Say what you want about Rickey Henderson, but his love for baseball hasn't diminished.
Three years removed from his last major league game, Henderson, 46, is competing with players half his age as a member of the San Diego Surf Dawgs in the inaugural season of the independent Golden Baseball League.
"I don't need anything," said Henderson, before the first of a three-game series against the Long Beach Armada at Blair Field. "Everything I need, I've been blessed to have. The love and the passion has to be there for me to still play the game way down here."
Henderson, baseball's all-time stolen base and runs scored leader, is in his 27th professional season, earning $3,000 a month while playing in the eight-team league, featuring opponents from California, Arizona and a traveling team from Japan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Rickey Henderson -- An article in Wednesday's Sports section about baseball player Rickey Henderson said that this was his 27th season in professional baseball and that it had been three years since he played in a major league game. In fact, this is Henderson's 30th pro season and he played with the Dodgers two years ago.
While the Yankee pinstripes and A's green have been traded in for the powder blue of the Surf Dawgs, Henderson believes it is only a matter of time before he once again finds himself on a major league roster.
"I got so many tools," said Henderson, who has spent time with nine major league clubs and was the 1990 American League most valuable player with Oakland. "Dominating on base paths and controlling a game. There's nothing I can't do. I think it's a disgrace to the game of baseball how they're doing me."
Henderson, who played in a 30-game stint with the Dodgers in 2003 and has played the last two years with the independent Newark Bears, believes the only reason he isn't currently suiting up for a big league team is because baseball executives don't want to delay his Hall of Fame induction. A player cannot be enshrined until five years after his last major league game.
"If it ain't that, then give me a reason why," said Henderson, who is batting .253 with 14 stolen bases in 150 at-bats for the first-place Surf Dawgs. "[Atlanta Brave first baseman] Julio Franco's older than me. And he doesn't have the numbers I have, so they let him play. I know I can outplay him. They want to see if they can destroy me or upset me.
"They know I can make a club. They just won't give me a chance. Just give me a chance to do the things I know I can do and what I love doing."
The No. 24 on the back of the jersey and the classic compact stance remain, as does the keen eye, but the swing is a little longer, the speed a little slower. But even at Henderson's age, Surf Dawg Manager Terry Kennedy said his leadoff hitter may have one more major league stint left.
"The trip is, I stopped playing 14 years ago and he's still playing," said Kennedy, a former catcher for the Giants who broke into the majors a year before Henderson. "He loves the limelight, maybe he just loves playing. This is the life he knows best and likes best."
For Henderson's Surf Dawg teammates, the experience of playing with a future Hall of Famer has been one they won't forget.
"It's amazing," said second baseman Adam Mandel. "It's been a lot of fun the whole year. We are in a position where we can play with the best leadoff hitter of all time. I've learned a lot."
Added pitcher Aaron Wilson: "It's a treat. Rickey's always telling us stories and he's real easy going. He's just one of the guys."
Henderson said he has enjoyed his stay with the Surf Dawgs, but he hinted at retiring after the season if he doesn't receive a September call-up.
"I'm out here to stay in shape and help out these young guys," he said. "I ain't never been a quitter. I'll go out at least a winner, the same way I came in."
As the crowd of nearly 2,000 settles in at Blair Field and the sun begins its descent, No. 24 steps to the plate to begin the game for the Surf Dawgs, drawing loud applause.
He whispers into the umpire's ear and laughs after the first pitch, gets hit on the left arm on the fifth and attempts to steal second to the crowd's delight on ball four to Mandel. While Henderson is on, Armada pitcher Ryan Claypool anxiously checks the base at least three times before throwing home on every pitch.
It might be a different level, but it's the same old Rickey.