OAKLAND -- Getting a reading on the uneven, almost-schizophrenic personality Rickey Henderson wears publicly is a task comparable to trying to have a baseball at second base before the game's steals king-to-be arrives with his headfirst lunge of calculated fury.

Henderson provides few hints to his true character, though every catcher in the American League knows he has supreme confidence in his abilities. During virtually every at-bat he offers clenched-teeth pledges that, he says, go something like: "I'm gonna get on and steal second and third, and make you look real bad. And there ain't nothing you can do about it."

The Oakland Athletics' moody, multifaceted and often-misunderstood outfielder rarely is viewed in shades of gray. He has alternately worn the hats of villain and hero during his sometimes-glorious, sometimes-stormy 12 years in the major leagues. At 31, he is in the midst of his finest season and closing in on baseball's career stolen base record -- and perhaps the American League's most valuable player award as well.

Which is the most accurate depiction of Rickey Henderson?

Is it the apparent malcontent who groused this season that he's underpaid at more than $3 million a year, of whose reputation A's officials were so wary that they consulted extensively with several of their club's veteran players before trading for him in June 1989? Is it the primping, preening prima donna who has been accused of failing to play through minor injuries, admits he doesn't think it's necessary to run out every ground ball full tilt and first unveiled his trademark "snatch catch" at the dubious moment of the final out of a no-hitter by Mike Warren in 1983?

Or is it the fiercely loyal kid at heart who vehemently defends his former New York Yankees boss, George Steinbrenner, and can't talk about his most beloved manager, the late Billy Martin, without choking on the words, misty-eyed?

With this version goes Oakland Manager Tony La Russa's favorite Henderson tale: La Russa brought Henderson into his office one day after the A's acquired him last year. The manager interrupted Henderson's patching-up speech about former conflicts between the two, telling Henderson he wanted to earn his respect.

After Henderson concluded one of the most torrid postseasons in memory and the A's swept the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, Henderson made it a point to seek out La Russa during the postgame celebration and let him know respect had been earned. "It's mutual," La Russa said here this week. "You hear a lot of innuendo about Rickey Henderson, but the guy I know is a consummate professional and a good human being."

Backing Up the Talk

La Russa likes to say Henderson would be elected mayor of the A's if such a post existed. And indeed, the Henderson portrait painted by his current teammates is flattering.

"He's been a perfect fit here," said third baseman Carney Lansford, one of two A's whose tenure with the team dates from the first of Henderson's two stints here. "He plays hard every day. He's intense. He plays hurt. To me, he's a different guy than he was when he was here before. I think it's maturity. He was our spark plug from the moment he stepped into this clubhouse" last season.

Henderson insists he's indifferent about his image, but he can't resist launching into occasional tirades about expectations that increase disproportionately with each accomplishment. "What do people want from me?" he asked. "I give what I have, which usually is a lot, and the critics out there still aren't satisfied."

He can be outlandish, as when he suggested the A's perhaps should have a Lamborghini awaiting him as a gift when he breaks Lou Brock's stolen base record. He can be surly, as is the case when he's asked to respond to charges he doesn't play hurt.

But always, he's productive. He's batting an AL-best .330 with 21 home runs, 44 RBI and the league's second-highest slugging percentage at .592. He has 49 stolen bases in 55 attempts, leaving him one short of achieving the 50-steal mark for the 10th time. Only Brock, who swiped 50 or more 12 times in 18 seasons, has done so more often.

He's had five years of 16 or more homers -- including a high of 28 -- and six with 80 or more steals, topped by a record 130 in 1982. He has a major-league record 44 home runs leading off games, four of them this year.

He's 19 stolen bases short of surpassing Brock for the top spot among baseball's all-time steals leaders, and he'll break the record in about 1,000 fewer games. He has said he can reach 1,200 to 1,500 steals; Brock got 938.

He is the most annoying, occupying, disruptive force in the game. A convincing case can be made that he's among the best leadoff hitters baseball has seen; certainly, he's the finest of his era. He also may be the best defensive left fielder today.

And he is the leading mogul of style on the team that loves to swagger -- exuding charisma with everything from his neon batting glove to his stalling, mind-game rituals at the plate to his nonchalant patrolling of the outfield.

Scoring from second base on a routine groundout is a once-per-season feat, and Baltimore Orioles Manager Frank Robinson promises he won't soon forget the time Henderson tagged up and raced home from third on a popout to shortstop Cal Ripken. "He's the ultimate pest," Robinson said as his team dropped two of three to the A's here last week, though Henderson missed the final two games because he strained his left hamstring running to first on a groundout Tuesday.

The A's know they have grown so dependent upon Henderson that they can ill afford to lose him for an extended period. He adds the dimension La Russa calls "Rickey Runs" -- the ability to score on a walk, two steals and a groundout or fly ball. The A's are resisting putting him on the 15-day disabled list now for fear he'll be ready to play a few days earlier and they'll miss out on his services unnecessarily.

It is a stature he carries proudly. "It's nice to be appreciated," he said. "I feel like I'm respected for what I do here. That hasn't always been the case for me."

Emotional Strength

Riches and adulation did not come easily to Henderson. He was born in Chicago, the youngest of five sons and two daughters raised by his mother and grandmother. The family lived in Arkansas from when Rickey was 2 until he was 7, then settled in a working-class neighborhood in Oakland. He grew up playing baseball with A's teammate Dave Stewart and Detroit Tigers outfielder Lloyd Moseby.

Henderson never knew his father, who left his mother when he was 2. A lifelong curiosity culminated in 1979, when he hired private detectives to find his father, who was a truck driver. Shortly after the detectives located the elder Henderson, he died in a traffic accident. They reported that to Henderson's mother, Bobbie, who couldn't bring herself to tell Rickey until more than a year later.

Yet Henderson says he never lacked for support. His base-stealing proficiency was rooted in his mother's protective nature, for she never believed he had been playing baseball on the sandlots unless he came home dirty. So Henderson learned how to stain himself, lest he face the wrath of punishment for suspected carousing on the street.

The knack was nurtured further by a kindhearted high school counselor who offered a quarter for every base he stole -- a front for providing him with enough money to buy lunch every day, Henderson says. "I never lacked for strong people in my life," he said. "I was always looked after and provided for, with generosity and understanding instead of with money."

Henderson was an all-city running back in football, with power and 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash that drew scholarship offers from major schools. He was set to go to Arizona State on a football scholarship when the A's drafted him and his mother persuaded him, despite his objections, to opt for baseball.

He skyrocketed through the minors with his imposing raw ability and the base-running tutorials of his rookie league manager, Tom Trebelhorn. Now the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, Trebelhorn added technique to speed, and Henderson learned to become a student of base-stealing. He has since borrowed from the methods of Brock, Davey Lopes and others, and he now says physical skills are secondary to cunning.

"I steal bases with my mind as much as with my legs," he said. "It's me against the pitcher out there. If I get the jump I want, the catcher doesn't have any chance. . . . That's why I like to mess with {the catchers}. . . . I taunt them, tell them they couldn't throw me out if I walked over to second. But that's just for fun. Really, my rivalry is with the pitchers."

Budding Career

His most carefree seasons were his early years with the A's, days of "Billy Ball" under Martin that consisted of few restrictions on his running or behavior. When Martin was killed in a traffic accident on Henderson's birthday, Christmas Day, the former pupil said he was devastated.

Martin had played the biggest part in bringing Henderson -- with pitcher Bert Bradley -- to the Yankees in a 1985 trade for Jay Howell, Jose Rijo, Eric Plunk, Tim Birtsas and Stan Javier.

His Yankees years were mostly fruitful, as he became one of the game's most feared players. But he often felt unduly reined, he said, and the situation there began to sour in 1987 when he missed 67 games with a torn hamstring. Manager Lou Piniella and almost everyone else associated with the Yankees -- except for Martin -- didn't believe Henderson was hurt.

By the time he was traded back here last year for Luis Polonia, Greg Cadaret and (again) Plunk, New York officials were proclaiming him past his prime and uninterested in performing to his potential. Henderson vetoed a proposed deal with the Giants, and the Yankees conceded they probably didn't get equal value in dealing him to Oakland. The A's trepidations about him were alleviated almost immediately.

After hitting .247 the first 2 1/2 months of the season for New York, Henderson batted .294 for Oakland as the A's pulled away from the California Angels down the stretch. Then he made the postseason his personal showcase, subduing Toronto with a six-for-15, seven-walk, eight-steal performance and pestering San Francisco with a .474 average in the World Series.

"When I'm healthy, I feel I'm unstoppable," said Henderson, who has played much of this year with a sore hip. "The problem is, people never know when you're not healthy. In New York, I always had managers telling me, 'Your 80 percent is better than other people's 100 percent.' So I gave the 80 I had in me. But then I'd be criticized because it wasn't 100 percent, when only a few people knew that I wasn't physically capable of that at the time."

So, finally, which is the real Henderson? Even now, it depends upon whom you ask. There still are those players and scouts around the league who accuse him of being lazy, showy and more unnerving to his team than others.

Clearly, though, that is not the prevailing opinion on the Henderson of 1990. He says he'll probably seek to renegotiate his just-signed, four-year contract after the season, but any unhappiness about his salary hasn't showed in his play. And his antics are more for entertainment than anything else anyway, La Russa contends, adding that the substance underneath makes all of it worthwhile. "He breaks up the monotony," La Russa said.

"I'll always have people tearing me down," Henderson said. "I don't let it bother me anymore. I just try to be myself. You can take it or leave it. I think the guys in this clubhouse will take me as I am."