Before he had heard the loudest boos of the day from the 43,910 fans in Memorial Stadium who didn't appreciate the thrashing he had given Baltimore Orioles pitching the previous three days, Rickey Henderson was playing a different sort of role today in the New York Yankees' clubhouse.

The confident, some might say cocky, leadoff hitter, who leads the major leagues in runs (60) and stolen bases (43), tried to comfort Bobby Meacham, who was being shipped to the minors.

The discussion after batting practice was not spectacularly philosophical, just encouraging. There isn't much you can say in that situation, anyway, but Henderson wanted to try.

"I feel comfortable with that," said Henderson, 27, of any leadership role he plays, in addition to his on-the-field contributions. "The young guys look up to the older guys. When I was coming into the league, I looked up to the older guys as far as teaching me things, showing me the ropes, telling me what to look for and how to deal with it all.

"Young guys, in the first or second year, have a lot more pressure than a veteran," said Henderson, in his seventh full major league season. "You just try to ease their minds, let them relax and do the routine things they're capable of doing, which is what got them here. You don't want to try to do more than you are capable of doing."

And what is the limit of Rickey Henderson's capabilities?

"I'm still learning," he said. "Learning about pitchers and what to do at certain times. I don't know what my limits are. I've had success. I've had great seasons. But I think I can be even better."

The thought of that should be enough to scare the Orioles, who are open to suggestions on how to deal with Henderson. He harassed their pitching staff as the Yankees won the first three games of the series before losing, 4-3, today, despite his home run to the deepest part of the park.

Today, he went two for four with two runs batted in, the first coming on his 11th home run of the year leading off the sixth. He finished the four-game series with seven hits, five walks, two home runs, five stolen bases, seven runs and four RBI in 18 plate appearances.

He has hit .384 with an on-base percentage of .500 against the Orioles this year. Over the last two seasons, he has a .434 batting average and .537 on-base percentage against Baltimore.

"He gives us that dynamic leadoff hitter," Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly said before today's game. "He's been doing it all. You've seen it all if you have been watching the last three games."

"I don't know what it is about Baltimore, I just hope it continues," said Henderson, who is hitting .361 in his career against the Orioles. "I wish I had a few more teams where it was the same way. Maybe a few years from now they'll trade for me and say, 'We'll get one bad habit out of the way.' "

Henderson can beat a team so many ways. He got the game-winning RBI in Saturday's victory with a home run. Today, he would have had it with his single to right in the top of the seventh had the Orioles not scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth.

"He's so powerful," said Orioles pitcher Mike Boddicker, who yielded the homer today but got the win. "I don't know how he does it in that crouch. But he explodes out of it, just like he explodes out of it when he runs."

Henderson hit 24 home runs last year and is ahead of that pace this season. But his speed on the bases and ability to score runs are the major reasons for his hefty salary, reportedly $9 million for five years.

"His major importance for this team is being on base, scoring runs, upsetting the pitcher," said Yankees coach Roy White. And when it comes to stealing bases, "he's the best I've ever seen. He can get going quicker than anybody I've ever seen."

Henderson is not afraid to open his mouth, whether it be in the clubhouse, the batting cage or in the batter's box during play.

"I've been that way my whole life," Henderson said. "When I came up they said it's a lot more serious and you can't laugh. But I don't believe you can play baseball like that. You have to have fun. When I first came up a lot of veterans told me to be quiet, but I worked out an understanding that, hey, I'm going to do this. I'm going to get myself up for it; I'm going to get myself relaxed. I think you need the laugh."

Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver complained after Thursday's Yankees victory that Henderson was intimidating the umpires with his constant complaints about calls that went against him.

"Rickey is good at what he does," said the Orioles' Floyd Rayford, who caught today. "He has a great eye and everybody knows he has a great eye. If he thinks it's a ball, he's got the kind of character that he'll let you know he thought it was a ball. That's how he is and it's a big part of his game.

"I wish I could do it. He lets umpires know more than other hitters that they missed a pitch on him, or maybe didn't miss a pitch. He wants to get the idea in their head that they're missing pitches. That's why he walks a lot. And once he's on, it's like a double or a triple."

Henderson likes his job. He's the point man on the most prolific team in the league. As Mattingly said of the Yankees' offensive firepower, "There's a lot of guys who can just flat play," and Henderson is the first round in the chamber. If a pitcher can't get him out, the Yankees have a threat going. It's that simple.

"I enjoy being the first guy to come out," Henderson said with a smile, his brown eyes lighting up a bit. "You've got to start things. You're first out of the blocks. It's in your hands and you can take control."