With New York trailing Baltimore 3-1 in the third inning last Wednesday, Rickey Henderson ended a rally by getting picked off second. Then a funny thing happened. The 30,929 fans in Yankee Stadium rose as one to cheer him. They cheered when he ran off the field, and they cheered when he flung away his batting helmet, and they cheered so loud and so long that he could have made a curtain call. All that for a mistake!
The fans weren't being sarcastic. Henderson had already given them their money's worth. In the first inning he had created a run by singling, stealing both second and third and scoring on a sacrifice fly. In the third he had walked and stolen second before a pickoff nabbed him for the first time in 23 steal situations dating back to May 29. And he would steal another base in the Yankees' 4-3 victory. "Rick-ee, Rick-ee," the crowd chanted. "Speed-Star," the scoreboard flashed.
How hot is hot? In the case of 26-year-old Rickey Henderson, hot is so hot he's melting the game's parameters. Ninety feet is not enough distance between bases. Four balls, three strikes seems unfair to pitchers. Henderson, in fact, is staging the hottest offensive show in recent baseball history.
Despite missing half of spring training and the first 10 games of the season with a sprained left ankle, he was leading the American League in batting (.354), runs (61) and stolen bases (36 in 38 attempts) at week's end. Only four players have won this hit-and-run Triple Crown: Billy Hamilton of the 1891 Phillies, Ty Cobb of the 1909, 1911 and 1915 Tigers, George Sisler of the 1927 St. Louis Browns and Snuffy Stirnweiss of the 1945 Yankees. Batting leadoff, Henderson is also second in on-base percentage (.438) and, incredibly, second in slugging (.550). Asked about his play, Milwaukee DH Ted Simmons mutters: "MVP."
In the 11 Yankee games between June 17 and June 28, Henderson had a .548 average, a .615 on-base percentage, scored 16 runs and stole 15 bases. Not coincidentally, the Yankees won eight of the 11 games and climbed into third, 6½ games behind the East Division-leading Blue Jays. "When Rickey hits, we win," says Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly. "It's as simple as that."
When then-scout, now-manager Billy Martin persuaded Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to acquire Henderson from Oakland and sign him to a five-year, $8.6 million contract last December, the clincher to his argument was that Henderson could be the most exciting Yankee since Mickey Mantle. It appears that Martin wasn't exaggerating. Henderson's versatile hitting and exciting running—both on the bases and in the field—have had the fans jumping and shouting. The 5'10", 180-pounder hits from an extreme crouch and uncoils at the plate like a jack-in-the-box. On the bases he reaches high gear in a few short steps. And he's ranging all over centerfield to track down flies and outrun his occasional misjudgments.
"I'm in the zone," says Henderson. Gesturing with his hands, he draws a square with about 15 inches on each side. "That's my zone," he says. "My strike zone. Anything in there I can hit."
"The only way to keep him off base is to throw him strikes," says Baltimore pitcher Mike Boddicker, referring to Henderson's ability to walk to first and then run to second or third. But throwing strikes, as Milwaukee manager George Bamberger points out, is a stratagem rife with peril. "Pitchers think about not walking him," he says, "so they give him the fastball and he puts it in the seats." Henderson has homered nine times and is on target for his career high of 25.
"How do you keep him from stealing?" asks Brewer catcher Charlie Moore. "You can hope he trips on the way to second. Either that or grab him by his pants pocket."
Outstanding play is nothing new to Henderson, who averaged .291 in 5½ seasons at Oakland, set the modern major league single-season steal record of 130 in 1982 and won five consecutive stolen-base titles. But by bringing him to New York, the Yankees also appear to have brought out his full potential. His once-moody disposition also seems to be improving. "I'm into excitement," he says, "and there's so much of it around here, it builds on itself."
But it's not just the change of scenery that has spurred Henderson. "When you go to a city with a competitive team and talented ballplayers, you learn a lot," he says. "I looked at Don Mattingly and saw how he kept his weight back—toe pointing toward the catcher. That helped me. I looked at Dave Winfield and saw how he attacked the ball. Lou Piniella, the hitting coach, got me to extend my arms on inside pitches. And Willie Horton's such a good first-base coach he signals me to make changes when I'm in the batter's box."
Leading off for the generally weak-hitting A's, Henderson was pitched around. He had no choice but to take his walks—he averaged 106 in his four complete seasons—and steal every chance he got. Now, hitting ahead of leftfielder Ken Griffey, Mattingly and Winfield, he's getting good pitches and has walked only 34 times in 57 games. Running more selectively on Martin's orders, he has been successful 95% of the time, fully 17% ahead of his lifetime average.
What hasn't changed is his act on the bases. Henderson yells and smiles at the pitcher and makes fake dashes toward the next base. "He distracts the pitcher, takes him out of his rhythm," explains Mattingly.
Henderson had a brief cold snap when Moose Haas of Milwaukee one-hit the Yankees 6-0 on Saturday. But on Sunday in the Yankees' 7-5 loss to the Brewers, Henderson had a single, a double, a walk and a run in five trips to the plate. With two outs in the ninth, he kept New York alive by hitting a bloop single that eluded the diving lunge of Brewer centerfielder Rick Manning. Wee Rickey Henderson has been hitting 'em where they ain't. That's what happens when you're hot.
The change to stripes obviously helped Henderson, who leads the majors in hitting and runs scored and the AL in steals.