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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Henderson Runs Uphill, Hoping Someone Notices

May 21, 2003|Ross Newhan

NEWARK, N.J. — It is in the low 50s on a Saturday night in this seemingly endless East Coast winter, and you can count the crowd at Riverfront Stadium as Rickey Henderson, taking a detour on his way to the Hall of Fame, leads off the first inning for the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League.

The Atlantic League is an unaffiliated bus circuit that challenges truth in advertising by suggesting that it is comparable to organized baseball's double-A level.

Henderson is here at 44 to make a final -- well, maybe not final because he is talking about Japan if this doesn't work out -- pride-swallowing try to show one of the 30 major league teams that he can still perform at that level. He is about to face a pitcher from the Pennsylvania Road Warriors who wasn't yet born when Henderson stole his first professional base in 1976.

This scene, of course, seems more than a little surreal, what with baseball's record holder for walks, runs, stolen bases and leadoff homers being the only familiar name among the 18 in the two lineups. It was surpassed, however, in the realm of the unreal 24 hours earlier when Henderson, wearing shorts and an undershirt, having already left the game, came off the bench to try to catch Ketchup and Mustard in the nightly Nathan's hot dog race.

Henderson has always provided a little relish, and maybe his late entry in the hot dog race underscored his sincerity in insisting that going back to the majors, putting off retirement as he is, isn't about money or records but simply about his love of the game and his conviction that he can "still steal more bases" than anybody in either the American or National League, can still play regularly at that level.

In other words, Henderson doesn't think he has anything to apologize for if he doesn't even know the names of the eight Atlantic League teams, if one night he's in Camden for a game with the Riversharks and the next on Long Island for a game with the Ducks.

"If you enjoy playing the game, it doesn't matter where you're at," he says. "I love the game and know I can still outplay a lot of the guys up there now, and I think a lot of people know it.

"If I had gone to spring training and couldn't make a ballclub, I'd have taken off my shoes and hung them up myself. I didn't get that chance, so here I am, looking for an opportunity to compete. I mean, give me the opportunity to fail if you're so convinced I will. I'll quit if I can't compete."

It is hard to know what this is all about, hard to believe Henderson isn't fooling himself as he spreads the gospel of being Rickey and says, "Rickey can still come close to doing the things he did when he was 20." Maybe he believes that because he is blessed with that same nonfat body and still looks as he did when he was 20.

In the last two seasons, however, Henderson hit .227 in 379 at-bats with San Diego and .223 in 179 with Boston. In each case agent Jeff Borris had to work into late March before getting a team to sign him.

This time?

"I talked to every club many times over and there wasn't any interest," Borris said of the 30 big league teams. "Billy Beane [Oakland's general manager] said that if Rickey wanted to go out in an Oakland uniform [as he had come in], he would bring him in for a day in September when rosters expand. Rickey viewed that as charity and wasn't interested.

"It's like last year, when so many people asked why he didn't turn that into a farewell tour, and he simply said he wasn't retiring, wasn't close. He sincerely believes there's been no decline in his skills, that he would never embarrass himself on the field and that he can still contribute.

"Do I think he'll be in Newark for the entire year if he doesn't get a job in the big leagues? No. But do I know him to be a quitter? That's no as well. He's reminded me several times that Satchel Paige was 47 when he was a rookie and that Rickey is only 44 and in much better shape."

On Tuesday, Henderson began a pre-arranged week off to deal with personal issues. Through 16 games of a 126-game season, he was batting .314 with three steals in four attempts and was tied for the league lead in runs.

There are several independent leagues, and the Atlantic may be the most successful. Joe Klein, a long-time big league executive and scout, says that more than 100 players have been sold to major league teams in his five years as the league's executive director. Almost all of the eight teams have cozy new ballparks -- "We're preparing to expand at a time when most leagues are contracting," he added -- but it is basically a league of veteran players like Henderson and teammate Jose Lima, searching for a few more big league moments, and younger players seeking their first.

Henderson, who has homes in Oakland and the Phoenix area, receives the league maximum of $3,000 a month but estimates it costs him more than that to live in Manhattan -- he uses a car service to commute -- and help feed teammates 10 to 20 years younger.

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