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COMMENTARY : The Parting of Henderson and the Yankees Was Long Overdue

June 25, 1989|JOE GERGEN | Newsday

To the end, Rickey Henderson was unpredictable. At a time when the Yankees expected the uncertainty of his future to elicit a career year, the man suffered from high anxiety. Much to the team's surprise and dismay, it developed that he thought too much, not too little.

Throughout his years in the Bronx, Henderson was susceptible to muscle pulls and psychic bruises. Healthy and motivated, he was a remarkable offensive force. The flesh was strong this season; the spirit no longer was willing.

Teammates and management alike believed that the prospect of a lucrative new contract would provide inspiration even greater than the sight of Billy Martin in the manager's office. They were wrong. Instead of responding to the opportunity, he dwelled on the insecurity. The last season of the five-year pact he signed on Dec. 8, 1984, the day he was traded from his hometown team, clearly was his worst.

Henderson and the Yankees were trapped in a cycle of their own making. They weren't willing to offer the huge long-term guarantee he sought if he didn't produce at least as well as in the past. Conversely, he seemed unable to perform to that level as long as the Yankees were witholding their financial approval. The distraction had an unsettling effect on the player and the player's funk certainly wasn't helping the club.

Rather than continue the dance any longer, the Yankees shipped Henderson back to Oakland yesterday, more than two weeks before the player's announced negotiation deadline. Thus were the locals depleted by the loss of a third so-called impact player in eight months. They jettisoned Jack Clark last October for the promise of pitching yet unfulfilled. They consigned Dave Winfield to the disabled list, perhaps for the duration of the season, after he underwent back surgery. And now they have traded Henderson to the best team in the American League for relief pitchers Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk and a young leftfielder, Luis Polonia, whose past performance suggests he is capable of filling one of Rickey's shoes.

It may have been the only course open to the Yankees once George Steinbrenner decided that Henderson was not a rock upon which to rebuild the team. The player already had vetoed the notion of a transfer to the National League. Henderson's current contract status and his asking price for future considerations further restricted options. The A's have been managing quite well with a cast of supporting players but Henderson is capable of sending a jolt of electricity through a team deprived of Jose Canseco, Walt Weiss and Dennis Eckersley.

Even in an indifferent season, Henderson had scored more runs than anyone associated with the A's. In the proper frame of mind, he can turn a game with his speed, his power or both. Management in Oakland has reason to believe the return home and the chance to appear in his first World Series will provide the proper mental stimulation. It can't even be called a gamble, not with the excess of quality arms in baseball's deepest bullpen. Polonia was a pesky leadoff hitter and Oakland's foremost baserunning threat in Canseco's absence. He had 13 stolen bases, approximately half of Henderson's total.

No matter if the deal was the best the Yankees could have made under the circumstances, it left the offense weakened and the image diminished by another star. After Don Mattingly, the one true Yankee, and hustling import Steve Sax, where is the attraction? Furthermore, the pitching staff still is without an ace or a dependable rotation.

Chances are they weren't going to win in the American League East, even with Henderson at the top of his game. But the man was worth the price of admission at such times. He will surpass Lou Brock's career record for stolen bases perhaps as soon as next season. Off-year or not, he trailed the league leader in steals by one on the day of the trade. He led the AL in walks and his on-base percentage was among the best in baseball. And he's still only 30.

The man could be exasperating. Remember how in the wake of the one-game strike a few years back he was caught unawares and unconcerned back in Oakland? Although there was a new manager and coaching staff in place this spring, he took his own sweet time in reporting to training camp. Once there, he angered teammates by affixing blame for the disappointment of 1988 on the alcoholic state of unnamed Yankees.

Two years ago, there was the celebrated problem with his hamstring. He called it a "hammy" and virtually accorded it a life of its own. When Lou Piniella fumed at the amount of time Henderson was spending in the whirlpool instead of leftfield, Steinbrenner publicly aired his manager's dissatisfaction in a fit of pique, effectively undermining Piniella and sabotaging his own team. And so it went.

That particular incident was the source of Henderson's most memorable line, at least as recorded by these ears. When the Yankees returned from a road trip, Henderson walked into the manager's office and the two had a long private conversation. Upon emerging, the outfielder said there was no hostility between him and the manager, that they understood each other. His philosophy, Henderson concluded, was to "let bye-byes be bye-byes."

I thought of that yesterday and I had to smile. Piniella has become too valuable a front-office utility player for the organization to consider letting him manage again, here or in Toronto. And now Henderson is headed back to Oakland for a package that includes one of the five young players it took to complete the trade for Henderson five years ago.

So long, Rickey. Au revoir, hammy. And by all means, let bye-byes be bye-byes.

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