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Oh, Rickey, you're so fine

Page 2 columnist

Four weeks after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, Rickey Henderson finally found a job Monday when he signed a minor-league contract with the San Diego Padres. Why did it take Rickey until now to arrive at spring training? Because at age 42, he thought he should show up early for once.

Rickey Henderson
Rickey Henderson helped the Mariners reach the postseason and caused no problems in the clubhouse last year.
Rickey had been searching for a team ever since the Mariners failed to pick up the option on his contract in November. And wouldn't you have just loved to see his résumé? Rickey probably was the first person to ever list himself as a reference. And never could the phrase "irreconciable differences with management" been applied so often as a reason for leaving (other explanations could have included, "A very messed up policy regarding card-playing in the clubhouse").

What a beauty. As Tim Kurkjian reported in ESPN The Magazine, the Humble One called one general manager a while back and inquired about a job possibility this way: "Rickey wants to play another year and he thinks he wants to play for you."

Eventually, the Padres decided they think they want him to play for them as well, though there is no guarantee he will be with the Padres at all this season, let alone spring training.

Of course, I'm sure Rickey has no doubts he'll succeed, just as he probably had no doubts he would find a team. The embodiment of the Me Generation, he is not a man you will find in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble.

After breaking Lou Brock's career stolen-base record, Rickey procalimed himself "the greatest," and did everything but bronze the base and wear it as a necklace. He has referred to himself in the third person ever since informing his mother that "Rickey Henderson would like his bottle and a fresh diaper."

By referring to himself in the third person, he is demonstrating that he always knows the name of at least one player on his team. (Rickey once moaned about his $3 million salary with the Athletics, saying that "if you pay me like Mike Gallego, I'll play like Mike Gallego." Asked about the comment, Gallego replied, "I'm just surprised he knew my name.")

Rickey Henderson
Henderson's Mets career is most remembered for his card-playing incident during Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS.
Everywhere Rickey's gone, he has been dogged by his "me first" reputation. He was accused of jaking it in New York with the Yankees. Tony La Russa once benched Rickey for being "mentally unavailable." With the Mets, he was alleged to have spent the final innings of the 1999 playoffs playing cards in the clubhouse with another beauty -- Bobby Bo.

Asked last year about his reputation, Rickey replied, "You wonder why. You sit back and ask yourself, 'What does it take to not have so many negatives (reported about you)? You're not a bad person. You're a very wonderful person, you're a great person.' "

In other words, he doesn't let his reputation get him down too much.

Ego is hardly a limited commodity in pro sports, but while in most players it is obnoxious (for some reason Gary Sheffield springs to mind), Rickey's is so off-the-charts that it has been more entertaining than anything. Ego is an art form with him, and it is almost refreshing to see a true genius work in his medium.

Besides, the only problems Rickey's ego usually causes are with management over contracts, not with his teammates (even those he couldn't name). He never was a problem with the Mariners last year, helping them reach the postseason. Lou Piniella praised him and said he wanted to have him back on the team.

Age is taking a steady toll on Rickey, but even at 42, he can help the Padres. He stole 35 bases last year. He's just two walks shy of Babe Ruth's record, just 86 hits away from 3,000 and just 69 runs from Ty Cobb's record, the mark Rickey covets most. As long as he's within scent of that, he'll be motivated to play hard. And when he plays hard, he is a fun, productive and exciting player to watch.

As he would be the first to tell you.

Jim Caple is a regular contributor to Page 2.

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