When the '82 baseball season is remembered in the distant future, the chances are excellent that it will be Rickey Henderson's base stealing, rather than the World Series champion, that will be recalled most vividly.
With 91 steals in 97 games, the 23-year-old left fielder for the Oakland A's will, unless he breaks a leg, demolish Lou Brock's record of 118 stolen bases with a month to spare. Currently, Henderson is on target for . . . gulp . . . 150 stolen bases.
Not since Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs in 1920--30 more than anyone else had hit in a season--has one of baseball's fundamental areas of offensive production been in such danger of major redefinition. Henderson has brought into realistic view the day when he, or perhaps Montreal's Tim Raines, or who knows who else still to come, can steal a base a game. Or even more. And do it throughout a career.
When Maury Wills stole 104 bases in '62 and Brock, in turn, topped that mark in '74, their performances were, in a sense, one-year tours de force. Brock's next-best season was 74 steals; Wills had only one other year over 53 (94 in '65). They had set new and wonderful records, but they had not, in the Ruthian sense, set year-in, year-out standards. After Wills and Brock, the measure of great base stealing was only marginally higher than in Ty Cobb's era--about one steal every two games.
Henderson has warped those traditional perceptions; he has stolen second base 63 times and has been thrown out only five times by catchers while trying. If it weren't for getting picked off first base 11 times and getting nailed stealing home three times, Henderson's astronomical percentage--91 of 117--would be even better.
Now, perhaps for the first time, a player's skill is challenging the basic dimensions of the diamond. The 90 feet between bases and the 60 feet 6 inches from the mound to the plate have always been baseball's Twin Commandments. Henderson has made the bases seem perilously close and vulnerable.
Baseball's only similar brush with such a fundamental "problem" came in '68, when a generation of pitchers--following in Sandy Koufax's wake and led by Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, Juan Marichal, Ferguson Jenkins, Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant--demonstrated the traditional letters-to-knees strike zone was simply too generous a target for their talents. Since then, the strike zone has been pinched--although few talk about it--until it is, basically, from the top of the belt to the knees.
If Henderson is on the Koufax-like edge of a base-running revolution, can the de facto legalization of the balk be far behind? "Thou shalt not change the basic nature of the game," has always been baseball's first commandment. And Henderson is coming close.
The moral of this tale is clear. Watch Henderson now. Don't fall into the trap, as even ballplayers do, of speculating on how good he'll become. Age, injury and even rules changes may await him.
But, now, today, for this moment, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound ball of speed and muscle--born on Christmas Day and brimming with cockiness--is performing at a level baseball observers never thought possible.
Sitting on the top step of the A's dugout, Henderson seems so full of energy, enthusiasm, laughter, native intelligence, disciplined determination and general cheerfulness that you wonder where he left his halo. Shouldn't he be an Angel?
"Lou Brock is rooting for me. I appreciate that," he says. "We talked once and he told me he thought I had the skill to be the one to break his record."
What if, someday, a kid comes along and steals 200?
"I'll tell him, 'Go get 'em,' " says Henderson, grinning.
Face-to-face, Henderson is almost impossible not to like.
"Rickey has a lot of fun, a lot of emotion and a lot of intensity," says the A's Davey Lopes, former Dodger captain. "In everything, he has exuberance." As a base stealer, "I'm just beginning to learn the art. I don't know the little tricks of studying pitchers yet, like Wills and Brock. But I'll learn. Even considering how good I am now, I can get better," says Henderson, who in '80, at age 21, became the first American Leaguer to steal 100 bases. "Right now, instead of studying pickoff moves, I take a shorter lead (than most) and I look for the pitcher's 'plate motion.' Once I've picked that up, then, when I spot it, I go. All the other (pickoff) moves, even if the guy's got 12 moves to first, don't matter. I'm looking for the plate move, not the pickoff move."
As a hitter, "I always wanted to be like Reggie Jackson and hit homers. My goal is, when I get (to be) 25, to hit 25 dingers (homers). I've got two years to go."
Of being what Baltimore's Ken Singleton calls "the best left fielder I've ever seen in my life . . . just phenomenal," Henderson says, "That's what I love the most, because I worked at it so hard. In high school, I was a first baseman, threw sidearm. I had to learn to follow the curve of the ball (in flight), play the walls, get to the corner before the ball, build up my arm."
In addition to his obvious skills, Henderson is hard-nosed ("I love to get dirty"), a team player ("winning comes first") and eminently coachable ("It was a break for me to have Billy Martin as a manager early in my career. He's tough on you, but he teaches you to be aggressive and smart, like he played").
"This is a real ballplayer, here," says Elrod Hendricks, one of the Orioles' coaches. "My name is going to end up on the same page of the Baseball Encyclopedia with his (alphabetically). Now that's embarrassing to me."
Someday, it's likely that only a handful of players in history are going to have careers that won't suffer embarrassment by comparison with Henderson's. "He's close to being the best player in the league right now," says Lopes. "He's not nationally known to the degree that he should be yet, but he'll get there . . . He has 'unlimited potential,' which is a label you hate to lay on anybody. But in his case, what else can you say?"
After Henderson finally comes to bat, walking slowly, adjusting his batting gloves, wrist bands, head band, taking half swings with his black bat, he begins digging.
Once, twice . . . no, 11, 12 times, he paws at his hole in the batter's box. If the pitcher seems ready to deliver, Henderson casually holds up his left hand to let the umpire know that he isn't quite prepared.
During these spare seconds, as the crowd waits, as the pitcher's annoyance increases, Henderson has an opportunity to chat with his other enemy--the catcher.
"I talk to 'em," says Henderson. "Brock told me how to do it. You tell 'em what pitch you're going to steal second base on. Just say, 'I'm gonna go on the first pitch.' That's when they really get tight.' "
Henderson gives a little delighted snicker just thinking of these mind games. "The catcher wants to throw you out so bad that he grabs at the ball, trying to get it out of his glove too fast, and he squeezes it too tight when he throws, instead of being relaxed."
Then, summing up his style, he says, "I intimidate."
Everything about Henderson on a baseball field, every gesture, seems designed to irritate his opponents while delighting his teammates and titillating his fans. Henderson makes Willie Mays and Pete Rose look like shrinking violets; perhaps, in time, historians will have to go all the way back to the Gashouse Gang, or even Cobb, to find a player whose manner of play was so deliberately arrogant.
His batting crouch, which has aided him in drawing a major league-leading 83 walks this season, gives him "a 10-inch strike zone," says Boston pitcher Dennis Eckersley.
"I've got a great eye . . . a patient eye," adds Henderson, who has a .418 on-base percentage, despite hitting only .271 this season. But when pitchers throw fast balls, Henderson, a career .300 hitter entering '82, lashes hard, taking a flashy Mel Ott-style high step into the ball.
Henderson's slide is an unconventional, head-first explosion into the base, and, usually, completely over it as his hand, stomach and, finally, foot all reach across the bag. "I'm in a hurry to get there," he says.
From catching a routine fly to taking a lead at first, his every movement seems designed to attract attention.
This style has led American Leaguers to say:
"Henderson's the biggest hot dog in the league," Eckersley said last season.
"If he doesn't learn to button his lip, he's going to get punched out," California catcher Ed Ott, a former NCAA champion wrestler, once warned.
"If you think he's a 'nice guy,' then he's got you fooled. He's a cocky bleep," said Rick Dempsey this week. The Baltimore catcher once had to be bear-hugged by an umpire to be stopped from attacking Henderson after Henderson had followed Dempsey halfway to the mound to overhear a pitching conference. "I will say he's really calmed down . . . He used to always try to irritate you . . . just goofing around, really, but in bad taste. He's much more serious about the game now, and that's going to make him even greater than he already is."
"I'm not a bad guy. I'm a friendly guy," says Henderson, who knows what's said about him. "Some players say I'm hot-dogging, or jiving. I just think I'm very intense and need to concentrate when I'm getting in the box. Once I'm set, I don't step out much. I'm not like that first baseman in Cleveland (Mike Hargrove). I don't play with my gloves and pants and sleeves between every pitch. That's hot dog, to me . . . I never try to show up a guy . . . I've learned to respect people."
"Rickey doesn't jump up and down and give high fives all the time and do all that bull. That's what's bush," says Lopes. "His style isn't arrogance, it's confidence . . . His complete aggressiveness, at such a young age while he's at his peak for raw speed, is the reason he's so good."
Although still young, Henderson is wise enough never to forget the words that every great base stealer comes to understand--usually with age: "I intimidate."
As Henderson walks to the plate at a snail's pace and digs interminably at his little hole, watch his lips. Not even on first base yet, this man who is challenging the fundamental measurements of the diamond murmurs to the catcher, "Going on the second pitch."
For baseball, that may be the voice of the future.