Monday, January 12, 2009

Remembering the start of Rickey Henderson's Hall of Fame career

When I heard the news earlier today that Rickey Henderson had been elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame, I had a flashback to the first time I saw him play for the A’s.

It was 1979, and the A’s were in the midst of a 54-108 season. I was at the Coliseum with a handful of fans, enjoying the plentiful elbowroom when Henderson, then just 20 years old, came to bat. I’m not saying I knew then that he was destined to become a first ballot Hall of Famer and the best leadoff hitter in baseball history, but there was something about him that caught my eye.

First, there was that body. He was built like an NFL running back, compact, muscular and powerful. Then there was that batting stance, his right leg coiled, and his upper body angled sharply, putting his head all but over the inside corner of the plate.

When Henderson made contact, the ball exploded off his bat. And when he left the box, he shot down the line as if he were a world-class sprinter coming out of the blocks.

In 89 games that season, Henderson stole 33 bases, scored 49 runs, drew 34 walks drove in 26 runs and hit .274 with one home run and 13 doubles. He was just warming up.

Henderson stole 100 bases and scored 111 runs in 1980, his first full season in the majors. He walked 117 times, drove in 53 runs and hit .303 with nine homers and 22 doubles.

When his career finally ended after the 2003 season, with Henderson still campaigning for another shot, he had stolen more bases (1,406) and scored more runs (2,295) than anyone else in baseball history. He had also walked 2,190 times, second on the all-time list, collected 3,055 hits and slugged 297 home runs, a ridiculous number for a lead-off hitter.

No other leadoff hitter before or after Rickey had his combination of extraordinary speed, power, base-stealing instincts, batting eye and hitting stroke. No wonder he earned 94.8 percent of the vote in a Hall of Fame that clearly has the toughest standards in sports.

Looking back, I guess it didn’t take too long for all of us to see this day coming.


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