Many years ago, A's leadoff man Rickey Henderson did what he did better than anyone: He reached base to start a game. Orioles manager Frank Robinson determined that his pitcher and catcher were incapable of stopping Henderson from stealing, so they didn't attempt a throw as he stole second and third. "We might have thrown the ball into center field, or down the left field line," Robinson said. "We couldn't stop him. He is just too good."
That's how good Henderson was: He was too good. He was one of the greatest players of all time, the greatest leadoff man ever, one of the best left fielders, and a physical freak whose combination of speed and power was basically unmatched in major league history. He is the career leader in stolen bases (1,406) and runs scored (2,295), ranks second in walks (2,190), finished with 3,055 hits and won the American League MVP in 1992. He had 468 more steals than Lou Brock, who is second on the all-time list, and had more than the combined stolen base totals of Joe Morgan (689) and Maury Wills (586). The gap between Henderson and Brock is larger than the steals total of the active leader, Juan Pierre (429). Plus, for all his speed, Henderson's 297 home runs are in the top 125 all time.
He was, by far, the most dynamic leadoff hitter I've ever seen. If you got 2-0 on him, you were fearful of throwing it down the middle because he could hit a home run. But if you threw ball three, he was going to walk, and then he's on second base.
--Former pitcher Mike Flanagan about Rickey Henderson
"He was, by far, the most dynamic leadoff hitter I've ever seen," former Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan said. "If you got 2-0 on him, you were fearful of throwing it down the middle because he could hit a home run. But if you threw ball three, he was going to walk, and then he's on second base. We had many, many long discussions on our pitching staff about how we could control this guy. He was irritating, infuriating and great."
"There was no one else like him," former pitcher Tom Candiotti said. "I hated Rickey. Really, I couldn't stand him. He never swung at my knuckleball, he never swung at my curveball. He never swung until he got two strikes. He had the strike zone the size of a coffee can. If you threw him a fastball, he would hit it for a home run. If you walked him, it was a triple. It was ridiculous. It was like, 'Good gosh, what are we going to do with this guy?'"
There wasn't much anyone could do. "We threw the kitchen sink at him to try to keep him close to first, which we couldn't, but once he got to second, forget about it," Flanagan said. "If you paid attention to him there, invariably [Carney] Lansford would hit a double, [Jose] Canseco or [Mark] McGwire would go deep. If you tried to hold him on all the way around the bases, it was so distracting, before you knew it, you were down five runs."
In Henderson's first full year in the major leagues in 1980, he stole 100 bases, the third player in history to do that. He has three of the top eight stolen bases seasons in history, including a record 130 in 1982. He went headfirst into the bag for 25 years, something that amazed Brock, who always went feetfirst because headfirst made one so much more susceptible to injury. But, as Henderson said, "it's the fastest way to go. And I'm fast."
"When he wanted to go, he would go, and no one could stop him," Candiotti said. "I was his teammate for one month. He was a great teammate; he taught me so much about the game. I asked him, 'How do I stop you?' He told me the best thing to do was hold the ball. He didn't like it when the pitcher held the ball because he wanted to run as soon as possible."
Flanagan held the ball. "I invented a pickoff move just for him," he said. "When he would take his lead, I'd step off, but he wouldn't go back to the base like everyone else, he just stayed there. It infuriated us. So, try to follow me on this: When he wouldn't go back to the bag, I'd step off the rubber, and put the ball in my left [throwing] hand. Then I would put my glove over the ball to cover it. Then, while holding the ball, I would pretend I was tugging on my pants, and if he looked down, or looked away, I'd drop my glove, and flip the ball over to first. I showed it to some of our young kid pitchers [when Flanagan was the Orioles pitching coach]. Their mouths dropped. But I picked him off once."
Henderson was always on base -- only Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and Ty Cobb reached base more times in baseball history -- and not just because he was a good hitter. Only Bonds drew more walks in baseball history.
"You knew if you threw a complete game, you would have to throw 25 pitches to Rickey Henderson," Flanagan said. "His knowledge of the strike zone was so good, you kept asking yourself, 'Why are the umpires giving him so many pitches?' It takes good hitters about 10 years to develop the discipline that he had in the strike zone. I don't know where he learned it, but he had it as soon as he got to the big leagues. He could wait so long at the plate, he was able to wait longer before swinging than anyone I've ever seen. He really made you work. And he made you angry."
The way Henderson worked the count helped everyone in the lineup. "He influenced how quickly you worked to the next hitter, and how well you worked to the next hitter," Candiotti said. "I would love to see the numbers of what the No. 2 hitters hit behind him. I'm sure it was very good. I'm sure Willie Randolph, and other No. 2 guys, just feasted on it. Rickey was amazing. And believe me. He was a lot smarter than he has been given credit for."
Everyone has his favorite Rickey story, none of which is flattering: He framed, but didn't cash, a $100,000 signing-bonus check because, he said, "I was waiting for the interest rate to go up." He asked for a Winnebago as part of his contract with the Mets. When some player on the bus said that players with tenure got to sit wherever they wanted, Rickey said, "Tenure? I got 15 years in the big leagues." And there is the apocryphal story about John Olerud, who always wore a helmet in the field because he suffered a brain aneurysm in college. When Olerud joined Henderson with the Mets, Henderson told him that he'd played with a player in Seattle who also wore a helmet when he was in the field.
"Rickey," Olerud supposedly said (but really didn't), "that was me!"
Candiotti laughed. "I've heard all those," he said. "But Rickey is like Manny [Ramirez]. They put out this karma like they're not very smart when you know they're damned smart baseball players. I know Rickey is smart. I played poker with him on the plane. He was as smart as could be with numbers, and with counting cards."
Henderson knew his numbers, and where he stood on all-time lists. He said after several seasons of his career that he wanted to break Ty Cobb's record for runs scored, which he did. In 1985, he scored 146 runs, most since Ted Williams scored 150 in 1949. Henderson had 2,500 fewer plate appearances than Rose, he made 1,818 fewer outs, but scored more runs. Henderson scored so many runs in part because he could drive himself in. He hit a homer in a record 25 straight seasons. He led off 81 games with a homer, also a record.
Rickey is like Manny [Ramirez]. They put out this karma like they're not very smart when you know they're damned smart baseball players. I know Rickey is smart. I played poker with him on the plane. He was as smart as could be with numbers, and with counting cards.
--Former pitcher Tom Candiotti
Henderson was also one of the best defensive left fielders of his time: Few left fielders went to the line, and got the ball to second base, faster than Henderson. In 1981, he became the first left fielder in the live ball era (1920-on) to lead the majors in outfield putouts.
He will always be remembered as the stolen-base king, and his reaction to breaking Brock's record will never be forgotten, either. As soon as he was called safe, Henderson pulled the base from the ground, raised it over his head, and, with microphone in hand, announced, among other things, "Today, I'm the greatest of all time." It only added to the image of Henderson's being a petulant, self-absorbed star. Last summer, Brock, shaking his head in dismay, told the story about how he had advised Henderson to write out the words he would say after breaking the record, then Brock would edit it so it would be just right. Instead, Henderson gave the scribbled script only to Brock's son. When Henderson made his "greatest of all time" proclamation, all Brock could do was mutter to himself, "Oh, no."
But there's no denying that Henderson is the greatest base stealer ever, and one of the greatest players ever.
"But he didn't like day games," Candiotti said. "We had a day game in Oakland, and Rickey struck out. He walked all the way through the dugout talking to himself, he always talked to himself. He was saying, 'I don't know who's inside Rickey's body, but he better get out because the guy in there doesn't like day games, he only shows up on day games, so he better get out.' We were all laughing so hard. I wish I'd played my entire career with Rickey because he was just so entertaining. And he was just so good."
He was too good.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is also available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.