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Rickey hoping Newark won't be last stop

4/29/2003

It must have been a conspiracy, had to be a conspiracy. Right?

Rickey Henderson out of work? For six months? After 3,040 hits, 2,288 runs, 1,403 stolen bases?

Call in Oliver Stone. Or at least the special prosecutor. If Rickey Henderson is really going to wind up playing in the Atlantic League, how can America not be asking, "What's up with that?"

But on Monday, three days before his Atlantic League debut with the Newark Bears, our man Rickey stopped just short of saying his big-league dreams had been undone this winter by anything cruel, illegal or collusive.

When we asked him, during an official Newark Bears conference call, if he was ready to join the ranks of out-of-work players screaming collusion, Henderson replied carefully. At least at first.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I don't really get involved in that."

Which isn't to say he hasn't at least thought about it. He just decided to point out that there were many famous players dealing with a potential unemployment crisis this winter -- not just him.

"To me," he said, "it seems like there must be at least a little conspiracy -- because it was tough for a lot of great ballplayers that had been in the game to pick up a job."

Well, if that's true, at least he'll have some of them keeping him company this summer. Jose Lima will pitch for his team in Newark. And as he makes the circuit, he'll run into the likes of Mark Whiten, Curtis Pride, Paxton Crawford, Johnny Ruffin and Ricky Otero.

Where it's leading Henderson, at age 44, we don't know yet. But he made it clear Monday he is doing this for one reason -- to get back to the big leagues. So if a team up there "don't have nobody in the minor leagues and they're looking for somebody who can come up and do the job right away, I'm available."

Of course, he was available all winter, too. But he said the clubs he was interested in all had young guys they needed to see or play. Now, though, he would have interest in "all 27 or 30 teams," he said. And if he were a general manager of one of those teams, "no doubt I'd give me an opportunity to play."

But while he waits for somebody up there to see the light, he'll be playing for $3,000 a month -- or approximately a dollar a career hit.

"I never really thought about the money," said Henderson, who was playing for about $3,000 an inning a couple of years ago with the Mets. "I think that's what's wrong with baseball today. You've got ballplayers concerned about the money instead of being concerned about playing the game. If it was all about money, I don't think I'd be down here playing in Newark today."

For the record, his last hit -- No. 3,040 -- has faded eight months back in the rear-view mirror: Aug. 23, 2002, against Jarrod Washburn of the soon-to-be World Series champs, the Angels. A crowd of 33,221 roared at Fenway Park.

Next time he steps in the box, Thursday night, it will be in another sold-out park. But it will be a sold-out park with 6,200 seats in Newark against the Bridgeport Bluefish, the club Newark beat to win last year's Atlantic League championship. Bridgeport's pitching staff includes Alex Lantayo, Masaki Maki and Brady Raggio.

"The phones are ringing off the hook," said Newark public-relations director Ross Blacker. Which is kind of ironic -- because if Rickey's phone had been ringing off the hook this winter, he never would have been here.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.