No high resolution image exists...
Continued from Part 1. Click here to read.
It's one thing to gaze from afar and laud your personal heroes from your seat in the stadium. But to get a chance to not only speak with but spend 45 minutes alone with the greatest base-stealer of all-time was one of the highlights of my writing career.
The Oakland A's were my favorite baseball team when i was a kid. My first sports idol was Reggie Jackson. My second was Rickey Henderson.
For part one of this story, click here.
In this second segment of a three part story, Henderson talks about playing for the his hometown Oakland A's, the 1989 earthquake-interrupted World Series, his 1990 MVP season and playing with Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. I have also included some comments from several River Cats players, demonstrating how special it was to have Rickey come to town and work with them. Throughout the piece, I’ll call them Cats Comments.
CC: “It’s amazing just to have him around. I listen to him and take whatever he has to say and take what I can get from him while he’s here.” – Eric Sogard
Ever since I saw my first ballgame in 1968 — Jackson’s first full year — I was hooked: his mighty swing that made it appear he was screwing himself into the ground, the towering shots that gracefully made their way over the right field wall. Early on, he even had a great arm that few would test.
Even eventual superstars have their heroes when they’re young. It was then I found out that mine was the same as Henderson’s.
However, Henderson went to greater lengths to meet his idol than I ever did.
“We would sneak into the ballpark and take a look at the guys, and Reggie Jackson was such a hot commodity that he made me excited about the game,” Henderson said.
I played Little League for seven years. I was left-handed like Reggie. I used to practice my swings to imitate him. I yearned to be Reggie.
And so did Henderson.
“I wanted to be Reggie Jackson,” he said. “I wanted to play like Reggie Jackson. I wanted to swing like Reggie Jackson. He was my idol. The only things that changed me was when I got in A-Ball. I was swinging like Reggie and striking out a lot, so I had to tell myself that I can’t hit like Reggie because I’m striking out too much. So I developed my own style and my own stance, and I got in the habit of knowing that I was a leadoff hitter and not the fourth hitter. I wasn’t going to be hitting all the home runs like he was.”
As a kid, Henderson tried, like most hardcore sports fans, to get his idol’s signature on something he could worship for years to come. The constant pursuit of Jackson’s autograph took a long time to accomplish. The story is one for the ages.
“I was one of those kids that used to wait out after the ballgames and try to get his autograph, but he was the type of player that an autograph wasn’t a big thing for him,” Henderson said. “So he would never give me an autograph. He would say hello or give me a pin or something with his name on it but never an autograph.”
Staying out too long after the game got little Rickey in a little bit of trouble with his mama.
“I’d be coming home late and my mom would be spanking me here and there and asking me what the hell I was doing out so late,” he said. “I’d tell her that I was waiting outside for Reggie Jackson, but he’s always the last one to come outside. And when I get him outside, he don’t give me an autograph! I’m pissed off at him.”
It was a turning point for Henderson’s career path.
“I would say that he gave me that: making me want it. He made me want to be a ballplayer so that I could show him I was that kid.”
Once Henderson got called up to the bigs, getting that hand-written name was one of his biggest goals. Would he finally get his hero’s signature on something?
“We got to go play the Yankees in New York. He was in the cage. He was always one of the last guys to get out in the cage, so I got dressed real quick and ran out there. I got to see Reggie Jackson hit. I got to go out there and talk to Reggie Jackson.”
Just listening to Henderson talk about him, you can tell how much reverence he has for his idol. Every time he mentions his name, he uses his full name, Reggie Jackson. Every time.
“Now remember, I never could get an autograph as a kid, and when I got called up, I never got to see him because he went to New York. So we’re in New York and I’m the left fielder. I made it! So I’m going to tell Reggie Jackson that I was that little kid that asked him for his autograph all the time and he never gave it.”
You would think, at this point, there would be some kind of mutual respect or brotherhood type of thing that would garner Henderson his long overdue signature. Not a chance. Not yet at least.
“I told him I was playing left field today, and he straightened up his cap and said, ‘Let me tell you something, young man. When I come up to the plate, I want you to back up because I hit the ball a long way, and I don’t want you to embarrass yourself.’
“I said, ‘Reggie, I’m that kid that they talk about that has so much speed.’”
So there he was. Already a young, brash kid who wasn’t going to back down from anyone, even his childhood hero.
“Since you told me that, here’s what I’m going to do,” Henderson told Jackson. “When you come up to the plate, I’m going to run all the way in and get closer.”
Jackson immediately snapped back.
“Oh, no, no, no. You can’t do that. You can’t do that,” Jackson replied, according to Henderson.
“I said, ‘Yeah, unless you hit the ball out of the ballpark, I’m going to run it down.’”
The gauntlet had been thrown down, the challenge issued.
“We did that at batting practice, so I went in and got dressed for the game. The first three guys come up — one out, two outs, three outs. I come back out for the second and Reggie’s leading off.”
Let the games begin.
“So I’m out at regular depth and all of a sudden notice that Reggie is at the plate,” Henderson said. “I go run in just like I said I would. Reggie looks out at me. I think it was a 2-2 pitch, and he drove it right to left-center. When the ball left the bat, all I did was sprint. I put my head down, looked up one time and sprinted again. The ball was coming on a bead. I caught the ball backhanded right at the end of my glove. It freaked me out because he drove it and I caught it!”
There was no way Jackson thought Henderson had a chance to reel it in.
“He was boogieing and, because he had thought he had a double, he was pulling into second base. He looked up at me, stood on second base and donned his cap to me.”
In baseball, that is the most respect one ballplayer can show another.
“So, what happened when I saw him after the game and asked if I could finally get an autograph? Well, he gave me the autograph.”
CC: “He’s awesome! He’s a good guy to have in the clubhouse.” – Josh Horton
“I Tell You What, We’re Having an Earth-----”
The matchup Bay Area fans waited a lifetime to see finally happened in 1989. The Oakland A’s took out the Toronto Blue Jays in the same fashion the San Francisco Giants dismantled the Chicago Cubs that postseason by winning four of five during the Championship Series.
The stage was set for what was to be known as the “Bay Bridge Series.” It was the brash Will Clark and powerful Kevin Mitchell versus the “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. Both teams had excellent starting pitching that season, as well as a solid relief crew.
But only one team had Henderson.
Henderson was chosen as the ALCS MVP that year and he put up the numbers against the Blue Jays: a .400 batting average, two home runs, 5 RBI, seven walks and eight stolen bases.
Too bad that’s not what Bay Area residents remember when they think of 1989.
After the A’s won the first two games at home handily, outscoring the Giants 10-1, the series shifted to San Francisco for Game 3.
“We had already beaten the Giants twice and were feeling pretty confident,” Henderson said. “We felt like we were going to win.”
And why not? With Bob Welch and his 3.00 ERA slated to start Game 3, confidence was at an all-time high.
Many of the A’s had made their way out onto the diamond getting ready for the pre-game festivities. But not Henderson. He was in the clubhouse using the facilities.
And then it happened.
“So I sit down to use the restroom and all of a sudden the building is shaking, and it seemed like there was a lot of rumbling going on, a lot of noise. So as I sit there in the restroom, I’m thinking, man, this is exciting! The fans are really getting excited about the game, so let me hurry up and get back outside.”
Henderson had no idea what was about to come.
“All of a sudden, someone comes running in and said, ‘You’ve got to out of here. we’re having an earthquake!’ I was like, what? I didn’t have a clue what was going on outside. So when I stepped outside, I was shocked!”
Teammates had already feverishly snatched their loved ones out of the stands and were milling about in the middle of the field, away from any possible falling debris. Tears were seen rolling down the cheeks of several of the players’ wives and loved ones.
“Most of my teammates had never been in an earthquake and were scared and shocked at what was going on. Then I’m saying that this stuff happens all the time. This is just a rumble for us.”
Little did Henderson or the rest of the people on the field that fateful day know what was going on outside the Coliseum. Once ABC came back on air, the pictures of the devastation in the surrounding areas came pouring in to the dismay of everyone in attendance.
“There was more hurt for us when we really found out what happened,” he continued. “The bridge collapse and all the people that passed away. That was the sad part about it. You know, we were so up for the game. It was a chance for the Bay Area to have both of their clubs play in the World Series and one of them to bring the trophy home. The whole Bay Area was excited. It was one of those times there were A’s fans and Giants fans all coming together, but then we had a major tragedy.”
The quake lasted for 10 to 15 seconds and was a 6.9 on the Richter scale. Sixty-three people died and 3,757 were injured. Estimates of up to 12,000 people were left homeless.
When the live pictures started coming in from the news helicopters, the pictures told a devastating story.
Part of the Bay Bridge had collapsed and a 1.25-mile section of Interstate 80 in the Oakland area known as the “Cypress Freeway” had fallen and was stacked upon itself, crushing many people caught in rush-hour traffic.
Luckily, less than half of the expected crowd had taken their seats, as most were still filing into Candlestick Park or in a concession line. One still wonders if the upper deck would have come crashing down if it had been full when the massive quake struck.
Instead of getting the customary — at the time — one day off in between games, the Loma Prieta Earthquake forced the series to take an 11-day sabbatical. The A’s used that time wisely.
“Before we came back for Game 3, we went to Arizona to practice,” Henderson said. “The Giants had the opportunity to go to but decided to stay in the Bay Area. They really didn’t get in as much work as we did, so we were prepared. We were so prepared and really happy the series was going to resume.”
To this day, Henderson wonders why the Giants didn’t make the trip.
“Once we got back from Arizona, it seemed like they were still in shock. As soon as we got on the field, we were ready to play. The Giants didn’t seem like they were ready for it. The next thing you know, we beat them the third game and then beat them in the fourth game."
Being an A’s fan, I clearly remember ‘Frisco skipper Roger Craig saying it wasn’t fair that Oakland could use their two aces again. Funny. Craig could have done the same thing as Tony LaRussa. Problem was, his best two starters weren’t as good as the A’s top two guys. And the A’s knew it.
“Their excuse was that if they didn’t have the earthquake, they would've beaten us,” Henderson said. “Even though it wasn’t something they could complain about, we did have an advantage. We could use our top two starters again and they were better than their first two starters.
“The whole thing about it was that it was such an odd year. What was so strange is that every game in spring training we beat the Giants. Every game. So we play the season and all of a sudden the Giants get to the World Series and we say, no way this can be happening, because they never beat us. So our confidence was so high, and that’s what helped us win the series.”
CC: “I’ve been around a few Hall of Fame players, and they can be a little standoffish and think they’re above it all, but Rickey gets right in there. He’s willing to help and give us any kind of tidbits he can come up with, and he’s willing to share it, anything he can offer. You have to be like a sponge and soak it up.” – Matt Carson
In 1990, Henderson picked up his one and only American League MVP award. Even though he missed almost 30 games because of injury, he put up some fantastic numbers: 119 runs scored, 33 doubles, 28 homers, 65 stolen bases, 97 walks, a .325 batting average, a .577 slugging percentage and, maybe most astonishing of all, a 1.016 on-base percentage. Truly incredible numbers.
“That year was such a great year,” he said. “I think I started off hot. I had never had a great start. I was seeing the pitches and was really driving the ball out of the ballpark well.”
That season Cecil Fielder nearly doubled the home run and RBI output of Henderson. With an astonishing 51 HRs and 1,323 RBI, Fielder seemed poised to take the award.
“I had no idea that I had a chance to win the MVP because that year I think he hit 50 home runs. It was something that, as a player, you never expect is going to happen. It happened and everything went well that year”
In the end, it was Henderson’s overall performance that gave him the honor, although much of the other competition for the award was from members of his own team. Unbelievably, the season ended with six of the top 12 vote-getters in Kelly green and gold.
“We were always a real scrappy club, and we always manufactured runs any way we could. The bottom of the lineup decided they knew how to get on the base paths, and it gave me the opportunity to really see some more fastballs and pitches I could handle and drive out of the ballpark.”
CC: “He’s preaching more than anything to have fun when we’re playing. For me, I thought I was pretty laid back, but you see him and you say you got to take it to another level.” – Adrian Cardenas
The Bash Brothers
While winning the MVP trophy was about as cool as it could get, being in a lineup every day with two of the most feared hitters in baseball at the time was an honor in itself.
In 1990, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were collectively the heavy lumber that struck fear into the eyes of opposing pitchers. McGwire and Canseco blasted 39 and 37 home runs respectively and both went over the 100 RBI plateau.
It was all a leadoff guy could ask for.
“There really wasn’t nothing much better than that,” Henderson said. “You had two guys that could drive the ball out of the ballpark, two guys that were feared at the plate. And then you had a guy (Henderson) to begin the lineup that you had to get on base and use the base paths, so there was always an opportunity to get the guys into scoring position and score runs in any given inning. That’s the fear we put in our opponents. It boosted up everybody. With them and all those home runs, it made everybody feel like they could go out and hit one.”
For the players, it was more than that. These guys really liked each other.
“We tried to do more things together. Instead of just going out in the field together, we would have dinner arrangements and we’d go to other people’s moms’ houses. We were more of a family type, and I think that’s what made it so good, because instead of just taking it out on the field, we did it as a lifestyle.”
Not having to play to a big stage, like what Henderson experienced his first time in New York, also played a key role in the players being able to focus and play well.
“I think it was an easier way to jell. In a big market, they would expect so much, but here in Oakland, they were not really expecting that much. We really didn’t have the pressure of going out there and being the best. All we had to do was go out there and play.”
In part three next Sunday evening, Rickey talks about playing in New York, an unlikely ally in the Big Apple and trying to end his career on his own terms.