Rickey becomes first-base coach; HoJo takes over as hitting coach

NEW YORK -- Rickey Henderson is back on the bases.

Baseball's career leader in runs scored and steals became the new first-base coach for the New York Mets on Friday when Howard Johnson was promoted to hitting coach.

The moves came after hitting coach Rick Down was fired during the All-Star break.

Finally ready to trade his spikes for a stopwatch, Henderson joined the Mets before Friday night's game against the Cincinnati Reds. He will also serve as the team's outfield and baserunning coach.

"I wanted to be a coach. It's my dream -- outside of playing baseball," Henderson said. "I can bring excitement. I can bring a winning feeling."

The 48-year-old Henderson, often an enigma, said his new job means he's "officially retired" as a player. The former outfielder attempted a comeback two years ago, playing in the independent Golden Baseball League while trying to attract the attention of big-league teams.

Earlier this season, he said he'd like to play in the majors again -- and was sure he still could. Now he'll shift his focus to helping active players.

"If it was a situation where we were going to win the World Series and I was the only player that they had left, I would put on the shoes," Henderson said with a smile. "I haven't submitted retirement papers to MLB, but I think MLB already had their papers that I was retired."

Henderson chatted with players around the cage during batting practice and hit fungos to the outfielders. Wearing his familiar No. 24 once the game started, he took his spot in the first-base coaching box and had a few words for each New York player who reached base.

The 10-time All-Star and 1990 AL MVP has occasionally helped the Mets the past two years as a special instructor in spring training and during the regular season, especially with their baserunning. He played for the Mets from 1999-2000.

Johnson could always turn around a fastball during his playing days. Now the Mets hope he can turn around their underachieving offense.

The NL East leaders began the day ranked ninth in the league in runs (397) despite topping the majors with 109 stolen bases. They were hitting .250 with runners in scoring position and only .222 in such situations with two outs -- both good for 12th in the NL.

"We're a much better offensive team than we've shown," Johnson said. "I'm going to get in there and work with these guys and talk to them.

"We've got to fix some things and try to turn this ship around," he added. "It's a great challenge. I'm looking forward to it."

Down and Mets manager Willie Randolph are close friends, and it's been apparent that Randolph was not in favor of the change. But he and general manager Omar Minaya both said their relationship is fine.

"Why wouldn't it be?" Randolph said. "Just because we disagree on things doesn't mean it ruins our relationship."

Minaya said Randolph met with Johnson on Thursday and Henderson on Friday and then picked HoJo to become the club's hitting coach.

"Keep the continuity going," Randolph said. "Howard's here. He's been on the staff. He knows what we're doing."

Johnson played for the Mets from 1985-93 and was a two-time All-Star. He hit .249 with 228 home runs and 760 RBIs in a 14-year career with Detroit, the Mets, Colorado and the Cubs.

"He's really been involved with the hitters all season, so it's really going to be a natural transition for him," Mets outfielder Shawn Green said.

Johnson worked extensively in the minors with New York third baseman David Wright, who referred to HoJo as "a baseball father."

Wright said Johnson is an excellent communicator with a strong work ethic.

"He has all the right ingredients to be a great hitting coach," said Wright, who was also close to Down. "If a change had to be made, then he gets my vote."