Billy Martin was strutting in front of the Oakland A's dugout, after his best little general look and saying: "Nobody runs on our club on his own. Not Rickey Henderson; nobody. In time, he will break Lou Brock's record and Maury Will's record, but he'll do it right.

"He is not going to steal a base when we're eight runs ahead to break any records, like they did. When he sets the records -- and he will -- it'll be helping this team win."

Nevertheless, there will be a talk sometime before spring training ends between the manager and the best thief in baseball. Henderson will initiate it and suggest, politely, that everyone, both he and the team, would benefit if he had the green light more this season to steal on his own.

"I'll be patient," he said. "But if I feel like I'm being cheated out of my chances, I'll speak up."

Henderson said that if Martin had not had the final decision before every theft, he could have stolen 125 bases last season instead of a mere 100, and that, at age 21 and in his first full season in the majors, he could have broken Brock's record of 118 steals instead of Ty Cobb's American League record of 96.

Goal-oriented in a gargantuan way, Henderson wants to average a steal a game this season. Something in the area of 150-plus steals (he played in 158 games last year), possibly the ultimate 162.

"I'm serious," he said. "If I can get on base the right number of times, I can get one a day. I've got to be patient and concentrate, the big thing being to try and go all out all the time. He (Martin) said we'll be running more this year.

"And I'm smarter now about the pitchers, about how to get to first on 'em and how to steal on 'em once I get on. Remember, I've never been in the same league two years in a row before. This'll be the first time I've had back-to-back seasons against the same pitchers."

In 591 at-bats last season, Henderson had 179 hits (144 of them singles) and 117 walks. If nearly everyone else was amazed at his becoming only the third major-leaguer to steal 100 bases, Henderson thought it was about time.

That had been one of his goals during his four years in organized baseball. He simply had not been at one place long enough to achieve it. Anyone who can steal seven bases in one game, Henderson reasoned, surely can muster well over 100 a season.

For Modesto on May 26, 1977, Henderson became only the fourth player in pro baseball history to steal seven bases in one game. If the Fresno catcher had not gotten mouthy to the Modesto manager, perhaps Henderson would not have been given his head. If one of his teammates had kept his bat on his shoulder once, Henderson would have stolen eight bases.

"There was some sort of popoff by the catcher," Henderson recalled, "so our manager let everybody who got on steal. We must have stolen 15 bases that game. I stole second and third, second and third, second and third, and then second. Went four for four in all.

"I could have stolen third the last time, had it stolen in fact, but the man behind me singled."

Henderson was successful almost four of every five steal tries last season. More important, he was third in the American League (behind George Brett and Willie Randolph) in on-base percentage, at .422. He finished the season hitting in 12 of his last 14 games to lead the A's in batting at .303.

At the plate, with that squatty stance that makes him appear 3 feet 4 to pitchers instead of his actual 5 feet 10, Henderson can be most irritating. Once on base, he is an agreeable thief, almost always willing to give the pitcher an even break.

Henderson's usual lead of three-plus steps is not extraordinary. He does not take a longer lead, because he nearly always can make second with what he has. Besides, he hates to dive back into first all the time. What gets him angry -- and especially motivated to steal -- is somebody constantly throwing over to first.

Home is the easiest base to steal, Henderson said. He did it twice last year, and would have tried it more if most of the pitchers had not stopped using a full windup with him on third.

He is stingy about revealing too many trade secrets, other than to generalize: "Some guys'll lay their heel down (just before their delivery to home). What you want is a big kick and a slow release."

If his mother had not intervened, convinced him that baseball was safer and the careers longer, Henderson would have concentrated on football. Although smallish, he was an exceptional runner in a rugged league. Hitting .716 in the 11th grade was another fine reason to choose baseball.

"Sometimes I'll take notes (about pitchers' moves to first), but mostly it's in my head," Henderson said. "I met Brock last year and he said I'll break his records. If I got 100 steals my first full season in the big leagues, why can't I get one a day? My long-term goals? To be an all-time player?"

He and Martin last season developed a set of signs that allowed Henderson to initiate the thievery when he was certain of success. Various gyrations by Henderson meant he wanted to go; Martin's body language either said yes or no. Perhaps the manager eventually will bend even more in Henderson's direction.