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Monday, March 19, 2001
Oh, Rickey, he's so fine -- no matter the uniform

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

To steal from the old gelatin ad, there's always room for Rickey Henderson.

Rickey Hendrson
Rickey Henderson is a postseason fixture. Here, it was with Seattle.

But never mind that. Without us paying much attention, we have discovered that there is always room for Benito Santiago, too.

Santiago's signing by the Giants, though, pales in significance, both by dint of age and accomplishment. He's only 36, and San Francisco is only his eighth team. Rickey is six years older and on his 11th team.

Actually, that's not entirely accurate, either. By signing with the Padres, Henderson is playing in his seventh city because he's done San Diego before, he's done New York twice (once as a Yankee, once as a Met), and he's done Oakland four times, which is even more than Al Davis.

This is a record of some sort, though we're not sure what. Then again, with Rickey, we're never quite sure of anything.

Henderson is persistent, if nothing else. He has been bounced around nearly as often as the other great nomads of the era, Mike Morgan, Chucky Brown and J.J. Daigneault. But unlike them, Henderson has been a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer for nearly a decade.

This is called career overkill.

In other words, whatever else you might credit him for ... being the best leadoff hitter of the age, being the best base-stealer of all time, being the best in-game card player ... you may be sure that his will be the longest plaque in Cooperstown as well as the tallest bust.

After all, he can wear an A's hat (four divisions, two pennants, one World Series), a Blue Jays' hat (a quarter-season and another ring), a Yankees hat (nice numbers), a Mets' hat (a postseason), a Mariners' hat (another postseason), a Padres' hat (another postseason and currently his favorite team) or an Angels' hat (32 games barely remembered, even by him).

He could conceivably get to 3,000 games, 3,000 hits, 300 homers, 4,500 total bases, 2,250 runs, 1,100 RBIs, 100 hit by pitches, and 1,400 stolen bases -- in all, a triumph of mathematics.

But it's the number of changes he has made to amass those numbers that is most breathtaking. Morgan, for example, is with his 12th team, but has only been called back to a former team once, the Cubs. Daigneault, the tireless defenseman, is currently toiling in Cleveland after being sent down by Minnesota, his 10th different team. Brown, the militantly itinerant power forward, has made 13 different moves for 11 different teams (Cleveland, his current outpost, was also his first, and he did Charlotte twice in two years.

Rickey, though, has bounced from people who know him to people who've known him for most of his 23 years. The four tours of Oakland are a staggering figure in and of themselves, a testimonial both to the A's love for and disdain of their most famous favorite son.

And now to go back to San Diego, where he endured an average season but helped the Padres win the NL West title in 1996, well, he must plainly be the most charmed player of his generation.

Except, of course, that he isn't. His career since being traded to Toronto midway through the 1993 season has been a spectacular combination of "God, it's good to see you" and "God, it's good to see the back of you." In a crowded field, he may be the most contradictory great player in baseball history.

San Diego doesn't pencil out as a team that was only a Rickey Henderson short of a pennant, unlike all his other moves (well, save Anaheim, which doesn't make any sense at all in his career). His greatest contribution for the Pads might be the fact that he helped end the Ruben Rivera Era, whatever that was.

Indeed, Henderson might get more personal and less professional satisfaction out of this move than all the others because this is the team that could allow him to reach all those milestones, especially the one he wants most -- Ty Cobb's record of 2,246 runs scored -- without requiring him to put the team over the top.

And even if it doesn't work out, he still has Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, both Chicagos, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Colorado, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Montreal, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Texas left to go.

Especially Arizona and San Francisco. He could go to either the Giants or D-Backs and lower the average age of either team. Now that's a record no 42-year-old will ever beat.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.