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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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"He rises to the occasion—the big moment—better than anybody I've ever seen," La Russa says. "But when he was tapped, he'd take a couple of days off. One day [in 1993] he came in and said, 'My head's not right.' It turns out he was mad about the rumors that he was getting traded. I wasn't going to push him. If you pushed him and he didn't want to play, he played like a cigar-store Indian. He'd take an 0 for 4, and you were better off playing me."

There was that one time....

Mets manager Bobby Valentine removed Henderson from Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, replacing him with Melvin Mora. New York lost on a series-ending bases-loaded walk by Kenny Rogers. Henderson reportedly was in the clubhouse playing cards with teammate Bobby Bonilla when the deciding run scored.

Asked about the incident, Henderson offers a qualified denial: " Kenny Rogers came in the clubhouse, and we was playing cards? If Kenny Rogers made it off that mound and we was playing cards, everybody in America, even the press, would have been there when we were playing. So you can't say that.

"Was it an excuse? These two guys [ Henderson and Bonilla], you had took us out. We tied the game up, and you took me and him right back out of the game. What for? For defensive purposes that you said? Moore [sic]? That's your judgment, and you're my chief and you're the manager. And I have no say-so. Does it frustrate me? Yes, because during the postseason I feel that's when the people that's gonna rise to the top should rise to the top, and I feel I was always one of them type of players."

Henderson is an avowed card sharp and competition junkie. He will play almost anything with scoring, especially if it involves a friendly wager. Two years ago Shooty Babitt, a former Oakland teammate and current Arizona Diamondbacks scout, chided him for not playing well in spring training.

"Next thing you know we're playing Strikeout [a simple pitcher-versus-batter game] on the tennis court next to where he was staying," Babitt says. "He challenged me. We played for an hour—with a tennis ball. And he still owes me 50 bucks for a game of H-O-R-S-E we played."

"Every day," says Yankees third baseman Robin Ventura, who played with Henderson on the Mets, "there would be a big argument in the clubhouse, with guys accusing Rickey of cheating at cards. He'd get up and say, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I'm always winning.' "

That Christmas morning when Rickey was born in the backseat? His mother, Bobbie, had gone into labor late on Christmas Eve. It was snowing in Chicago. She telephoned her husband, John Henley, to come home and drive her to the hospital. John said no, he didn't want to rush home right away.

Rickey's father was playing poker—and he was winning big.

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