Credit Rickey Henderson with a save.
Henderson, who is simply the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, did something last week to restore our faith in the connection between player and fan. Indeed, he may have defused the firecracker that Rickey-wannabe Vince Coleman threw at baseball's image earlier this summer.
Perhaps you saw the photograph (below) that was picked up by newspapers around the country: Henderson gently holding a crying nine-year-old girl named Erin States. The caption probably told you that Henderson, on his first trip to Oakland since the Athletics traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays on July 31, was reassuring Erin that her favorite player had not forgotten her.
But there is more to the story than that—just as there is more to Rickey Henderson than his public persona. Erin is from Tracy, Calif., and her parents are A's season-ticket holders, in section 130 of Oakland Coliseum, along the leftfield line. Erin attended her first game on June 22, 1989, which was the night Henderson returned to play left for the A's after having been traded by the New York Yankees. Erin, then five, got caught up in the excitement of his return, but she became frustrated when her attempts to get Rickey's attention went unheeded. So when she went home, she made a sign that read HI RICKEY and had a heart on it. On Erin's next visit to the park, Henderson noticed the sign, waved to her and in the ninth inning brought her a ball. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Erin made a series of signs, each meant to congratulate Rickey on a specific feat: NICE CATCH, NICE STEAL, GREAT HOME RUN, etc. Henderson, who has two daughters of his own, always looked for Erin and often gave her mementos. He even mentioned her in his 1992 autobiography, Off Base: Confessions of a Thief, and signed her copy "to my Number One fan."
But when Henderson was traded to Toronto, Erin was devastated. She wrote a letter to Bay Area newspapers that read, in part: "My friend Rickey Henderson was traded last Saturday from the Oakland A's to the Toronto Blue Jays. I know Toronto is a long way away from here and my mom and dad won't let me move there.... I asked my mom to take down all my Rickey posters and pictures in my room. They make my heart hurt too much to look at. My mom said that the hurt won't be so bad later and I'll be able to stop crying when I hear his name. If someone out there knows Rickey would you please tell him that the girl with the signs in the left field corner of the Oakland Coliseum misses him very much and would you tell him I said goodbye. I didn't even get to say goodbye."
Erin's letter was faxed to Toronto and shown to Henderson, who cried when he read it and said, "The fans and press might be on me, but I knew I could always count on that little girl." When Henderson went onto the field in Oakland on Aug. 30 in his Blue Jay uniform, one of the first things he did was seek out Erin. He gave her a hug and a kiss, and promised her she would always be his Number One fan. He also told her that if the Jays made the World Series, he would steal a base or hit a home run for her.
That Henderson should be so tender and thoughtful might strike some people as surprising. After all, he is baseball's alltime leader not only in stolen bases (1,082 through Saturday) and leadoff homers (63) but also in contract pouts (too numerous to mention). Rightly or wrongly, he has come to stand for the selfish ballplayer.
But over the years Henderson has maintained a wonderful contact with the fans. Even in the on-deck circle, he will turn away from the field to carry on conversations with spectators, often to the consternation of teammates who worry he might get hurt by an errant ball or a hustling catcher.
There can be no doubt that the relationship between players and fans has never been more strained. The fan says, He makes too much money, he has no loyalty, he doesn't sign autographs, and he's no role model. The player says, I don't make enough, the fans have no loyalty, they're probably going to sell my autograph, and don't ask me to raise your kids.
But into the breach step a nine-year-old girl and a 34-year-old superstar, and suddenly the smoke of the firecracker, the shrieks from the stands are dissipated. Henderson has provided baseball with a lot of great moments during his 15-year career. Last week he provided it with a much-needed nice one.
LIZ MANGELSDORF/SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER/SABA