Rickey Henderson is twice as good a base stealer as Ty Cobb. In fact, Rickey could spot Lou Brock a thousand games and still outsteal him.
We can hardly believe it. But it's true.
Cobb stole 892 bases in 3,034 games. Henderson has stolen 894 bases in 1,516 games. Yes, more steals in less than half the games.
After surpassing Cobb this week, the Oakland A's left fielder nonchalantly predicted, "I think I can get 1,200 to 1,500 if I stay healthy." And he's absolutely right. Even though such a prophecy would be like a slugger saying he thought 1,000 to 1,200 home runs were perfectly reasonable.
The all-time record is 938 stolen bases, by Brock. It took him 2,616 games. So, Henderson almost certainly will break Brock's record later this season with more than 1,000 games to spare. "Take two months," said Henderson.
The magnitude of what Henderson has done, and what he continues to do, is hard to grasp. Our minds don't want to accept what the facts prove to be the truth. Our response to Henderson and his records is as slow as a frightened catcher's throw to second. Or third.
Henderson is transforming our ideas about stolen bases the way Wayne Gretzky changed our assumptions about points in hockey. Just when a sport with a long history thought it had seen everything, Henderson's proven that, until he arrived, we hadn't seen anything.
Recently, we've grown accustomed to seeing historic baseball records broken. If Hank Aaron can hit more homers than Babe Ruth, if Pete Rose can get more hits than Cobb, then nobody is safe. Even Don Sutton passed Walter Johnson in strikeouts. It's easy to get jaded.
However, we should not short shrift ourselves -- and Henderson. He is different. Aaron and Rose were not as great as the legends they surpassed. The moderns just outlasted the old-timers. Aaron played in 795 more games than Ruth and Rose in 528 more than Cobb.
Henderson, however, has entered a new realm of larceny. Others have stolen a great many bases for a few seasons and some have stolen quite a few bases for a lot of years. Nobody except Henderson has stolen a ton of bases from the day he broke into the majors and kept it up for a dozen years. With no end in sight.
Henderson is only 31 years old. After that age, Brock stole more than half of his bases. If the same holds true for Henderson, he could steal 2,000. Okay, that's probably impossible. But it further underlines how hallucinatory his accomplishments already are.
For the last 10 seasons, Henderson has averaged 84 steals. Last year he had 77. This year he's on a pace for about 80. Obviously, passing age 30 has slowed the guy down. We saw that in the playoffs and World Series last year, when he made October his personal TV show. In nine games he had 8 walks, 7 singles, 8 extra-base hits and 11 stolen bases. Still looks like one long typographical error, doesn't it?
Why haven't we all noticed the dimensions of what Henderson has done? Probably because Maury Wills, Brock, Tim Raines and Vince Coleman have camouflaged his work.
Wills was the first to steal 100 bases, back in 1962. But he had only one other season with more than 53. Next, Brock stole 118 in 1974. Fabulous. But how many times did Lou Brock steal 75 bases? Answer: only once. Henderson already has done it seven times.
In the '80s, Henderson has shared headlines with Raines and Coleman. Yet neither is likely to end up in his stolen base league. Raines stole 70 or more bases his first six seasons. Surely, he and Henderson would battle evenly until the year 2000 for final supremecy.
It didn't work that way. Raines, a year younger than Henderson, had drug problems and slowed down. He's averaged 41 steals the past three seasons and probably never will reach Brock's total.
As for Coleman, only time can tell. He and Henderson are the only men to steal 100 bases three times. Since Coleman did it in his first three years, it was assumed he'd get better. But it didn't work that way. In '88 he stole 81, then 65 last year. By this spring, Coleman, a weak hitter, was not even penciled in to Whitey Herzog's starting lineup. Coleman will be 29 in September and Henderson already is 398 steals ahead of him.
With Henderson's proven durability, his .291 career batting average, his dazzling .402 on-base percentage and his spectacular play in left, isn't it likely that he can play as long as he wants, even if he's stealing "only" 40 bases at age 40? That's why 1,500 steals is conceivable. Coleman, on the other hand, probably won't be able to hold a job when he can't steal constantly.
Base running beats down a man's body faster than any other work in baseball except catching. Every sprint, every false start, every slide, every head-first dive back to the bag -- and there are thousands of them -- pound on the ankles, knees, stomach, shoulders and wrists. Almost every part of the body is vulnerable. Anything can give.
As a result, many thieves lose the will to do battle with pitchers and catchers. For instance, Willie Wilson (597 steals), who's even faster than Henderson, gave up the fight long ago. He takes his easy 40 steals a year and leaves the other 40, the hard ones, to Rickey.
Throughout his career Henderson has been criticized continually by teammates who say he won't play hurt and takes 10 to 20 days off a year to recover from minor injuries. "Rickey's a prima donna," they chorus.
Hey, you bums, clam up.
Henderson now stands vindicated. He takes his little vacations, but he stays in one piece, year after year. He does not grind himself to dust. He knows his own body. And it's paid off enormously. When Henderson takes a day off, it's so he can steal 10 bases the next week.
Sometimes, Henderson drives his public a little crazy with his various forms of strutting. This spring he said he'd be miffed if the A's didn't give him a Lamborghini when he breaks Brock's record. Why? "Because it's the little things that count," said Henderson.
With Henderson, we should forget the little things -- like his day-glo batting glove, his hot-dog home run trots and his rain-delay tactics in the batter's box -- because they don't count.
With him, all that matters is that he's one of a kind -- the best who ever lived at what he does. And, by the time his career is over, by a huge margin.
To watch Henderson's antics and miss the man would be like saying you never really appreciated Ted Williams as a hitter because you were too annoyed by the way he played left field.
When did we last see a baseball player who could smash the all-time records in his specialty while he was still young enough to be at the very peak of his nonpareil career?
It's probably happened last back in the 1920s. Some guy named Ruth.