Henderson again delivers on big stage

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The verdict is in: Rickey Henderson has a sense of humor and a flair for comedic timing. He can be charming and he can be poignant, and all within the span of a paragraph or two.

Maybe we just never noticed this side of him, because we were too busy watching to really pay attention and listen.

Henderson, the man generally regarded as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, arrived for his crowning achievement Sunday resplendent in a three-piece suit of Oakland A's wedding-gown white. The garment was hand-tailored for him 10 years ago, and you have to figure he hauls it out strictly for family reunions, Bar Mitzvahs and Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

So there was no disputing that Rickey looked marvelous on the big stage at Cooperstown. But once he received his plaque from commissioner Bud Selig, what would he say and how would he say it? His speech might have been the most eagerly anticipated address by a public figure since Sarah Palin's coming-out party at the Republican National Convention.

As Henderson said recently, "Speech and me don't get along sometimes.'' Would he resurrect the whole third person thing, or talk so fast the crowd would need to employ a slide step to keep up?

Not to worry. With a national TV audience looking on and 50 Hall of Famers breathing down the back of his neck, Rickey slayed.

Dave Stewart certainly thought so. He grew up in Oakland with Henderson, and played youth league ball with Henderson at age 13. They're best friends to this day, and Stewart's heart practically burst as he watched his pal's big moment from the first row.

The speech, in Stewart's estimation, was "perfect.''

"It's not difficult for Rickey to speak intelligently,'' Stewart said. "What's difficult for Rickey is to slow down. When he slows down, as he did [Sunday], he's clear, he's entertaining and he's funny. I was proud to tears. That was my proudest moment in the game to date.''

Hall of Fame speeches, gratifying though they might be, are an excruciating rite of passage for inductees. Ballplayers who make their living by achieving are suddenly thrust into a new and uncomfortable world. They have to percolate on a hot stage while feeling their collars tighten around their throats, then summarize a lifetime in 10 to 15 minutes while making sure to thank their wives, kids, agents, Little League coaches and the clubhouse attendant from way back in the Gulf Coast League.

Oh yeah: The crowd at Clark Sports Center on Sunday was estimated at 21,000. And as Henderson and fellow inductee Jim Rice both knew, some Hall of Famers would be staring at their watches and getting nervous in anticipation of flights they had to catch.

Rice's rooting section included long-time Boston teammate Dwight Evans and fellow Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, who has become a semi-recluse in recent years and hadn't made an appearance in Cooperstown since Carlton Fisk's induction ceremony in 2000.

"He told me [Saturday] night, 'If you go longer than 12 minutes, I'm out of here,''' Rice said of Yastrzemski. "I didn't look behind me, so I don't know if he stayed. Was he there?'''

The answer was yes: Yaz actually made it to Rice's final applause line.

While Rice currently does Red Sox TV commentary for NESN and knows his way around a turn of phrase, Henderson has been at loggerheads with syntax for a while now. But he approached his speech with the same diligence that drove him to set career records for stolen bases and runs scored over 25 big league seasons.

In the weeks preceding Induction Day, Henderson attended instructor Earl Robinson's speech class at Laney College in Oakland and gave his Hall of Fame address a test drive before the students. He tried different approaches, listened to critiques and took everything he heard to heart.

"He was on time, he was patient, he listened, he absorbed and assimilated the suggestions he got and tweaked it,'' Robinson told the San Jose Mercury News. "I was impressed. He astounded me, in fact.''

The final product hit all the right notes. Henderson charmed the crowd by reminiscing about Hank Thomasson, the youth league coach who bribed him to play with hot chocolate and glazed doughnuts, and Mrs. Tommie Wilkerson, the guidance counselor who coaxed him onto the ballfield by paying him a quarter for every run, hit and stolen base he accumulated.

Henderson even managed to puncture Reggie Jackson's ego with a story from his boyhood days as an Athletics fan.

"As a kid growing up in Oakland, my heroes were Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson,'' Henderson said. "I would stand out in the ballpark parking lot and say, 'Reggie, can I have an autograph?' And Reggie would pass me a pen with his name on it.''

Henderson also described the emotions that went through his head as he drifted from team to team in the early 2000s, convinced he could still contribute even when most of the 30 big league clubs were dubious.

"I loved the game of baseball,'' Henderson said. "That's why it was so hard for me to walk away from the game. I thought, 'If Satchel Paige can start playing Major League Baseball at the age of 45, then with my dedication, hard work and desire I could play until my body said it was time to hang it up.''

Now that he's 50, Henderson would probably concede that time has passed. But he has no regrets. Sure, it rained a little bit Sunday. And in the process of flipping through the pages, Henderson neglected to mention daughters Angela, Alexis and Adriann by name. He lamented that oversight in a news conference following his speech.

But when a leadoff man and catalyst goes 4-for-4 with three stolen bases and a circus catch, what's a little foul ball off the instep?

"When you think of me, I would like you to remember that kid from the inner city who played that game with all his heart, and never took the game for granted,'' Henderson told the crowd in Cooperstown.

Message received. In every way.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.