Commentary

Nobody will catch Rickey's record

Originally Published: January 11, 2009
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Rickey Henderson stole 1,406 bases in his career. As you're no doubt aware, that's the record, and it's the record by quite a lot. No. 2 on the list is Lou Brock, who retired with 938 steals.

Brock, of course, won't steal any more bases, so Henderson's record is safe for the moment.

But what about the future? Is there anyone currently playing who might at least mildly challenge that record?

Before we answer that question, let's check a few other big records.

Barry Bonds' record of 762 home runs seems safe for the moment, but Ken Griffey's 611 home runs are 80 percent of the way there.

Pete Rose's 4,256 hits record also is safe for now, with active leader Griffey's 2,680 hits only 63 percent of the way there.

[+] EnlargeRickey Henderson
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesIt would take someone a long, long time to catch Rickey Henderson's stolen-base record of 1,406.
On the pitching side, Tom Glavine's 305 wins are 63 percent of the way to Cy Young's 511, and Randy Johnson's 4,789 strikeouts are 84 percent of the way to Nolan Ryan's 5,714.

None of these challengers will reach the records; in fact, the only record that appears vulnerable at all is Bonds', because Alex Rodriguez is almost a lock to top the record if he can stay reasonably healthy for another seven or eight seasons.

As invulnerable as most of those records seem, though, none can hold a candle to Henderson's.

The closest active player to Henderson's 1,406 steals?

Juan Pierre. With 429 steals, he's 31 percent of the way to Rickey's record.

That's not bad, but Pierre is 31 years old and might never play regularly again.

Next on the list is Omar Vizquel, with 385 steals. He's 41 and looking for a job.

Today's premier base stealers are Carl Crawford (27 years old, 302 steals) and Jose Reyes (25, 290 steals). Let's look more closely at Reyes, who's younger than Crawford and stole a lot more bases than Crawford last season (56 for Reyes, 25 for Crawford).

Reyes has been an everyday player for four seasons, during which he has averaged 65 steals per season (easily the most in the majors). To catch Henderson, all Reyes has to do is continue stealing 65 bases per season … for another 17 seasons. If he can just keep doing what he's doing until he's 42, he'll be right there.

But of course, that's not going to happen. Even Henderson, certainly the greatest old base stealer, stole more than 50 bases in a season just once after turning 35. The legs just aren't there anymore, even for the great ones.

Then who will challenge the record? We can't have any idea because if there is a challenger, we haven't seen him in the majors yet, and we likely haven't seen him in the minors, either. In Henderson's last two minor league seasons, he stole 176 bases in 267 games. In Tim Raines' last two minor league seasons, he stole 136 bases in 253 games. In Vince Coleman's last two minor league seasons, he stole 246 bases in 265 games.

Are any such prolific young speedsters working their way through the ranks?

In Triple-A last season, outfielder Freddy Guzman was the only player who stole 50 or more bases. Guzman will turn 27 next week and has five steals as a major leaguer. Second baseman Corey Wimberly led the Double-A level with 59 steals in only 108 games. Pretty impressive, except 25-year-old second basemen who haven't yet reached Triple-A generally don't wind up breaking major league records.

But there is a fleet child among us. Shortstop Elvis Andrus -- who spent the season with the Rangers' Double-A team in Frisco, Texas -- stole 54 bases in 118 games. What's more impressive is Andrus' birth date: Aug. 26, 1988. Just 20 years old, Andrus is on track to play regularly in the majors before (and perhaps well before) his 22nd birthday.

So Andrus has three of the necessary ingredients: He can run, he's young and he's apparently good enough to reach the majors soon. All he has to do -- besides actually reach the majors soon -- is play for 20 years and average 70 steals per season. No problem, right? Except for a couple of facts: (1) Exceptionally few players are good enough and healthy enough to play 20 years in MLB, and (2) in the first nine seasons of this new century, only two players -- Reyes and Scott Podsednik -- have managed to steal 70 bases in even one season … let alone average 70 per season over 20 seasons.

Of course, nobody has stolen 70 bases every season for 20 straight seasons. You would have to mix some bigger seasons in there. That's exactly what Henderson did, stealing at least 100 in three of his first five seasons. Will Andrus or anyone else do that anytime soon? This is the fundamental barrier between any player today and Henderson's record; between any player today and even approaching the record: It's just not done. A player has stolen 100 or more bases eight times: Maury Wills (once) in the '60s; Brock (once) in the '70s; Vince Coleman and Henderson three times apiece in the 1980s. Coleman was the last to do it, with 109 steals in 1987. And since Henderson stole 93 in 1988, no major leaguer has stolen even 80 bases in a season.

Let's review. To challenge Henderson's record of 1,406 steals, you have to reach the majors while still exceptionally young, get off to a great start, then stay healthy enough (and be good enough) to play (and steal!) regularly for roughly 20 years. Oh, but there's still one big kicker: You have to find yourself a different game than the one that's been played for the past couple of decades. You have to find yourself a game that encourages speed and daring rather than power and patience, and it will be a game without that fast artificial turf that helped Brock, Coleman and Raines do what they did.

Henderson was the perfect player at the perfect time. It's not likely that we'll ever see that combination again, so it's not likely that any of us will see his grand record broken. He really was the greatest, and probably will be forever.

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.

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