It kind of figured, with all the strange karma swirling around Shea stadium these days, that the New York Mets would choose last Saturday’s promotional camera day for the unforgettable photo op of having the entire baseball world watch as they awkwardly and unceremoniously dumped disgruntled leadoff employee Rickey Henderson from their high-priced but (to this quarter-season mark at least) still frightfully low-yield roster. While no one he’s ever played for in his 21 Major League years has failed to notice (and been forced to make do with) the fact that Henderson has always eased on down the diamond to the beat of a different drummer, his failure to adhere to the incontrovertible baseball imperative of keeping one’s eye on the ball last Friday night—with his oops-it’s-not-a-home-run, off-the-wall single—was apparently the proverbial last straw for general manager Steve Phillips and manager Bobby Valentine. With both of them facing their own unconditional releases at the end of this year if the team doesn’t live up to playoff-qualifying expectations, and unable to officially push the panic button just yet (the calendar usually has to at least say June before that can happen), it was clearly any scapegoat in the storm—and why not with a gazillion shutterbugs around to record it?
Not that Henderson wasn’t acting the part with plenty of sour relish to go with his pathetic stats (a .219 average, but one extra base hit, and all of two runs batted in 121 plate appearances). Ever since his clubhouse pinochle party during the waning moments of last year’s playoff finale with the Johnny Appleseed of bad vibes, Bobby Bonilla, the future Hall of Famer seemed determined to do whatever was necessary to get his walking papers—mostly by shooting his mouth off (“Rickey ain’t doin’ Japan”; “Rickey don’t need no days off”)—and all in the name of a $4 million, two-year contract he signed before the ’99 season that, midway through, he decided just wasn’t equitable enough. Could the Mets have rewarded him for his pleasantly surprising .315, 30 2B, 12 HR, 42 RBI, 37 SB performance last year with some kind of bonus or extension? Absolutely. Did they have to? Absolutely not.
That’s called business, but apparently Henderson viewed it as strictly funny business. He spent an inordinate amount of time this season moaning about the great misdeeds against him regarding not being able to get into a proper rhythm because of diminished playing time—even though the record shows that he started 29 of the Mets’ first 38 games, putting him on a (forgive the word) pace for 123 games, almost exactly the number (121) he appeared in last year. Still, perception is reality, isn’t it? And even though he continually claimed he wasn’t dogging it, the recurring image of him this year was lackadaisical hitting, lethargic baserunning, and, most troubling, a distinct lack of proficiency in reaching batted balls headed his way in the outfield. Last Friday he finally went over the line, obliviously going into a home-run trot on a fly ball that, unfortunately, didn’t come close to going over the fence—thus leaving him on first base with one of the longer singles in Met history.
Keeping with the Camera Day theme, then, some snapshots from Henderson’s last day as a New York Met: clowning around with the Shea faithful during the team’s touchy-feely, meet-‘n’-shoot photofest; bursting into a tirade against a Post reporter for using the word “loaf” to describe Henderson’s base-path gaffe (“I’d put you on your ass, but I got too much respect for people”); backpedaling from all responsibility for his baserunning blunder (“I hit it out, but it didn’t go out. . . . If Mookie [first base coach Mookie Wilson] had told me to look up, I would’ve been on second base”); and finally, reacting to the news that the Mets had released him with the immortal, curtain-falling final words: “I got myself other things to do. . . . I got to boogie.” Suffice it to say that Valentine had hit the nail right on the head earlier in the day when, asked if he thought Henderson was a 41-year-old thinking he was still 30, the manager raised his eyebrows a bit and replied, “Try 12.”
Ironically, there was a kind of bizarre symmetry to it all. Watching Henderson trot out to left field last Saturday to enter what proved to be his last game in a Mets uniform, as—of all things—a ninth-inning, double-switched defensive replacement, one couldn’t help but think back to the sight of him glumly trotting in from the outfield after being ignominiously removed from the lineup for those same purposes during last fall’s playoffs against Atlanta. In that game, you’ll recall, Valentine failed to tell Henderson between innings that he had been pulled—a diplomatic faux pas in which Henderson had to be told on the field that his services with a baseball glove were no longer needed that day. It forced Henderson to bear the humiliation of leaving the field in front of over 50,000 fans and countless millions watching on TV. And while Valentine apologized, considering the frost that relentlessly built up between them from that day forward, the apology clearly fell on deaf ears. Either that or the little voice that Henderson always seems to have going between those ears simply never felt like listening. As they say, pride goeth before the fall.