Rickey knows that he can still play baseball. He can still lay off pitches dangerously close to the strike zone, he can still make a pitcher perspire just by taking that cocksure lead off first base, he can still fly close to the ground, jetlike, into second base, and he can still give value to a paid admission.
Newark isn't Utopia. But it is baseball. And, on balance, he is paying to play it. He took the job for $3,000 a month; the monthly rent on his Manhattan apartment is more than that. He travels with a longtime friend to every home and away game (except those in Nashua, N.H., where he stays at the team hotel) by commuting, like some Pony League player, from Manhattan. Sometimes his ride home takes two hours. At week's end the Bears' leadoff man was hitting .352 with a .477 on-base percentage.
"If I feel I don't have the skills, I'd be happy to hang up my shoes and go be with my kids," he says. "But I know I have the skill. The speed guys who can score runs? I think I'm better than the guys in the major leagues. Will I get the chance?"
Henderson sits on a gray folding metal chair in front of his locker in the Bears' clubhouse. These are gym lockers—red metal lockers with doors and vents—not the cherry-wood stalls you find in plush big league clubhouses. Strips of adhesive tape serve as name tags for the has-beens, never-weres and hardball lifers of the independent team, including one for the impossibly named Damon Ponce DeLeon, a pitcher.
One of the two overhead television sets carries the news that David Cone, four years younger than Henderson, has retired, this time for good. It has been said that a ballplayer dies twice—once like everybody else, but first when his career ends. Cone has found his baseball mortality. Then Henderson is told that the Athletics have cut Gant. His eyes moisten on that news. He cannot help but think that was his roster spot, his shot.
"I'm trying to figure what's the problem," he says. "Why I can't get a chance. Who did I step on? Who did I do something bad to? If [that's it], I apologize, because I'm not that kind of person."
Rickey needs a Day. He needs the microphone, the gifts, the goodbyes, the proper eulogy for a Hall of Fame career. "If I was still playing baseball and went off that way, it would be fine," he says. "If I'm not playing baseball, I don't feel that is the way I'd want to go. Why bring me back [only] for a Day when I can play the game?"
Boston gave him a Day last year, though it was more an appreciation than a send-off.
And that was the time....
One of the team's owners, Tom Werner, asked Rickey what might be a good idea for a gift from the team.