Rickey Henderson - Legacy

Legacy

"It took a long time, huh? First of all, I would like to thank God for giving me the opportunity. I want to thank the Haas family, the Oakland organization, the city of Oakland, and all you beautiful fans for supporting me. Most of all, I'd like to thank my mom, my friends, and loved ones for their support. I want to give my appreciation to Tom Trebelhorn and the late Billy Martin. Billy Martin was a great manager. He was a great friend to me. I love you, Billy. I wish you were here. Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing. But today, I'm the greatest of all time. Thank you."

—Rickey Henderson's full speech after breaking Lou Brock's record.

On May 1, 1991, Henderson stole his 939th base to pass Lou Brock and become the sport's all-time stolen base leader. Henderson's speech (at right) after breaking Brock's record was similar to the standard victory or award speech. He thanked God and his mother, as well as the people that helped him in baseball. Because his idol was Muhammad Ali, Henderson decided to use the words "greatest of all time." These words have since been taken by many to support the notion that Henderson is selfish and arrogant, although years later, Henderson revealed that he had gone over his planned remarks ahead of time with Brock, and the Cardinals Hall of Famer "had no problem with it. In fact, he helped me write what I was going to say that day." On the day of the speech, Brock later told reporters amiably, "He spoke from his heart." Brock and Henderson had had a friendly relationship ever since their first meeting in 1981. Brock pronounced the young speedster as the heir to his record, saying, "How are we gonna break it?"

Henderson has mixed feelings about his comments:

"As soon as I said it, it ruined everything. Everybody thought it was the worst thing you could ever say. Those words haunt me to this day, and will continue to haunt me. They overshadow what I've accomplished in this game."

At the end of his July 2009 Hall of Fame induction, Henderson alluded to his earlier speech, saying:

"In closing, I would like to say my favorite hero was Muhammad Ali. He said at one time, quote, 'I am the greatest,' end of quote. That is something I always wanted to be. And now that the Association has voted me into the Baseball Hall of Fame, my journey as a player is complete. I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time. And at this moment, I am... ...very, very humble. Thank you."

Asked if he believes the passage of time will improve his reputation, Henderson said:

"If you talk about baseball, you can't eliminate me, because I'm all over baseball... It's the truth. Telling the truth isn't being cocky. What do you want me to say, that I didn't put up the numbers? That my teams didn't win a lot of games? People don't want me to say anything about what I've done. Then why don't you say it? Because if I don't say it and you don't say it, nobody says it."

Henderson had 468 more stolen bases in his career than Brock, one short of 50% more than the game's second-most prolific basestealer. In 1993, Henderson stole his 1,066th base, surpassing the record established ten years earlier by Yutaka Fukumoto for the Hankyu Braves in Japan's Pacific League. In his prime, Henderson had a virtual monopoly on the stolen base title in the American League. Between 1980 and 1991, he led the league in steals every season except 1987, when he missed part of the season due to a nagging hamstring injury, allowing Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds to win the title. Henderson had one more league-leading season after that stretch, when his 66 steals in 1998 made him the oldest steals leader in baseball history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Henderson also owns the record for times caught stealing (335). Due to incomplete historical recordkeeping for that statistic, though, it is unknown whether he is the actual career leader. However, Henderson's overall 81% success rate on the basepaths is among the highest percentages in history. (Tim Raines ranks first among players with at least 300 career attempts, at 84%.) On July 29, 1989, Henderson stole five bases against the Mariners' left-handed Randy Johnson, his career high, and one shy of the single-game major league record. Unusually, Henderson was hitless in the game (he had four walks). Henderson had 18 four-steal games during his career. In August 1983, in a three-game series against the Brewers and a 2-game series versus the Yankees, Henderson had 13 stolen bases in five games. Baltimore Orioles third baseman Floyd Rayford described the confusion he felt during a particular game, when Henderson was leading off first base and signalling him with two fingers. Henderson quickly stole second base, then third, and Rayford understood the gesture.

Longtime scout Charlie Metro remembered the havoc caused by Henderson: '"I did a lot of study and I found that it's impossible to throw Rickey Henderson out. I started using stopwatches and everything. I found it was impossible to throw some other guys out also. They can go from first to second in 2.9 seconds; and no pitcher catcher combination in baseball could throw from here to there to tag second in 2.9 seconds, it was always 3, 3.1, 3.2. So actually, the runner that can make the continuous, regular move like Rickey's can't be thrown out, and he's proven it."

Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated wrote:

"I’m about to give you one of my all-time favorite statistics: Rickey Henderson walked 796 times in his career LEADING OFF AN INNING. Think about this again. There would be nothing, absolutely nothing, a pitcher would want to avoid more than walking Rickey Henderson to lead off an inning. And yet he walked SEVEN HUNDRED NINETY SIX times to lead off an inning.
He walked more times just leading off in an inning than Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente, Luis Aparicio, Ernie Banks, Kirby Puckett, Ryne Sandberg and more than 50 other Hall of Famers walked in their entire careers...I simply cannot imagine a baseball statistic more staggering."

Henderson was a headfirst slider. In September 2008, Henderson discussed his base stealing technique at length with Sports Illustrated:

"I wanted to know how to dive into the base because I was getting strawberries on my knees and strawberries on my ass... I was thinking about head-first versus feet-first, and wondering which would save my body. With head-first I worried about pounding my shoulders and my hands, and with feet-first I would worry about my knees and my legs. I felt that running was more important to me, with my legs, so I started going head-first. I got my technique from airplanes...I was on a plane and asleep and the plane bounced and when we landed we bounced and it woke me up. Then the next flight I had the same pilot and the plane went down so smooth. So I asked the pilot why, and he said when you land a plane smooth, you get the plane elevated to the lowest position you can and then you smooth it in. Same with sliding... If you dive when you're running straight up then you have a long distance to get to the ground. But the closer you get to the ground the less time it will take... I was hitting the dirt so smooth, so fast, when I hit the dirt, there wasn't no hesitation. It was like a skid mark, like you throw a rock on the water and skid off it. So when I hit the ground, if you didn't have the tag down, I was by you. No matter if the ball beat me, I was by you. That was what made the close plays go my way, I think."

Padres closer Trevor Hoffman said, "I don't know how to put into words how fortunate I was to spend time around one of the icons of the game. I can't comprehend that yet. Years from now, though, I'll be able to say I played with Rickey Henderson, and I imagine it will be like saying I played with Babe Ruth." Padres general manager Kevin Towers said, "I get e-mails daily from fans saying, 'Sign Rickey.' ...I get more calls and e-mails about him than anybody... We've had some special players come through San Diego. But there's an aura about him nobody else has."

Tony La Russa, Henderson's manager in the late 1980s in Oakland, said, "He rises to the occasion—the big moment—better than anybody I've ever seen." Coach Rene Lachemann said, "If you're one run down, there's nobody you'd ever rather have up at the plate than Rickey." Teammate Mitchell Page said, “It wasn't until I saw Rickey that I understood what baseball was about. Rickey Henderson is a run, man. That's it. When you see Rickey Henderson, I don't care when, the score's already 1–0. If he's with you, that's great. If he's not, you won't like it.”

A's pitching coach Dave Duncan said of Henderson, "You have to be careful because he can knock one out. But you don't want to be too careful because he's got a small strike zone and you can't afford to walk him. And that's only half the problem. When he gets on base he's more trouble still." Sportswriter Tom Verducci wrote, "Baseball is designed to be an egalitarian sort of game in which one player among the 18 is not supposed to dominate... Yet in the past quarter century Henderson and Barry Bonds have come closest to dominating a baseball game the way Michael Jordan could a basketball game." In July 2007, New York Sun sportswriter Tim Marchman wrote about Henderson's accomplishments:

He stole all those bases and scored all those runs and played all those years not because of his body, but because of his brain. Rickey could tell from the faintest, most undetectable twitch of a pitcher's muscles whether he was going home or throwing over to first. He understood that conditioning isn't about strength, but about flexibility. And more than anyone else in the history of the game, he understood that baseball is entirely a game of discipline — the discipline to work endless 1–1 counts your way, the discipline to understand that your job is to get on base, and the discipline to understand that the season is more important than the game, and a career more important than the season. Maybe he'd get a bit more credit for all this if he were some boring drip like Cal Ripken Jr., blathering on endlessly about humility and apple pie and tradition and whatever else, but we're all better off with things the way they are... Everyone had their fun when he broke Lou Brock's stolen base record and proclaimed, 'I am the greatest', but he was, of course, just saying what was plainly true.

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