Thursday, March 22, 2001 Updated: September 13, 6:36 PM ET
Without Even Trying, the Best Ever
By Ralph Wiley Page 2 columnist
"Rickey Henderson is the best ballplayer who ever lived," I said to Road Dog, as we rode to a spring game.
"Whaaat? Why you say that?" said the Dog in reply. "Why you just . . . get on my nerves out of nowhere like that all the time? I swear I think you acting stupid, and it ain't all acting. You know Mays is the best."
Then he must be the best baseball player who ever lived. Just read the book, the Bible, the Baseball Encyclopedia. No tall tales in there, no estimated distances. No woulda coulda shoulda.
"I know you think so, Dog. It's just that everyone in my line of work, me included, says Rickey Henderson doesn't play real hard, or he only plays hard every once in a while, when he wants to. I didn't always dog Rick out like that. Me and Rick come up together. But eventually, it was too much work defending him.
"I mean, it was like a password into some secret club: 'Rickey Henderson is a selfish bum who turns it on and off like water. Right?' Uh . . . right? But then I'd always try to slip it in there that Rick sort of moves like water, too. And then they'd say, 'Well, yeah, R-Dub, he sort of moves like water, but it's beside the point. The guy don't play hard. Hurt all the time. And he can't speak, can he?'
"OK, already. Fine. He's a bum. Next case.
"But now my old sign-post Rickey Henderson, at 42, is in the process of signing with the San Diego Padres. All of a sudden he needs only two walks to catch Babe Ruth for career walks. Needs only 86 hits for 3,000. Only 69 runs to pass Ty Cobb as the most prolific run-scorer in the history of organized major league baseball. He's got, I don't know, 80-something home runs leading off a game? He rang up the most total stolen bases in history, most in a season. And you mean to say, all that time he wasn't playing hard?
"Then he must be the best baseball player who ever lived. Just read the book, the Bible, the Baseball Encyclopedia. No tall tales in there, no estimated distances. No woulda coulda shoulda.
"Using the logic of Rick loafing much of the time, if he'd played flat-out all the time, if that was even possible for him, then he would've produced much more, and thus had nearly every record in the book!
"Actually, like everyone in that book, he was what he could have been. There is something in baseball, a weird something, called the Fallacy of the Pre-Destined Hit. The only thing that matters in baseball is what actually happens. You can't say if a guy hadn't done this, then that might have happened; if a pitcher hadn't thrown that, if that play had been made, if Mick hadn't stepped in that drain, yada-yada.
"Hey, look. Injuries, service time, personal foible, weakness, variable, vendetta, it's all part of the game, and the men in the game. You are what you do. Period. See, Dog, Rick was deducted baseball points for P.R. matters. But the thing about Rick
was -- he always showed up. Staying power. Longevity. So he knew what he was doing when he played at whatever speed he played in any particular moment. He knew his own body. He knew what it took to keep him coming back year after year for 22 years, and making it.
"In going to the Pods, Rickey Henderson will be juxtaposed, and probably not all that favorably, with Tony Gwynn. Now a guy like Tony Gwynn is infinitely more fa-cile with the media types, and he gets extra baseball credit for his refined P.R. moves. Rick never got any of that."
"Yeah, Dub. I agree with you there. Gwynn's a black version of Wade Boggs."
"Maybe a little better, due to longevity. But that's all. Purely as a
ballplayer, an everyday baseball player, can you compare Tony Gwynn to
Rickey Henderson? You can, but not favorably, so let's not do it.
"Let's concentrate on Rick. He seems to be the guy with the problem. He is not the most verbal man you'll ever meet, as I learned when I first met him, back when we sitting on a bench in Tempe, Ariz., way back in the '70s, when the Mariners trained there. Hate to say, but that was 22 years ago. Just two bumptious kids, me older, faking assurance I didn't feel. When Rick said, 'Say, hoss. . .think I'll hit one fo-fiddy (450 feet) first time up,' then spit at a blue-green iridescent horsefly that happened to land near his bat head, I spit at the horsefly, too, not nearly as accurately, and said, 'Sure, Rook.' Like I wasn't, Dog.
"Naturally, Rick hit the dogmeat out of it, 450 foot if it went one, and then did that little tap-tap strut of his and minced them snakes of his around the bases. After that, after I closed my mouth, I mean, I watched Rick do some things, Dogster. Seen him hang ropes from here to everywhere. Seen him score from second on sac flies, go from first to third on ground balls to short, seen him look crazy good. Like Mays . . ."
". . . awwwwww . . ."
"I'm serious, Dog. Anyway, saw Rick from up close, from far off, on
television and first row -- saw him as like some Silver Surfer-type dude, sent down here by Galactus or God to ride right through baseball. Steal 130 bases in a season before he was 25? Not a problem. Take a team of Triple-A's to the A.L.C.S. in 1981, the strike year? Done. That's because Billy, Billy Martin, just got out of his way, did him the way Durocher did Mays, said this is my man, and that's all the great ones want to hear, that you believe in them. Billy gave Rick the game until the seventh inning, then said the last two innings were his. Rick agreed with that, because it was a ball thing. So Rick understood it.
"P.R., Rick don't get. Rick even got booed as a Yankee."
"Yeah, R-Dub. We hated him here."
"Why? 'Cause he once scored 146 runs in a single season for you. Blew up big-time back in Oakland, on the super A's teams of the late '80s. Three straight pennants and a World Series title in 1989 when Rickey was post-season MVP and second fiddle to the killer quake. The next year, when Cincinnati stunned the A's and swept 'em, Rick was the only one bombing for the A's, hitting homers, stealing bags, running down balls, essentially saying to the victorious Reds, 'You beatin' them; you ain't beatin' me!'
"That was Rick. Proud, vain, glorious, a naif, like a pure genius at playing baseball. That's what he was.
"Encored a Series title with the Blue Jays in '93, him, Jose Canseco and Dave Stewart from the A's. First and second Canadian World Series baseball titles, first good-looking manager, Cito Gaston. Rick did that.
"Then he went around that galaxy that is big league baseball, mincing around the bases on them snakes of his, always being the toughest out in the lineup when the leaves turned brown. Got punched out by Nolan Ryan heat on a hot night in Texas when Nolie got 5,000 Ks. He's seen amazing things he'll never be able to tell us that he saw.
"Rick never appeared to change, year after year. He is in his fourth calendar decade of playing major league baseball. A walking run-for-hire. Last year he wound up in Seattle. Wouldn't think he was 41. Comes ready to hit in spring training. Woulda loved for some kid to
come along and get him out of there at a certain point -- man's got no
business playing past 40. They never could find one who could do it.
"So, Dog. Rick the Quick plays out the string with the Pods in the shadow of a player who comes up maybe to his chest in historical significance in baseball. T.Gwynn is one of the no-clock sport's best interviews, statesmen, and for-average hitters. For all Gwynn's attributes in baseball, as a player, there's no comparison between the two, as players. A comparison can't be made, not and find a lacking in Rick.
"Yet there won't be much fanfare when he hangs 'em up. Thank God for it. That would involve public speaking, P.R., and Rick would need T.Gwynn's good graces to smooth things over. So maybe he's playing out the string in the right place after all. But then again, maybe not. Rick just hardball. That's it. P.R. escapes him, Dog."
"What about that Hall of Fame hookup, R-Dub. The writers, they'll hook him up. He's in."
"Yeah? That won't do him justice either, Dog. Sometimes I think we make too much of the Hall of Fame business. The Hall of Fame is actually when you are playing. Ya hadda see, see? All some of us can do is remember. Everybody else can look it up. Or not. He was what the book says now. No more. No less."
"I still didn't like the guy, R-Dub."
"Well, Dog. That's sort of the point. Nobody liked Ty Cobb either. But for better reasons."
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."