Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nobody topped Rickey Being Rickey

Rickey was still Rickey even playing independent ball well into his 40s.

Pardon the tardiness of this post, but a family trip to Cooperstown complete with mammoth daily commutes to and fro The Place Where Baseball May Or May Not Have Been Invented left us wiped and with little time to blog. But really, since we’ve all been waiting a decade or more for Rickey Henderson’s induction speech, what’s a few extra days to reflect upon it?

Technically, I don’t know if we’ve ALL been waiting a long time for Rickey’s speech (AP style dictates a person be referred to by his last name following the first reference, but Rickey doesn’t follow AP style). All I know is my future wife and I made our first trip to Induction Sunday in 1999, and as we left town, she said something along the lines of “We have GOT to come here when Rickey gets in.”

If you’re in your mid-30s (for crying out loud, that makes me feel so old), you understand why. You remember how Rickey’s 1980 Topps card was much more than the final link to the days when Topps enjoyed a monopoly on trading cards. It was also the safest investment a teenager could make—a nice counterbalance, if you will, to the crazed pursuit of the white-hot, piggy bank-busting rookie cards of the will-get-into-the-Hall-only-with-a-ticket likes of Don Mattingly, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis.

Nobody ever combined power and speed like Rickey. He hit 297 career homers, including a record 81 leading off a game—more than 27 percent of his overall total.

He changed a game just by dancing off first base. For the average superstar, the finest compliment he can ever receive is to hear that fans never leave their seats when he comes to the plate. But fans put off bathroom breaks and phone calls as soon as Rickey reached base, because Rickey was going to do something magnificent during the next 270 feet.

And nobody knew how good Rickey was better than Rickey, who led the AL in stolen bases 11 times in the 12 seasons between 1980 and 1991. He had just 41 steals in 1987, when he was limited to 95 games by various injuries. Harold Reynolds led the league with 60 steals and received a “congratulatory” call from Rickey shortly after the season ended.

“He called me and said ’60 stolen bases? I would have had 60 at the break,’” Reynolds said in Cooperstown Sunday. “That was his congratulations.”

How could you watch Rickey play and not smile? My favorite image of the week was one displayed at the beginning of an MLB Network clips package aired before Henderson’s speech. With a camera positioned behind second base, Henderson took off from first base, raced toward second and briefly disappeared from view as he slid into the base. When he reappeared, he did so with a giant grin on his face.

Liking Rickey was also harmless rebellion. Fathers hated Rickey, which made it fun for their sons and daughters to like the guy and eventually get married and travel to Cooperstown to see his induction.

“I should get my Dad this shirt,” my wife said, pointing to a “I was there for Rickey’s induction” type of shirt.

Following our initial trip to Induction Sunday 10 years ago, we’d wonder if Rickey would even show up for his speech, and if he did, if he’d step to the podium, express displeasure that it took so long for Rickey to get elected and walk off the stage. Once Rickey finally stopped playing—hey, if he won’t call himself retired, neither will I—we wondered ever year if he would come back for a game with someone and reset the Hall of Fame clock.

But Rickey managed to go five years without playing in the bigs following the 2003 season, which meant he was eligible for induction this year, when he garnered nearly 95 percent of the vote to become the 44th player enshrined in his first year on the ballot. And Rickey—sporting a killer white suit—made the wait worth it Sunday with a memorable speech that was alternately hilarious and touching.

Afterward, my wife mentioned he was the original Manny Being Manny, and as usual, she’s on to something. Rickey, like Manny Ramirez, talked about himself in the third person, no matter what he tried to get everyone to believe last weekend.

He didn’t hustle—upon Henderson’s election in January, Phil Mushnick of the New York Post pointed out Henderson finished his career with just 66 triples, a remarkably low figure for someone with more steals than anyone in the history of the game—and he dogged it on home run trots. He even preened upon drawing a walk, for crying out loud, and since he had more of those than anyone in the history of the game upon his exit following 2003, you can understand how the schtick grew old.

Rickey had an attention span of a gnat, his whims changing by the second. He drove managers and general managers crazy. He could be unhappy with the terms of a contract almost immediately after he put pen to paper, even as a 43-year-old in camp on a minor league deal. In 2002, Henderson told Sox interim general manager Mike Port he felt underpaid at $350,000 and that he’d “canceled” the contract he’d signed.

He made the simple act of reporting to spring training an annual drama. He was unable and/or unwilling to remember the names of those around him, indicating he was either incredibly insular or incredibly selfish. He played cards as the Mets’ season ended in Game Six of the 1999 NLCS, which is actually a whole lot more egregious than emerging from the Green Monster as a pitch is thrown.

Rickey specialized in awkward exits and, like Ramirez, felt more comfortable outside of the big baseball markets, where his quirks went mostly unnoticed. He played for nine teams (and had four stints with his hometown Athletics), giving a singular talent a journeyman’s resume and making himself the subject of an awesome trivia question and/or quite a drinking game.

I was covering the Mets when Rickey got himself released in May 2000. He’d been unhappy with his playing time and his pay and made himself into a daily distraction for the Mets, who were 19-19 prior to his dismissal and 75-49 (.605) afterward. Last year’s Sox were 61-48 (.560) with Ramirez on the team and 34-19 (.642) without him.

Yet for a guy who loved getting paid, Rickey could be awfully scatterbrained. He once hung a million dollar check from the A’s on his wall and kept it there until a year later, when the A’s were trying to balance their books and were frantically trying to find the missing million bucks. Sounds a bit like Ramirez driving around with a paycheck in his car.

Such inexplicability made Rickey an endearing figure to those observing him from anywhere other than the front office. Most of the time, Rickey just didn’t know any better. He was the class clown who wasn’t focused enough to inflict any real damage nor to have a grasp on why people were mad at him. After the Mets released him, Rickey kept coming back to the clubhouse in subsequent days and even hung out in the office of manager Bobby Valentine, which would have seemed really strange behavior from anyone except Rickey.

Like Ramirez, teammates lauded Rickey, calling him an invaluable resource whose goofy demeanor belied a strong work ethic and an unusual ability to break down the game, see things nobody else could see and do things nobody else could do. Base-stealing is a risky, dangerous endeavor that eventually wears—physically and mentally—even on the most successful players, but Rickey finished with a record 1,406 steals, led the AL in swipes at age 39 in 1998 and looked last week like he could step off the podium and right into a lineup.

And in his own weird, twisted yet somehow sensible way, Rickey possessed a pure love of the game. When nobody expressed interest in signing him following his season with the Red Sox in 2002, Rickey played in the independent Atlantic League, where he had as part of his contract his own chauffeur, personal assistant and cozy hotel room. The Dodgers signed him in midsummer 2003, but Rickey played the next two seasons in independent leagues before finally stepping away from the game.

Rickey could talk in the days and weeks leading up to his induction about how today’s players don’t appreciate the game and don’t always play hard, and nobody pointed out the irony or hypocrisy in such a statement. It was OK…just Rickey being Rickey.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of reception Ramirez gets—from the BBWAA as well as fans—five years after he plays his final big league game. Like Rickey, Ramirez possesses a resume not only worthy of induction on the first ballot but also of consideration as the first unanimous selection. But unlike Rickey, writers now have a reason not to vote for Ramirez other than his behavior. And Rickey never forced a team to trade him in the middle of a pennant race.

My guess is that even if the fury directed at steroid users subsides, Ramirez’ waiting period will be closer to Jim Rice’s than Rickey’s, and that nobody left Cooperstown this weekend determined to make their way back to upstate New York if and when Ramirez gets in. Which is fine, because if you grew up watching Rickey—hoarding his rookie card, ignoring Dad’s grumblings and disregarding the rules of grammar the whole time—you understand why.

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