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Tom Verducci
June 23, 2003
The greatest leadoff hitter of all time is beating the bushes, trying to get back to the majors—and still leaving 'em laughing at every stop
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June 23, 2003

What Is Rickey Henderson Doing In Newark?

The greatest leadoff hitter of all time is beating the bushes, trying to get back to the majors—and still leaving 'em laughing at every stop

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"One of the best teammates I've ever had," Rodriguez says. "He made the game fun every day."

Says La Russa, "In the clubhouse, on the plane, on the buses, Rickey was anything but the egotistical superstar who kept to himself. He was right in the middle of all the conversations, the cutting up. He is so much better a teammate than is the perception. If you asked anybody on those Oakland teams, I would bet you'd find that everybody liked Rickey as a person."

"Let me tell you something," Towers says. "I get e-mails daily from fans saying, 'Sign Rickey' I get up to 100 a day. I get more calls and e-mails about him than anybody. I understand. We've had some special players come through San Diego. But there's an aura about him nobody else has." Rickey's Top Forrest Gump-like World Series Whereabouts

1. Joe Carter's series-ending home run in 1993: on second base (which caused pitcher Mitch Williams to use a slide step and hurry his delivery).

2 The 1989 earthquake: on a clubhouse toilet.

It shouldn't end like this for the Greatest Leadoff Hitter Ever, not here on Broad Street, not here with only about 1,000 people in the stands and kids in hot-dog costumes racing around the bases; not here, where players have to slip 75 cents into a vending machine if they want a soft drink in the clubhouse and the meal money is $18, which doesn't make for a very exciting game of Pick It.

"I wish he wouldn't have done it," Quirk, Henderson's former teammate, says of his signing with Newark. "I played with him three years. I wish he would retire, wait his five years and go to the Hall of Fame and live happily ever after. I don't know why he needs to do what he's doing. But who are we to say?"

Rickey played sparingly for Boston last year, getting 179 at bats. He hit .223 with five homers, 16 RBIs, eight stolen bases and a .369 on-base percentage. (The league average was .331.) Carlos Baerga, Ron Coomer, Lou Merloni and John Vander Wal all had similar seasons or worse. All of those veterans were invited to big league camps this spring and are still playing. No one offered Henderson that chance. His main team, the Athletics, invited Ron Gant (.338 OBP last year) to camp as a righthanded-hitting backup outfielder.

The word among G.M.'s was that Henderson's bat had slowed and that he appeared to have trouble accepting a limited role after years of stardom. "His bat had slowed two years ago," Towers says. "I think he's a decent platoon player. But if he's a part-time player playing once a week, people think he would have a hard time handling that. Rickey's game has always been about being out there every day and putting on a show. It's tough for him to sit and watch. We're going with young players right now, but I can tell you I'd hate to see him go out the way he's going out. If he's still there in September, I'd like to think we could work something out to see him back in the big leagues."

Rickey has interpreted the silence of the general managers differently. Instead of hearing a no-confidence vote on his skills, he heard them challenging him to a game of Strikeout. Oh, yeah? Bring it on. I'll show you.

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