Rickey Henderson can't remember who was pitching the day he broke the major league record for stolen bases. He has no time to admire his artistry the way Reggie Jackson can. "He can stand and watch," Henderson said. "I have to run."
When you steal 130 bases in a season, they all run together in a blur of gold and white and green. By last Aug. 27, Henderson, the left fielder for the Oakland A's, was exhausted from the tension and the attention. He just wanted it to be over. But he remembers the day before, when he tied Lou Brock's record, 118, in exquisite detail.
"It was in Milwaukee," he said. "Doc Medich was pitching. I was anxious to get a base. I got a hit. Doc came over four or five times. The fans booed. I was laughing 'cause he almost got me once. I said, 'Why is he coming over this many times?' "
The count was 2 and 1. "I guessed on a pitch. I figured either he'd pick me off or I'd make it. He went into his windup, he paused, he hesitated, he raised up his toe and went to first. But I didn't stop. Usually, I get into a rundown. Managers always said if I didn't stop, I'd make it. I always thought I was an automatic out. This time, I didn't stop."
There may be no stopping him now. Steve Boros, his new manager, has no intention of cramping Henderson's style. "The pressure is off him now," Boros said. "The tough year was last year, breaking it. A lot of people don't think he'll be able to break his own record. I wouldn't rule it out."
Henderson refuses to predict how many bases he'll steal in 1983. "At least 75," he said. "But I've got to lead the league."
As he has for the last three years. Henderson, who has stolen 319 bases since 1979, has kept only six of them. He gave them to his mother, who wanted to make them into cushions. "I've got the one when I tied Ty Cobb (96), when I broke Ty Cobb, the 100th one, the 101st (all from 1980), the 119th and the 130th (from last year)."
After the 130th, he rested. He also set a major league record for being caught 42 times trying to steal. He finished the year with a .267 batting average, compared to .303 in 1980 and .319 in 1981. Though his on-base percentage was .399, he says he'd rather hit .300 than steal another 130 bases.
"I gave up something to get something," he said. "I was taking a lot of pitches, not being aggressive . . . Davey Lopes told me, 'You're taking pitches down the middle, good pitches to hit.' I was aware of it in a way."
But, stealing, he says with a smile, can "be addictive."
When he was 10 years old and he started stealing bases standing up, they told him he was too big for the league he was playing in. When he was a senior in high school in Oakland, he rushed for 1,100 yards and thought he'd be as good as O.J. Simpson. You can still see the running back in him as he high-steps through the puddles on the warning track.
He says football taught him "quickness and how to take punishment, how to hit the ground, how to tighten up your body."
But unpadded shoulders don't take nicely to being used as battering rams. Henderson has used a head-first slide since a friend taught him "to start diving like you're on a swimming board" in the minors. He says if he had not jammed his shoulder in August, he could have stolen 145-150 bases.
"I hope he steals no more than 80," said his friend, Mike Norris. "He has to look out for his health. He doesn't have a standard pop-up slide . . . His shoulders took a pounding. When you get older, your bones and muscles get softer. Your heart for stealing deteriorates because physically you deteriorate. He could do it again but it would be meaningless."
Under Billy Martin, Henderson was the essence of Billyball. Borosball "doesn't have the ring that Billyball has," Boros said. "I'll be the first to admit it. But I'm sure a fan will send me a T-shirt with Borosball on it. "I'm not a personality. I want the ballplayers to be the stars. They're the artists. They accomplish things that are beautiful to watch. I just try to prepare them."
Boros wants Henderson to work on a foot-first slide. "We want to get him to use a cross-over step rather than diving back to first," he said. "Maybe he can be more productive with less risk of injury."
Henderson will be running on his own. "We'll have a stop sign," Boros said, "but we'll only use it occasionally where it is better to keep him at first, if there is a left-handed hitter up against someone like (the New York Yankees' Goose) Gossage, or we feel a pitchout is coming. It won't happen very often. He's such a force. We don't want to hold him back."
Henderson realized there was no holding him back when he stole 100 bases in 1980. "I didn't run as much," he said. "Billy gave me the sign. I used to beg to steal third."
One day, he said, "I challenged him to third base. I picked a pitch and stole it easy . . . Billy said, 'Did Clete (Boyer, the third base coach) give you the sign?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'When you steal like that, make sure you're safe every time.' "
Henderson says he has been timed going from first to second in 2.9 seconds. He is slower out of the batter's box because, like Jackson, he likes to see where the ball is going. Once on first, he concentrates on the pitcher's knee. "The biggest key is the knee," he said.
When the pitcher is about to bend his knee, Henderson pushes off his left leg, which he bends at the knee. The pushoff gives him an extra step-and-a-half jump, he says.
When he was younger, there was more of a thrill, though he still gets angry if he doesn't steal a base. In the minors, he laughed at catchers: "You can't throw me out." Now, he says, "stealing year after year, it's starting to be automatic. I'm not too excited."
Sometimes, he says, "it's a kick, knowing I can steal, like Goose Gossage knowing he can strike out the side."
Baltimore is his biggest challenge. He says Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan are the hardest for him to steal on because "they use a balk move" and because catcher Rick Dempsey is so good.
"Once we were playing against Baltimore," he said, "Flanagan was holding me tight. It was a situation where we needed a run, a tie game. I was on first and (Dwayne) Murphy was up. The count was two balls and a strike. Flanagan paused. I stutter-stepped and still ran. Dempsey almost hit the pitcher when he bent down. He was so frustrated that he didn't hold me on. He got so mad he threw it at the pitcher."
Henderson stole the base and a moment for a smile.