“Rickey, you got no arm!” yells leather-lunged fan Tom Gallagher. The fan has been riding the Newark Bears left fielder since the first inning, and he’s finally gotten a reaction from Rickey Henley Henderson.
Having been dissed for the 113th time in his Atlantic League debut, the man who had crossed home plate more times than any other pulls his right arm into his Newark Bears jersey and lets his sleeve flop around as if he were the guy who killed Richard Kimble’s wife in The Fugitive.
The crowd erupts. Rickey draws more belly laughs than the rent-a-clowns roaming the stands.
The next inning, Gallagher’s back at it. “Rickey! Rickey!” he baits, until Henderson glances in his direction. “Rickey! Pay attention to the game!”
Eight bucks to heckle a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Not bad.
The left fielder is the greatest player in the short history of the new Newark Bears. (The old Newark Bears of 1937 featured Joe Gordon and Charlie Keller and is considered by many the greatest minor-league team of all time.) Still, the team’s media notes damn Henderson with faint praise, calling him “arguably the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history.” Arguably? Henderson owns major-league records for runs scored (a record formerly held by Ty Cobb), bases on balls (a record formerly held by Babe Ruth), leadoff home runs, career stolen bases, and single-season stolen bases. No fan who’s ever cracked open Total Baseball argues that baseball has ever seen a better leadoff hitter.
The real question, of course, is why Henderson is in New Jersey riding buses and taking abuse. At age 44, he’s old enough to be the dad of a lot of his Bears teammates, and a lot of major leaguers as well.
He’s not doing it for the money. Last year, he made a near minimum $350,000 from the Boston Red Sox, hardly an incentive for a guy who was once the highest-paid player in baseball. And as a Bear he’ll earn $3,000 a month.
And unlike Jose Canseco, who spent the summer of 2001 in Newark as a stepping-stone to the White Sox and an ultimately unsuccessful bid to hit 500 homers and a place in Cooperstown, Rickey’s not on a record run. He already owns several records and has collected his 3,000 hits. The only Cooperstown question is what cap he’ll wear. Sure, he still has his sights set on 300 home runs—he has 295—but even Rickey knows that it’s really irrelevant to his place in history.
Why is Rickey still playing? Rickey is still playing because Rickey wants to play. And while Rickey’s not the 130-steal Rickey of 1980, or the MVP Rickey of 1990, Rickey can still play. Last year, playing for the Red Sox, Rickey had a better on-base percentage than Johnny Damon, and even now Rickey’s old-school training regimen—nothing but push-ups and sit-ups—has kept him in a condition that Mo Vaughn could only dream about.
Rickey’s detractors, and there are plenty of them, have always latched on to two things: his Rickey-first attitude and his I-hit-it-out-but-it-didn’t-go-out effort level. But here he is in the low minors, ready for the long bus rides, and willing to step aside for younger teammates—on opening night he let manager Bill Madlock pinch-hit for him, and Mike Piercy scorched a game-winning single. But this isn’t about rehabbing his image—once a jaker always a jaker, the critics will claim.
It’s simpler than that. It’s baseball season. “This is not a bad way to spend the summer,” Henderson tells an out-of-town reporter. “It’s like people asking me, ‘What’re you gonna do for your vacation?’ This is my vacation, doing what I love most. It beats the Bahamas.” Newark beats the Bahamas. Someone call the Chamber of Commerce.
** As the innings roll on in the left-field stands, everyone wants a piece of Rickey. And he’ll give it to them, albeit on his own terms. During a pitching change, Rickey ambles over to the left-field bleachers and makes small talk.
“You doin’ all right?” he asks a nine-year-old boy who’s too shy to reply. “You play good?”
Others aren’t shy at all. Rob Maddux from Nashville, who claims to be Greg Maddux’s sixth cousin, whips out his cell phone and calls his buddy Jerome Bagwell in Tennessee. Bagwell—no relation to Jeff—is a big Rickey fan, and he wears No. 24 in his beer league softball team in Henderson’s honor.
“Hold on and I’ll see if I can get Rickey to say hello to you,” Maddux says into the phone.
“Can you say hello to my friend?” he implores Henderson, while trying to hand him the cell.
“I’m playing a game, man,” Henderson says dismissively.
“I probably shouldn’t have done it,” Maddux admits later.
Fans proffer balls to Henderson. He declines politely.
“He’s going to sign them after the game,” says fan Ana Santos. This is of course the biggest lie this side of “The check is in the mail.” “I think it’s great he’s here,” she adds. “He loves the game.”
“What do you mean he loves the game?” counters her friend John Olivera. “He comes from the major leagues to the minor leagues? He’s a scrub.”
Rickey makes a sliding catch of a hot liner. Tom Gallagher, who’s been harassing Rickey since Henderson played at Yankee Stadium in the mid 1980s, doesn’t miss a beat. “Rickey,” he shouts, “you got no arm, but you still got legs!”
Rickey smiles, picks up the right leg that led him to 1,403 steals and displays it like a Rockette.
The county executive, Joe DiVincenzo, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, implores Gallagher to go easy on Rickey. He’s only half-joking. “We want to keep him around for a while,” says DiVincenzo.
But Gallagher got his wish: Rickey noticed him. “I had one guy out there, he’s about 50 years old. He’s just a heckler. He must have been following me since I played,” Henderson laughed after the game. “He was messing around talking trash. About the Yankees, Mets, everything. There’s always going to be one out there.”
If this the beginning of the end for baseball’s most misunderstood star, it’s somehow apropos. In his New Yorker essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” John Updike watched another great left fielder, Ted Williams, circle the bases for the last time while hardly acknowledging the Fenway fans. “Gods do not answer letters,” Updike wrote. Rickey Henderson has been called many things, but never a god. And even now, especially now, he’s not above mixing it up with naive fans, starstruck kids, and one guy who doesn’t quite know when to shut up.