And You Wonder Why I Love Rickey

(originally written 8/22/11)

As a Giants fan of 20+ years, many people—Athletics fans chiefly—have openly wondered why my favorite player of all-time is Rickey Henderson, best known for his 12 seasons with the crossbay rival Athletics. A San Fran devotee with an Oakland idol isn't quite the sacrilege of a New Yorker worshiping Jim Rice, but it's close.

 

Truth be told, I would have loved Rickey no matter WHAT uniform he wore. The irony: had he never played for Oakland, I might not love him at all—because I wouldn't have been regularly exposed to his play, his swagger, his style, and most of all, his malaprops and head-scratching statements/actions. Living in the Bay Area meant plenty of local Rickey coverage—his prime occurred pre-Internet—and I soaked it all up.

 

Sure, Rickey the player was incredible. He could dominate games offensively with his eye, speed and power. He almost single-handedly won the 1989 ALCS for Oakland. A little-known fact: he was on base when Joe Carter of Toronto hit his infamous World-Series walkoff jack in 1993, and his presence forced jittery pitcher Mitch Williams to rush his delivery somewhat—quite possibly why Carter saw such a fat pitch. But Rickey the character topped all that; it was definitely fitting that he played primarily left field for he was out in left field much of the time.

As a person who enjoys weirding out and confusing others with my strange—yet natural—behavior, I can only pray that one day those others will look back on my life and share stories akin to those shared about Rickey:

 

  • Rickey was asked if he owned the Garth Brooks album that has the song "Friends in Low Places". "Rickey doesn't have albums," he answered. "Rickey has CDs."

  • Or the time someone asked him what he thought about speculation that as many as 50% of big leaguers used steroids. "Well, I'm not," he said. "So that's 49%  right there."

  • Or the time he bragged that his Manhattan apartment had such a great view he could see "the Entire State Building."

  • Or the time he settled a feud with Yankees manager Lou Piniella, saying, "Let bye-byes be bye-byes."

  • Or the time the A's found a discrepancy in their bank account, and upon investigation, found Rickey had never cashed his first signing bonus—instead framing it on a wall in his house?

  • Or his quote during contract negotiations: "All I'm asking for is what I want."

  • Or his message to a GM during a free-agent offseason: "Hi, it's Rickey, calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball."

  • Or his reply to a teammate offering him a front seat on the bus because he had tenure? "Ten-ure? No, Rickey got 15, 16 year (in the major leagues)."

  • Or his approach to securing a raise after making the Red Sox roster out of Spring Training: SOX GM: "Rickey, you signed a contract for $350,000. RICKEY: "Yes, but I canceled that contract."

 

With the exception of the Dodgers, I followed all of Rickey's post-Oakland teams and pulled for them (even Boston, which elicits a shudder today). I stood and cheered when Rickey got his 3,000th hit for the Padres in 2001 and simmered inside when press coverage didn't equal that of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, who'd each reached the milestone over the previous year. I nearly wept in 2003 after a failed attempt to secure tickets to a sold-out Giants/Dodgers game, a game sure to be Rickey's final one in the Bay Area. I wanted his autograph and would have done anything or anyone to get it. Earlier this year, when a pal challenged me to name all three of his Oakland uniform numbers, and I could only name two, it felt as if I'd betrayed Rickey personally. Only reciting several seasons of his career stats from memory could cheer me up.

 

I'd never listened to an entire baseball Hall of Fame speech in my life until Rickey so humbly—yet colorfully—presented his. It didn't matter that maybe only 55% of it was intelligible. Rickey mumbling carries twice the entertainment value of pretty much any other celebrity, IMHO. I truly miss that guy. Unless it's revealed he clubs seals in his leisure time, or some other deplorable act, he'll always be my baseball—and oddball—hero.