, Angels and Dodgers -- with whom Henderson played over 25 years in the Majors, surely share his gratitude to Bobbie.
"It was wonderful," Henderson said of his quasi-vagabond experience as a self-proclaimed rent-a-player. "It allowed me to meet fans all over the country, and it's the fans that make the game fun. So to the fans: Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Giving thanks was a central theme of the speech, which included a nod to eccentric former A's owner Charlie O. Finley, who called Henderson in June 1979 to tell him he was headed for The Show.
"Where ever you're at, and that donkey, I want to say thank you for the opportunity," Henderson said with a smile.
Before he launched into his final lines, Henderson said he had a message for his young fans.
"Follow your dream," he said. "Believe your dream. Because dreams come true. Thank you to everyone here for making my dream come true today."
Given Henderson's flair for the dramatic, it was no surprise that he provided a stunning walk-off line while invoking another of his heroes, Muhammad Ali.
"[Ali] said at one time, 'I am the greatest,' and that's something I always wanted to be," Henderson offered. "Now my journey is complete. I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time.
"And at this moment ..."
As he paused, the crowd's laughter made it clear that they expected him to close with a line akin to the one he dropped after breaking Lou Brock's career stolen bases record: "I am the greatest of all time."
They were hardly disappointed, though, when he went in the opposite direction:
"I am very, very humbled," he said, bringing the fans to their feet for one final, long, thunderous ovation.
Somewhere, the Laney College of Oakland speech students, who helped Henderson prepare for his big moment, were surely thundering along with them.
"He was entertaining, he was funny, he was intelligent, he was respectful," Stewart said. "That's the guy I grew up with. That's the guy I played with. That's who I was hoping everyone would see.
"He was outstanding. Outstanding."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.