Rickey Henderson is a thief, a man whose biggest accolades came from stealing during his quarter-decade Major League career. His latest prized acquisition, however, encompasses all those years he instilled fear of when he’d strike next.
Henderson was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday. It was the 50-year-old’s first time on the ballot. Henderson will go in as an Oakland Athletic, one of 10 teams he played for between 1979 and 2003.
Henderson’s path to the Hall started once the Boston Red Sox released him in April 2002. At the time, he struggled like a .200 hitter in Single-A to get another chance to play in the majors. All 30 teams passed. Passed? On the sport’s all-time stolen base leader? The man who’s crossed home plate more times than any other in the game’s history? How could they?
It was simple: no one thought he still had it.
Rickey knew he was better than most guys sitting on the bench at the big league level. He’s a smart man, not naive, one to project he’s the greatest of all time, then come close to proving himself right. So instead of taking his millions of dollars and moving to isolation, Rickey went about as low as he could go to work his way back.
In the spring of 2004, Henderson inked a contract to play for the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League. It was a deal that paid him $3000 a month to play in half-filled stadiums with players not even close to as talented, even at over half his age.
On a conference call shortly after the signing, Henderson said his goal with the Bears was simple: to prove he’s still belongs in the major leagues.
“I think it boils down to myself,” Henderson said. “I would back down if I felt like I couldn’t play, but if I don’t get an opportunity how am I supposed to show that I still can?”
Henderson didn’t want just any deal to leave the Atlantic League. Most guys there would jump at the chance to play in the minors, but Henderson wanted a Major League contract, nothing less.
“I’m not here to prove anything. I just love the game,” Henderson said.
But he was there to prove something and he did. Through 56 games in 2003, Henderson batted .339 with eight home runs and 33 RBI. He was a fan favorite, the All-Star Game MVP, an all-around great guy to be around. There was no ego, no isolation, just Rickey being Rickey. (He was once tossed from a game and afterwards told me, “He don’t even know what he threw me out for.” Maybe it was the kiss you blew to him?)
The Los Angeles Dodgers took notice to Henderson’s stats and extended him an offer. Henderson hit just .208 with two home runs in 30 appearances for the Dodgers before a shoulder injury ended his season. He had surgery on it in October of that year, which scared teams that were already not interested even further away.
So Henderson returned to the Bears in 2004 and didn’t receive one bite. He moved on to the Golden League in 2005, still nothing. The future Hall of Famer was being told he’s done, only this time he started to believe them.
Players are eligable for the Hall of Fame five years after their last season in the majors. Henderson never held a flashy press conference to announce his retirement. He just kind of stopped playing — always holding out hope that someone would toss him a jersey and tell him to take the field.
“What you do in life is all about enjoyment,” Henderson told me one time.
Henderson loved playing, every minute of it. It was a game that gave up on him when he didn’t give up on it. And after years of telling him to take his millions and go away, he listened to the baseball folks. Maybe they should have listened to him a little more.
The game is once again showing Rickey the respect he deserves.