Wednesday, July 29, 2009

By David Saltzer - Columnist

If I were setting my lineup for the greatest baseball team of all time, there’s no doubt in my mind who would be leading off: Rickey Henderson. I remember him on the base paths just terrorizing Angels pitchers and making the game bend to his will. Much like how a mountain or glacier makes its own weather, Rickey Henderson made his own game out of the offense.

For all of his feats on the field, Rickey Henderson belongs in the Hall of Fame. And, as far as I know, there’s no moral reason why he should be barred from the Hall of Fame. He definitely led the class of potential players this year, and should have been a nearly unanimous selection for the Hall. But, as much as he belongs in there, I didn’t fell compelled to watch his induction into the Hall this past Sunday.

For me, Rickey Henderson will always be synonymous with player greed and arrogance. Between his numerous contract disputes and his self-proclamation about being the greatest, the luster of his baseball feats wore dull.

There are 2 incidents that best typify the Rickey Henderson that I remember. The first came prior to the start of the 1991 season when he was holding out from Spring Training for more money. The second came later that same year on May 1st, 1991.

In 1989, Rickey Henderson signed a 4-year $12 million dollar deal in 1989 making him the highest paid player at the time. He said the deal was about his pride—and he was known for having a lot of it. After all, he had framed one of his 6-figure bonus checks framed rather than cashing it .

But, two years later, in 1991, after Jose Canseco signed a 5 year $23.5 million deal, Rickey was a holdout for Spring Training and issued an ultimatum that the Athletics had until the end of Spring Training to renegotiate his deal or else. “It’s pride, period . . . I don't think my contract is fair. I don't think I'm 40th or 50th on the list. If nothing happens by the end of spring training, then I will have a decision to make. . . If they want to pay my like Mike Gallego I’ll play like Mike Gallego.”

Pride may be pride but contracts are contracts. The time to deal with pride was when he signed the deal in the first place, not 2 years later when it had been surpassed. No one forced him to sign a 4 year deal. He should have known that salaries would continue to go up. That’s what happens with inflation and a robust economy. If he always wanted to be the highest paid player in the game, he shouldn’t have signed such a long deal. The tactic he used had more in common with extortion than with legitimate negotiation.

The second incident became quite clear to me during college. In a religion course, I had to write a paper in which I either proved or disproved the existence of G-d. For extra credit, I could also prove or disprove a specific divine attribute.

As I thought about that paper (and procrastinated in writing it) I picked up the sports page. I just couldn’t come up with anything original to say about G-d. But, when I looked at the Sports page, the answer I needed was staring me right in the face: the answer was Rickey Henderson.

On May 1st, 1991, Rickey Henderson broke Lou Brock’s all-time stolen base record. For days Rickey brought Lou Brock to every game with him so that Lou could be there in attendance when Rickey broke his record. When Rickey finally did break the record, Rickey Henderson stopped the game in the middle of the game, took the bag out of the ground and said at the end of his speech “Lou Brock was a great base stealer, but today, I am the greatest all-time.”

Arrogance is the opposite of humility. It comes from pride and not knowing one’s place in the universe. In that statement, Rickey Henderson’s demonstrated arrogance on a level rarely seen. It was bad enough that he was a well-known illeist (constantly referring to himself in the third person). And even worse that Rickey disrupted the game for about 20 minutes during the game while a microphone was setup for him to give a speech in which he upstaged his predecessor instead of waiting to be interviewed after the game like every other baseball player. But the self-proclamation took arrogance to an insurmountable level.

If you do a Google search for May 1, 1991 and add the word baseball, the first entries that you will find do not talk about Rickey Henderson. In fact, the Sports page that I read that day barely mentioned him on the front page and only had minimal coverage of him on page 7.

Like in the story of the Tower of Babel, on May 1st, 1991, G-d took notice of Rickey Henderson’s arrogance and responded by causing confusion for baseball historians forever. For on that day, Nolan Ryan pitched his 7th career no-hitter. And, unlike Rickey Henderson, Nolan did not stop the game in progress to give a speech. He did not proclaim himself the greatest pitcher of all-time. He did not focus all the attention on himself. Instead, he talked about his teammates and the incredible plays they made during the game to allow him to pitch the no-hitter. In almost every way, Nolan Ryan demonstrated the exact opposite of Rickey Henderson. He showed humility. G-d is a baseball fan, and G-d does not like arrogant players.

As a lifelong Angels fan, I will always remember Rickey Henderson. While he briefly played for us, what I will remember most is how dangerous he was as an opponent. His unique crouch at the plate, his leadoff homeruns, his confidence and swagger are incomparable. He’s on my all-time team, and rightfully belongs in the Hall of Fame.

But, as a lifelong baseball fan, I didn’t feel the need to watch his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I wouldn’t want to enlarge his ego any more than it is. The good news is that Rickey appears to have learned a thing or two from 1991—at the end of his speech he gave the classic quote a twist saying that "I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time, and at this moment, I am, very, very humbled. Thank you." At least this time he chose not to slide across home plate as he rounded the bases for his 3000th hit.

As for my paper, I got an “A”. Apparently my professor was a baseball fan too.
Love to hear what you think!


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