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THE BEST LEADOFF MAN EVER? : Henderson's Play Changes the Game

May 14, 1987|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In the off-Broadway theater that is Yankee Stadium, and elsewhere in the American League, he is described as a "one-man show, the most perfect player we've seen in years."

That was the way a New York Yankee executive named Billy Martin put it when asked about center fielder Rickey Henderson, whom he formerly managed with the Yankees and Oakland A's.

Others have described Henderson as the greatest leadoff hitter ever, an extraordinary blend of strength and stealth who is often forced to operate here in the publicity shadow of George Steinbrenner, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Bernard Goetz and the New York Mets.

Henderson himself may be partly to blame for that.

In happened in April 1985, his first season with the Yankees. An ankle injury had forced him to open the year on rehabilitation assignment at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Finally, eager to test the ankle and get on with his new career, he reported to Yankee Stadium, encountered a horde of reporters and said, "I don't need no press today."

The line has haunted Henderson, but not in the destructive manner that Henderson has haunted the opposition, disrupting rhythms and strategies with that rare combination of power and speed.

The best leadoff hitter ever?

Henderson smiled and said, "I hear people say that and I have to accept their word. As a kid I learned more about football. I'm still studying my baseball history."

Said Yankee Manager Lou Piniella: "There's no question but that he's the best I've ever seen. He's unique in that he could hit second, third, fourth or fifth. He's found a home in the leadoff position because of his ability to steal."

At 27, four years after stealing 130 bases for the A's to set a single-season record, Henderson has stolen 17 bases in 17 attempts this season to lead the American League. Last year, when he led the league for a seventh consecutive season to move to within two seasons of Luis Aparicio's all-time record, Henderson set a Yankee record with 87 steals.

He now has a career total of 677 to rank 11th on the all-time list. At his current average of 83 a year, he would eclipse Lou Brock's record of 938 early in 1990, when he will be 31.

"My goal is to be the first to achieve 1,000 steals, and Lou is on the way," Henderson said. "If I play seven or eight years after that, I should get to 1,500. It depends on injuries, but I haven't lost any quickness."

It is Henderson's ability to steal at will, to intimidate pitchers and unnerve defenses, that is his forte, but in his own words, he is now doubly dangerous, having learned to drive many of the pitches he used to take because of a belief that it was the leadoff man's job to walk.

Henderson hit 24 homers in 1985, his first year with the Yankees, and a career-high 28 last year, including a league-record nine leading off a game.

He has seven homers this season, which ties him for the team lead with Winfield and is four more than Mattingly has hit. Three of the seven have been game openers, improving his career total to a league record 31.

Said Martin: "Rickey Henderson can dominate a game from the leadoff position. He can carry a club when he's hot. Maybe Tim Raines (now hitting third for the Montreal Expos) can as well, but he doesn't have Henderson's power. There's nothing Rickey can't do now. I've never seen him play better than he has this year."

A .290 career hitter, Henderson and Kansas City's Kevin Seitzer are tied for second in the league in batting with .345 averages. Henderson is first in on-base percentage at .451, first in runs with 30 in his 30 games and fifth in walks with 23.

In his first two seasons with the Yankees, he scored 276 runs, leading the league each season. His 146 in 1985 were the most by any player since Ted Williams had 150 in 1949. Henderson appeared in 143 games that year and became the first player since Joe DiMaggio in 1939 to average more than a run per game.

Sitting in the Yankee dugout after taking early batting practice the other day, Henderson said the perfect season would be 100 steals, 145 runs, a .330 average and 30 home runs.

He may be in the process of producing it, as well as directing the Yankees toward a playoff berth, his primary goal since he has never been on a championship team--other than when Oakland won a half pennant in the 1981 strike season--and yearns to put what he calls "Rickey Time" in the national spotlight.

Rickey Time is defined as a man moving at his own pace and in his own style.

Some see it as arrogance, calling Henderson a hotdog. They cite his strut, the one-handed catch he calls a snatch, the tendency to smirk at pitchers when he's taking his lead at first base, the little strolls in objections to the calls of the plate umpire, the downtown style with which he wears his uniform.

Said Angel Manager Gene Mauch: "He can get on your nerves. He can infuriate the opposition. It's part of his game."

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