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No slouch in the crouch

Oakland's Rickey Henderson may slump in the batter's box, but that's the only phase of his play that comes up short

The most arresting sight around the Oakland A's these days isn't a clutch homer by Tony Armas, another complete game from a member of their estimable rotation or even Krazy George, the Wild Bill Hagy of the West. It's Rickey Henderson at the plate.

Standing deep in the batter's box, Henderson, one of those rare players who throw left and bat right, assumes an extreme crouch, weight back, left foot edging warily forward, as if he were entering a body of cold water. "Stand up like a man," catchers tell him. Henderson ignores them. Instead, he picks on a pitch that he likes and snaps upward, lashing at the ball like an uncoiling cobra.

"I must be doing something right," Henderson says, "because kids keep telling me they're using my stance. I can see the ball better this way than standing up. Stand-up hitters see only the top half of the ball. I see the whole thing."

It's high time baseball saw the whole of the 22-year-old Henderson. Last year, his first full season in the majors, Henderson broke Ty Cobb's 65-year-old stolen-base record (96) with. 100, was second in the league in walks with 117 and batted .303. This year he's leading the league in runs (73) and stolen bases (43) and ranks among the top 10 in average (.330), hits (109), triples (five), walks (47) and on-base percentage (.416).

Defensively, Henderson is the best at his position in the league, if not the game. "I've only seen one outfielder who can run with him, and that's Paul Blair," says Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver. On the base paths Henderson routinely goes from second to third on flies to left, and he figures to improve considerably as a base stealer (he has been caught stealing 20 times this year). The final ingredient for an all-round player is power. That Henderson has only five homers this season fools no one. Batting leadoff, he generally swings for base hits, not power. "But when he hits one out, it goes way out," says Oakland Centerfielder Dwayne Murphy. To A's Manager Billy Martin, Henderson's "the best player in the game."

To opposing pitchers, the 5'10", 180-pound Henderson is as frightening, and as rare a creation, as his batting stance. "You have to be careful," says Cleveland Pitching Coach Dave Duncan, "because he can knock one out. But you don't want to be too careful because he's got a small strike zone and you can't afford to walk him. And that's only half the problem. When he gets on base he's more trouble still."

There is a sign in the Oakland Coliseum's leftfield stands that reads: HENDERSON'S HEIGHTS. It identifies a section of 50 seats that he has bought for underprivileged kids. An Oakland native, Henderson's cheering section is far bigger than that, however. When he trots out to leftfield, the fans there cheer him en masse; he responds by signing autographs, waving, blowing kisses and posing for pictures—during games. "Twice last year Rickey was looking into the stands when a ball was hit his way," says Murphy. "It's a hard habit to break." Henderson says he doesn't want to break it. "When the ball's not coming your way, you get bored," he insists. "The fans keep me in the game."

Henderson's interaction with his followers is misunderstood, according to Oakland Pitcher Mike Norris, who shares a house with him in the Oakland hills. "It's actually a very distant relationship," says Norris. "Rickey's outwardly extroverted but inwardly shy. The fans do get him up. He's got a lot of common sense, and that's one way to use it."

Another way was to listen to A's Batting Coach Lee Walls, who doubles as outfield coach. "Give me 10 minutes a day and I'll make you into the best left-fielder in baseball," Walls told Henderson in the spring of 1980. Henderson listened and became part of baseball's foremost outfield. Centerfielder Murphy (.276, 11 homers, 48 runs batted in), Rightfielder Tony Armas (.281, 21, 64) and Henderson—all natural centerfielders—have accounted for 27 of the A's 44 game-winning RBIs. Equally valuable on defense, they lead the league with 696 putouts. They have 15 assists to nine errors, a ratio that is especially meaningful because they charge all grounders and prevent most runners from even attempting to take the extra base. But their greatest contributions are more subtle than statistical: grabbing line drives hit in the alleys, holding shots down the line to singles, taking away other hits with routine catches because of good positioning.

Henderson's outfield play has been particularly notable this year. When he ran down a sinking liner by Cleveland's Jorge Orta last week and caught it with a lunge, an Oakland reporter turned to a neophyte Henderson-watcher and said, "That's about his 25th best catch of the year."

"We're always communicating out there," says Henderson. "We don't say, 'I got it.' We say, 'I got it, I got it, I got it'...right up to the catch." Murphy and Henderson bumped into each other in Boston on Aug. 30 when Murphy caught a fly slicing Henderson's way. The date is worth remembering: It was the first time they had ever collided.

Outfielders who lack confidence play deep to avoid being embarrassed by shots over their heads. Not so the Oakland Three, who are forever stealing pop-ups from their infielders. "We respect hits over our heads," says Henderson, "but we don't like bloopers."

They do have considerable regard for drillmaster Walls, a fearsome-looking but mild-mannered giant (6'3", 208 pounds) who sports a shaved head and tinted glasses. "Our outfielders catch correctly, with two hands and their feet in position." says Walls, who one year played in the Pittsburgh outfield with Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon. "Grounders are more important than flies. We hit our outfielders 50 to 100 ground balls a day. No other team does that. We're constantly repositioning as the game progresses. The later it is in the game, the more we play hitters to pull, because the pitcher's not throwing as hard. I don't think any team studies outfield defense as carefully as we do."

The fourth of seven children, Henderson was reared in a north Oakland home several blocks from the multi-sports complex at Bushrod Park. "I came over there, a short, stocky guy, and they said, 'Why don't you play sports?' So I played sports," he says. "I went out for the Little League, and since everybody else was batting righthanded, I did, too. Since I've hit .300 or better at every level, I guess I did the right thing."

At Oakland Technical High Henderson hit .716 as a junior and .465 as a senior. He also was a high school All-America running back sought by USC and Arizona State. "I told my mother, Bobbie Earl, to choose one of the two sports for me," he says. "She chose baseball because she thought I'd get hurt playing football. It would have taken me four years to play pro football, and I made the majors in 2½, so I'd say that turned out right, too."

Henderson wears non-prescription glasses; he says he reads better with them on. He also thinks melon tastes better with salt. Teammates call him Billy Dee Williams, for the slicked-back hairdo he sometimes affects, and also Hindu, for his style of dress, which includes all forms of flashy fashion. But Henderson's also a good organization man. He speaks ever so diplomatically in expressing his one complaint: that Martin won't let him run on his own. At the A's request, he played winter ball and was the Puerto Rico League's MVP. This year the A's want him to rest, so he'll study speech and accounting at San Francisco State. Off the field, Henderson looks forward to marrying his high school sweetheart, Pam Palmer; on it, he sees himself breaking Lou Brock's season record of 118 stolen bases.

That record would be a blessed event for Henderson, who relishes good press, but it might obscure his other strengths. "He looks as if he's been in the majors 10 or 12 years," says Oakland First Baseman Jim Spencer. "It's not just his ability, but his confidence and maturity. If he's not already the best player in the game, he's close."