Adapted from Ricky: The Life and Legend of an American Original, Howard Bryant. Copyright © 2022 Howard Bryant. From Mariner Books, HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.
On April 25, 2001, with the season only three weeks long and the country entering the last months of its life before September 11, 42-year-old Ricky Nelson Henley Henderson won the fourth ball during his second stint with the Padres. lead in the bottom of the ninth against Jose Mesa of the Phillies. It was the 2063rd free kick of his career and with it Ricky overtook Babe Ruth to become the all-time leader in walks.
Later that year, on October 4, 2001, at the end of the third half against the Dodgers, Rickey entered the box at Qualcomm Stadium. Draw: Ricky vs. Luke Prokopek, born 1978. The day before, the Dodgers had beaten the Padres 12–5. There wasn’t much to see there – except that when Ricky got through and hit in the third inning, the run tied him with Ty Cobb for the record lead. Now, again in the third, Prokopets tried to get the fastball past the old man. The squat wasn’t as deep as before, but Ricky turned and connected.
Three days later on October 7, in teammate Tony Gwynn’s final game, Ricky hit a double on the right against John Thomson of the Rockies, a small dead fish in his first bat on the first pitch he saw. He scored 3,000 hits, making Ricky the 25th player in history to reach the sacred plateau.
The numbers were too big to ignore. The history to which he now returned and touched, the names whose real estate he now shared. Ricky was on the top bunk with Ruth… Cobb… Mays… Williams… Aaron. He was a member of the 3,000 hits club—Williams and Ruth never made it. These players became the backbone of the sport, and in 2001 Ricky, still an active player, had been the all-time king of stolen bases for a decade. That season, he even did something that should not have been possible, and yet it was possible. From Ricky’s major league debut on June 24, 1979 through the end of the 2001 season, he stole 1,395 bases. During the same period, the Boston Red Sox franchise stole 1,382 bases. Ricky didn’t just steal more bases than any other player in his career, he stole an entire team.
Ricky was backed up by numbers – now he’s a real guy – so stories were told about him. He has become the most unique, most untouchable character – an American treasure and a living part of baseball folklore in the tradition of Satchel Page and Yogi Berra. What once frustrated him now made him a character – and everyone laughed in unison. He was no longer self-absorbed because he couldn’t remember names – he was just Ricky. People who knew him told stories about him, and people who did not repeat the tales they heard were too good not to repeat them. People who had never met Ricky spoke of him with a confidence that emphasized his omnipresence. His legend was a baseball legend.
And now their eyes lit up when they heard his name.
Formidable Red Sox slugger Mo Won called Ricky “Gaz” because, according to Mo, “walking him was like pouring gasoline on a fire.” Ball four and Ricky runs first. Mo will be there, with a boulder of gum puffing out one cheek.
What happened, Gaz?
“How are you baby”.
Ricky took a few steps towards second place, and Vaughn’s manager – no matter which one, Butch Hobson, Kevin Kennedy, Jimmy Williams – began to get nervous. The same can be said for pitchers, even underdogs like Roger Clemens, who could render baseball runners useless simply by beating someone who was at bat. Vaughn recalls a familiar pattern: the manager ordered him to quit first. Ricky dived back, and Mo slapped his skin. Another throw, another retreat to the first one, another wave of the gauntlet from Mo. Again. And again. Finally, Ricky played for time, stepped out of the dust cloud, dried himself and looked at Vaughn. “He said: “Dog, I have to go. He makes me so tired, throwing here! And then Ricky will steal second place. Another time, when Riki was first, Mo lightly slapped him on the thigh with his glove, respecting the legend. “What’s up, Gaz? Are you going?” “You know what I am.” And then Ricky left.
There was a time, in 1990 or 1991, at the end of a game, when the manager, either Stump Merrill or Bucky Dent, was handing out instructions. Buck Showalter coached the Yankees. “Ricky hit us and he made us play defense without doubles,” Showalter recalls. Line security. Don’t give up on something big. Don’t let him get into a winning position. then [Don] Mattingly turns around and shouts into the dugout, “What for? If he gets a single, IT’S A DOUBLE ANYWAY!” ”
On May 30, 1994, the A’s made their first trip of the season to Toronto. The team bus pulled out of the Toronto Sheraton Hotel, rolled down Spadina Avenue, and rumbled into the SkyDome, passing a billboard on Blue Jays Way containing just three elements: a photo of an inspired Joe Carter, the date of his epic home run, and the date his epic home run. the moment the ball landed on the seats and Toronto became the champion. No other words. The billboard prompted a question that was bouncing on Bus A as it entered the stadium: “Where were you when Joe Carter hit the home run?” Players, coaches and staff recalled their whereabouts from start to finish at baseball’s most famous moment in Canada. Dave Feldman, a statistician for KRON-TV, TV affiliate A, said he sat on the couch watching the game in his San Francisco apartment, completely stunned. Then came new voices and new memories. Then a lone voice boomed from the back of the bus. “I WAS AT SECOND BASE!”
It was Ricky.
Stories from life. One from 1973 that became a legend, but it’s not exactly true: Ricky Henderson, a newly minted sophomore and local legend, was dropped from the Oakland Tech Baseball team.
New baseball coach Bob Cryer was a driving and training instructor at Tech. It was rumored that Cryer knew nothing about baseball and was probably not the first to choose the school as a team coach, but he was the only one who said yes. Before anyone reached, caught, or kicked the ball, Cryer literally picked his varsity team by lottery, picking kids at random. (“You, and you, and you are in the SP.”) One of the children sent to the SP field was Ricky. “Ricky was the legend of Babe Ruth,” recalls Ricky’s best friend Fred Atkins. “We all told him that he was making a mistake, that Ricky belonged at the university.” While the players begged Cryer that Ricky didn’t belong at the kid’s table, 15-year-old Ricky interrupted his new coach, a grown man, in mid-sentence and told him, “You don’t have to know who I am.”
Ricky then showed him who he was.
“The fields of university education and joint ventures went hand in hand,” Atkins recalls. “There was no fence separating the two fields. The JV and varsity center fielders stood back to back. So, do you know what Ricky did? Whenever the ball flew to the center from the varsity field, Ricky would turn around from the JV field and catch it. “When we finished, the coach said: “Did everyone hit? Is there anyone who didn’t get in? Ricky raised his hand even though he was supposed to be in SP. He ran in and grabbed the bat and all you could hear from the bat was Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! he beat rockets. When he finished, the coach looked at Ricky and said, “You! You will come with us.”
Decades later, on January 22, 1998, a month after celebrating his 39th birthday, Ricky played for Oakland again. For the fourth time. He and the A’s agreed to a one-year, $1.1 million deal.
These 1998 A’s were completely focused in the present on preparing for the future, on getting everything they needed to take off, but not Ricky. His present was his future, and there was poignancy, sadness, and irony in the way he behaved that year. Ever since he made his major league debut, Ricky’s huge ego has been something that all parties in the sport thought they could agree on. Yet it was Riki’s lack of selfishness that now defined him. He was almost 40 and it showed on the plate. He still had a hawkish look, but pitchers could beat him with power because he had the reflexes of a 39-year-old. As much as the writers and fans love the torch-passing ceremony, the game itself is ruthless and no sentimentality was shown towards Ricky.
The A’s started the season against the Big Boys. On opening night at the Coliseum against the Red Sox, the great Pedro Martinez made his American League debut, blasting through the Oakland roster, hitting 11 in seven innings and outclassing Ricky in three easy games, although Ricky managed to walk. In the three weeks leading up to the start of the season, whether it was a Hall of Famer game or a weak pitch, Ricky was hitting just .189. Even his nozzles crackled. He stole four bases but was caught three times. Art Howe, manager “A”, just looked. Howe was one of the best gentlemen in baseball, a good and decent man. Once a season, Howe invited itinerant beat writers to dinner—at Chris Root in Toronto, at the Cheesecake Factory in Chicago. Ignoring Ricky’s weirdness, Howe let him play – for God’s sake, this guy was going to get into the Hall of Fame. Howe was too gentlemanly to voice his deep suspicion that Ricky probably didn’t even know his name, but he didn’t need to: the team’s medical staff noticed how many times Ricky called Art with the word “manager” and he deduced the truth . But Art Howe has been in the game for decades. He had his moments, too, and judged baseball with the ruthless judgment and pessimism of his own…