A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Rickey Henderson Rambling On As A Surf Dawg
SAN DIEGO – Rickey Henderson is getting all revved up, and he’s not even on first base yet. Baseball’s biggest hot dog is currently a Surf Dawg, batting leadoff and playing left field for San Diego’s team in the new independent Golden Baseball League, which begins play Thursday night.
Don’t get him wrong – he says he’s having fun and is grateful for the opportunity. It’s just that it’s not time for Rickey to retire, and he really, really wants to get back to the big leagues.
Hanging out in front of the home dugout at cozy Tony Gwynn Stadium at San Diego State, among teammates half his age, baseball’s career leader in runs and stolen bases is off and running – at the mouth. In an hour he’ll be playing in a scrimmage against a scrappy team from the Marine Corps, but for now he’s talking a good game.
The 46-year-old Henderson, who remains in incredible shape, has heard plenty of chatter that he should give it up.
“I like to tell all the guys that have all these comments, come out and see me play. Don’t sit in an office. Come and see the 40-year-old guy play. Then you can judge me on that. Then you can see what I can do, how I can move around. I’m not that 40-year-old guy that barely can move. I can run with anybody out there. I can run with anybody up there,” he said, referring to the big leagues.
“I’m probably in better health than most of the guys up there. So come out and see me if you don’t believe me.”
Henderson started the last two years with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League. He finished 2003 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, playing in 30 games, but hasn’t been in the big leagues since.
Just four years ago and a few miles down the hill, during his second stint with the Padres, Henderson passed Babe Ruth’s career walks record – which has since been taken by Barry Bonds – and broke Ty Cobb’s career runs record in dramatic fashion, with a home run and a feet-first slide into home.
On the last day of the season, which happened to be Tony Gwynn’s final big league game, Henderson got his 3,000th hit.
“I don’t have certain things I’ve got to prove to baseball. I did everything in baseball that a young man or anybody in the major leagues dreamed of doing in the major leagues,” said Henderson, considered the greatest leadoff hitter ever. “That ain’t my issue. My issue is just playing the game and enjoying the game and wondering why you did so much in the major leagues and they won’t give you the opportunity to finish up in the major leagues.”
So why does Henderson, who made his big league debut in 1979, keep hanging around?
“I ain’t hurt,” he said. “You ask the guys who quit the game, they’re hurt. Listen, I’m not aching. Tony Gwynn once told me he was aching so much, he said, ‘Rickey, man, I want this jersey to be tore off me. My body’s killing me.’
“My body feels great. I wake up in the morning, I don’t feel pain. In spring training, we did some laps and a workout, and one of the older gentlemen said, ‘Oh, tomorrow you’re going to have aches and pains. I said, `Tomorrow, If I have aches and pains, something’s wrong with me. I’ll wake up tomorrow, and Rickey feels so great, what is it, now?’ I don’t feel no aches and pains. My body’s just made that way.”
When he was asked by the Surf Dawgs equipment manager what size pants he wore, Henderson gave an answer that would make most 46-year-olds jealous – 34.
“He’s a freak of nature,” said manager Terry Kennedy, a former big league catcher. “Cal Ripken was the same way. Deion Sanders. They’re born with something that nobody else has.”
Kennedy admitted that signing Henderson was part publicity stunt, but said he’s impressed with his energy and work habits. Henderson still has a wide smile and a deep laugh. He helps pick up balls during batting practice and even hit grounders to infielders.
“I had an opportunity to use a couple of other big leaguers that wanted to play and I wasn’t going to take them because they’re done,” Kennedy said.
Is Rickey done?
“I don’t think I would ever say ‘never’ with him,” said Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who signed Henderson twice. “He’s a draw. People are going to come and see Rickey play. If anything, he can still steal a base, draw a walk.”
Catcher Nick Guerra, 24, who’s from nearby Chula Vista, said no one ribs Henderson about his age.
“I mean, shoot, the way he moves around, he makes us look bad,” Guerra said. “He’s still got the hop in his step. That’s what’s amazing. The guy’s been playing as many years as I’ve been alive. At first it was just kind of, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Rickey Henderson, I can’t believe it.’ Now he’s out here acting like one of the guys, just out here enjoying the game.”
The Surf Dawgs have been getting some laughs from the many Rickey stories that followed him through his 25-year big league career.
Like the time he boarded the Padres team bus in 1996 and was told players with tenure got to sit up front. His response: “Ten years? I guess they don’t know I got 17 years.”
Or the time he told a teammate that his house in Oakland was on top of a hill and had “like, a 370-degree view.”
“He’s just on a different astral plane than the rest of us,” Kennedy said. “And you know what? Maybe we should all be there to be able to last as long as he does.”