Crime Pays for Rickey Henderson, Who's (Base) Stealing His Way into the Record Book
08/23/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
Fourteen pairs of baseball cleats cover the floor of Rickey Henderson's nook in the Oakland A's locker room. The average player uses just two or three sets a year. But then the average player is not, like Henderson, hotfooting it after the single-season stolen base record. Rickey is already the only man to steal 100 bases in two separate years (1980 and this season). And at his 1982 rate of almost one swipe per game, the A's left fielder should surpass Lou Brock's mark of 118 thefts this week or next. Marvels Brock, "For him 150-200 is not out of the realm of reality. The only problem is durability."
Indeed, the 5'10", 190-pound Henderson's style seems pure kamikaze; he belly flops into bases headfirst. "I feel like I get more momentum," he explains. "When you do it right, there's less wear and tear. It's like an airplane landing—if you don't land hard, you don't bump." Though not all landings are perfect, Rickey's missed only seven games in three years.
Henderson is, at 23, what the French would call a phénomène de nature, or untutored marvel, who relies on raw speed rather than guile. That might explain why he sometimes runs himself into trouble; this year he'll also set the record for most times caught stealing in a season. Teammate Davey Lopes, who once stole 38 consecutive bases without being nabbed, has been tutoring Rickey on reading the telltale signs of trouble—the twitch of a pitcher's head, the tremor in his shoulder, the bend of his knee. Yet trying to tame Henderson may ultimately make as much sense as turning the Grand Canyon into the Sistine Chapel; every facet of his game seems homemade and eccentric. At bat, he screws into a crouch that leaves just a 12-inch strike zone and earns him an A.L.-leading number of walks. In the field, he's become so engrossed in chats with fans ("It keeps me from getting bored") that teammates have trouble getting his attention. Still, redoubtable Orioles Manager Earl Weaver has labeled Henderson "the best defensive left fielder I ever saw."
Rickey was born in Chicago, the fourth of seven children; his father left the family when Rickey was a toddler. Growing up in Oakland, Rickey started to play ball at 8, and in his junior year at Oakland Technical High he batted .716. To the dismay of his mother, Robbie, Rickey was an equally skilled running back recruited by more than a dozen colleges. "She was the one who picked baseball for me," he says. "If I was going to be a professional athlete, she wanted me to last a little longer."
Signed by Oakland out of high school, Henderson initially wanted to copy his idol, slugger Reggie Jackson. But in the minors, he realized that his fastest route to the bigs lay in burning up base paths, not hitting homers. Called up to the A's midway through 1979, Rickey already boasts a Gold Glove for fielding, the runner-up spot in the 1981 MVP voting, a career .300 batting average, and a starting position in this year's All-Star Game (yes, he stole a base that night).
With a new Mercedes 350 SL and a $225,000 town house in the Berkeley Hills, Henderson is clearly clipping the coupons of success. He is engaged to high school sweetheart Pamela Palmer, 22, a speech communications major at San Francisco State who always knew Rickey "would be a star—but I didn't know he'd shine this hard." Success has enabled him to buy his mother a house in Oakland. He also purchases a block of 50 tickets at the Oakland Coliseum for underprivileged kids; that area, in left field, is called "Henderson Heights."
The base Rickey steals to break Brock's single-season record will be his 308th in less than four years; health seems the lone hurdle between him and the career stolen base mark of 938, set by Brock over 19 seasons. Yet the only long-range goal that piques his interest is—shades of Reggie—slamming 25 home runs in a single year. Should that day come, pity the A's bank account. Sluggers, as everyone knows, are paid more than base stealers—and Henderson's grand larceny already earns him $535,000 a year.