Rickey Henderson is one of the 20 greatest players in baseball history. The major leagues’ all-time leader in runs scored, walks, and stolen bases, the 44-year-old Henderson dons his Dodger uniform every day with a 54-year-old’s wisdom, a 34-year-old’s body, and a 14-year-old’s boundless enthusiasm for the game.
Born into a single-parent home in Chicago in 1958, Henderson moved to Oakland at age seven, where he caught games at the Coliseum in between starring in two sports (Henderson was an All-American running back) and at Oakland Technical High School. Henderson was selected by the A’s in the fourth round of the 1976 draft and progressed quickly up the minor league ladder, displaying his trademark speed and plate discipline at each level.
Henderson made his big league debut on June 24, 1979 against Texas–he went 2-for-4 with a steal in the first half of a doubleheader–and never looked back. In addition to his career records, Henderson’s accomplishments include the single season stolen base record, a Gold Glove, an MVP award, 10 All-Star appearances, two World Series titles (Henderson has a 1.046 OPS in 14 World Series games), and the universal acknowledgement as the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time.
Recently, Nate Silver and Will Carroll had the opportunity to speak with Henderson while the Dodgers took batting practice at Wrigley Field. Speaking to a timeless player on a timeless field was a great opportunity for Nate and Will to get a candid look into what Henderson thinks about his past, his present, and what he sees for the game in the future.
Baseball Prospectus: You’ve been playing for a quarter-century now, something very few players have been able to approach. After a quick stop in the Atlantic League, you’re back, this time with the Dodgers. How have you lasted this long?
Rickey Henderson: I think it comes down to my work habits and my passion for the game. When I first came up, I worked hard to get better and to keep myself flexible. I had guys tell me how to keep my hamstrings healthy and I’ve never had a problem with them. Guys today are all muscle-bound, and flexibility comes in way behind strength. It’s not the same baseball game that I see out here.
BP: What’s different about the game today?
RH: It’s a power game. I see the game is changing, that there’s no place for the stolen base or the bunt. Everyone wants to be on SportsCenter, and you do that by hitting the ball in the stands, not by executing the fundamentals.
BP: Is there anyone you see in the Rickey mold today?
RH: Juan Pierre in Florida, he’s a player I like a lot. He’s got the good first step and the instincts out there when he gets on first, but most importantly, he doesn’t have any fear. He won’t steal 100 bases–I don’t think anyone will again any time soon. The home run overshadows everything–even little guys want to hit it out of the ballpark. They worry about how many home runs they have and not runs scored or driven in.
When I was coming up, I was focused as a leadoff hitter. We were taught–every position had a different role to fill. A number-two hitter had to know how to bunt, move the runner along. Leadoff hitters today don’t have the on-base percentage because they aren’t taught that way. They don’t think like we did or have someone telling them ‘get on base, work the count.’ Teams go all the way down to the pitcher trying to get a three-run homer without wondering who the two men on base are first.
BP: Will anyone approach your stolen base record?
RH: I hope not! (laughs) I don’t think there’s anyone right now that can steal enough for as long to make it. No one is going to get up to the 100s anymore or stay up in the 50s and 60s until they’re 40. Someone will get my record for leadoff home runs pretty quick.
BP: What about a guy like Alfonso Soriano as a leadoff hitter?
RH: I don’t know. (Soriano) strikes out a lot. He’d make a good number-two, number-three hitter, putting the bat on the ball. He’s got the speed and the skill, but a lot of people say he’s more like Henry Aaron than a leadoff guy. He’s got quick wrists and he can hit, that’s for sure, but he swings at everything. With some discipline, I’m sure he could do almost anything he put his mind to.
BP (motioning over at Dusty Baker, who is standing nearby, on the field): Could you see yourself doing what Dusty is doing?
RH: When I was playing in the independent leagues, I got to do a lot of teaching. I was like another coach. I liked working with those guys, showing them some of the things I’ve learned. But I don’t know that I’d have the personality to be the manager–it took a lot for Dusty Baker to get where he is. Managing is all about personality. What I’d like to do, what I’d be good at: I could be a first base coach. I’d have some great knowledge to share doing that. Show them what to do, work on reading pitchers and timing on those guys. Is there anyone you’d want more than me over there?
BP: Do you think players today have the same passion for the game?
RH: There are a lot of guys that still love the game. But (the passion that I have) has always been very rare. It’s not about the money for most of them, but it’s not about passion either. We’re losing too many good players to basketball or football. I can’t think of the last good player to come out of my hometown.
BP: How much of your success comes from your love of the game?
RH: Most of it. Most of my success comes from the love of the game. I wouldn’t have stuck around if it weren’t for passion, for love. It’s not about records or money or history, it’s just about putting on a uniform and getting on the field. I didn’t mind if it was here in Chicago or Oakland or Newark. It’s all baseball.
BP: When in your career did you start thinking about the runs record, and the stolen base record?
RH: I never thought about it at all. I never really started out with those goals. Year by year, it adds up. When I got close to them, the press let me know where I stand, but whatever happened was going to happen. I didn’t change my game to get any records. I’m proud of them, but those weren’t what kept me going.
BP: What do you think about Pete Rose? Should he be reinstated?
RH: Pete Rose did so much for the game. He was such a good player and had passion for the game but he did a bad thing. That sign’s right on the wall everywhere. He’s just got to face the consequences.
Postscript: In contrast to the lukewarm image of Henderson that has sometimes been floated in the media, he was unfailingly polite, engaging, and well-spoken throughout the course of our interview. The media hordes have left Henderson now–younger players like Sammy Sosa and Shawn Green received considerably more on-field attention that morning at Wrigley–but out of the spotlight, Henderson appeared to have achieved a tranquility and sense of being grounded that is unusual among world-class athletes. It was as though he had come full circle, taking the field as a teenager would in Boise or Modesto or the sandlots of Alameda County, just happy to be playing the game.