Until recently Rickey Henderson's position atop the American League stolen-base leaders seemed as solid as a face on Mount Rushmore. After all, the Oakland leftfielder has won the last four stolen base titles by an average margin of 35. But this season he's in a monumental battle. Through Sunday's games Henderson led the league with 56 steals, but Toronto leftfielder Dave Collins was only two behind him, even though he had appeared in 14 fewer games.
Henderson's in the fight of his career because he's having the toughest year of his career. The only man in history with three years of more than 100 steals, including an alltime single-season record of 130 in 1982, he has been hobbled and haltered in '84. Early this year former A's manager Steve Boros tried to make Henderson a power hitter, and Rickey says he "got all screwed up and wasn't thinking about steals." Then Henderson suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for three weeks and made him wary of sliding headfirst, the way he prefers. The leadoff hitter, Henderson doesn't get much chance to steal because the A's No. 2 batter, Carney Lansford, likes to swing at first pitches, and the Nos. 3 and 4, Joe Morgan and Dave Kingman, want him to stay put because his running distracts them from concentrating on the pitcher, or so they claim. Even so, Henderson says he'll make the most of his decreased opportunities. "I'll win the title," he promises. "Dave Collins is a good ballplayer, but I can't see him stealing more than 60. He's not in my class."
"Rickey's in a class by himself," Collins concedes, "but I'd sure like to beat him." Collins just might. At 31, he's keeping pace with the 25-year-old Henderson even though ordinarily he is in the Jay lineup only against righthanded pitching. Through Sunday, Henderson had batted 465 times to Collins's 409, while Collins led in average, .298 to .292.
Collins, who, appropriately, is from Rapid City, S. Dak., makes the most of his opportunities. Before hitting, he'll study the opposing pitcher from the dugout. Upon reaching first, he'll draw some throws and ask coach Billy Smith if the pitcher is using his best move to the bag. If not, Collins takes a bigger lead. "For the most part, you're stealing off the pitcher, not the catcher," he says. "It's a question of learning what gives away the pitcher's move home—usually the back heel or the front shoulder, but sometimes just the rhythm he's in—and getting the best possible jump." Collins goes to second by taking numerous small steps, like a centipede in high gear. He has been nailed on only 11 of his 65 attempts (Henderson has been thrown out on 16 of 72).
Collins's high rate of success is no accident, because he works so diligently. Knowing he'd start against Yankee righthander Phil Niekro last Wednesday, Collins got a one-hour rubdown at Toronto's Royal York Health Club. "You're only as good as your preparation," he said later. "My legs take a terrible beating, especially on our artificial turf, but the next day I'll feel loose at the park because of the massage."
After arriving at Exhibition Stadium, Collins had Toronto equipment manager Jeff Ross bend his legs at extreme angles for five minutes to stretch his hamstrings, calves, quadriceps and groin muscles; Collins endured this torture two more times—after batting and fielding practice and during the third inning of the game. Later on, Collins made a fine running catch that saved a run in Toronto's 2-1 victory and made a surprise steal of third with one out and a one-run lead in the eighth. "He even caught us sleeping on the bench," said Toronto infielder Garth Iorg. But there was no sleeping for Collins until he'd consumed a steak and spaghetti dinner and pumped iron for half an hour in his downtown apartment.
"Baseball's his first love," says his wife, Kim. "At our house in Springboro, Ohio, there's a bat in every corner. He's constantly trying to duplicate his stance as a Red. [Collins played for Cincinnati in 1978-81.] He'll make me hold an old baseball card of him hitting; then he'll grab a bat, take a stance and ask, 'Is this it?' That's what we do every night."
In this vintage season Collins has stolen his 300th base (he's 11th among active players), stroked his 1,000th hit and kept his average over .300 for most of the year. At week's end he had 10 game-winning RBIs, a league-leading 14 triples, eight assists and only two errors.
This has been a vindicating experience for Collins, who for most of his 10-year major league career has been little more than a footnote: the other switch hitter in the Reds' lineup when he played with Pete Rose in 1978, the "fastest white man in baseball" when he stole 79 bases for the 1980 Reds, the game's richest bench warmer as a $2.4 million Yankee in 1982. After being traded to the Blue Jays last season, Collins started slowly, pulled two hamstrings and hit .271. Even now he's understandably a bit miffed at being platooned against righthanders despite his .357 average in 56 at bats against lefties. "He plays so hard he gets worn out," explains manager Bobby Cox. "The rest helps keep him strong."
That's a familiar, almost inevitable refrain to a small (5' 10", 175 pounds) player. At Rapid City's Stevens High, which didn't have a baseball team, Collins was all-state in football and basketball and in track he set a state schoolboy record of 9.6 in the 100. After starring in American Legion ball, Collins spent four years in the minors, then two with the Angels and a year apiece at Seattle and Cincinnati before having his first good season with the Reds at age 26. "I've always had to prove something," he says. "People said I'd never make the big leagues, never play regularly, never hit, never do anything but run."
He has persevered through true grit and a true Irish wit. Riding through Toronto the other day, Collins was asked where the Blue Jay players live. "Over there," he said, pointing to Brandy's, a popular nightspot. The father of three daughters (Kellie, 7, Lindsey, 6, and Leah, 3), he met Kim when he saw her in the stands at Riverfront Stadium and sent her a note reading, "Are you married to the guy sitting next to you?"
This season Collins has his eye on Henderson.
A lot of speed and a little bit of luck, as in this particular game, have given Collins 52 runs and 54 stolen bases.