How Rickey Henderson Got in the Game


25. Rickey Henderson: 3,055: Henderson is baseball’s all-time leader in stolen bases, runs scored, and non-intentional walks. (Joe Giza/Reuters)

Alex Coffey of the New York Times has a fun read on J. J. Guinn, the scout who signed Rickey Henderson as well as Claudell Washington and Shooty Babitt. Guinn remains a friend and mentor to Henderson even today, over four decades later. Rickey notes that he grew up in a fatherless home, and it is not hard to see in his early career that he thrived more under managers who tried to fill that role for him (notably Billy Martin, who shared his hardscrabble Oakland upbringing) than under managers who just expected him to know how to “play the game the right way,” such as Lou Piniella.

The other piece that caught my eye was this:

Henderson was a stocky teenager with little interest in baseball. At the time, he had his sights set on playing football and becoming the next O.J. Simpson. Concerned about injury, Guinn and Henderson’s mother, Bobbie, had other plans. When the decision was made for Henderson to pursue a career in baseball, the man who would one day hold major league records with 2,295 runs, and 1,406 stolen bases, went to his room and cried. The decision went against the views of many of the people who had watched Henderson. Football coaches praised Henderson’s physique and lauded his speed. But in baseball, he found less reassurance. Some scouts were concerned with his arm, his crouched batting stance, and the fact that he batted right-handed but threw left-handed. Those scouts focused on Henderson’s flaws. Guinn focused on his strengths: Henderson’s speed, athleticism and lateral range. Where others saw impediments, Guinn saw possibility.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem that baseball has in recruiting young athletes — particularly African-American athletes — but also its opportunity. For a young man as physically gifted as Rickey Henderson, the path forward as a college and pro running back is straight: Speed and power and the ability to take a hit are all you need. You can be a big star at 18, and jump quickly to the pros. Baseball is a game of skills that are more complicated to project, and requires a certain amount of toiling in the obscurity of college or minor league ball. But if you make it, the risks of career-ending or life-changing injury are much lower, and the possibility to have a long career are much higher. O. J. was retired at 32, Jim Brown and Terrell Davis at 29, Barry Sanders and Earl Campbell at 30, LaDainian Tomlinson at 32, Eric Dickerson at 33. Rickey played until he was 44. He could probably still steal second today if you inserted him as a pinch runner. And, as it turned out, his apprenticeship was shorter than most; even after three seasons in the minor leagues, he was a major league regular at 20, an All-Star at 21.

But for an awful lot of young athletes, putting their faith in the slower and unsteadier path to the baseball big leagues is a tougher sell.





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