Rickey Henderson brought the Athletics back to life in the late 1980s

Jul 19 2009 - 6:37pm

History has been made in some fascinating places. For Rickey Henderson and the Oakland Athletics, it occurred in a glass box in Marin County, Calif., on June 21, 1989.

"You have to remember, it was the era before cell phones," former general manager Sandy Alderson said. "So what I recall most about the deal for Rickey now is that I closed it from a phone booth in Mill Valley."

Struggling in New York, where he had spent five years after being traded by Alderson to the Yankees in 1984, Henderson was reborn by the deal that returned him to his hometown. It launched a three-year period that were the most productive and memorable of Rickey's career.

Through the rest of '89, Rickey played like a man possessed. He led the Athletics to the World Series, which they swept in four games from the San Francisco Giants. Henderson followed up in 1990 with his lone MVP season as the Athletics reached the Series again. Then in 1991, he achieved a personal goal that solidified his status as a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. He broke Lou Brock's all-time career stolen base record at age 32. It was a record he would subsequently take out of sight.

Even though he was aware the A's had tried to reacquire him during the '89 offseason, Henderson gave up the notion that an Oakland homecoming was realistic, even when the Yankees started to actively shop him in June. He thought he was headed to the Giants -- he claims a deal actually was done -- but that he nixed it because the Giants allegedly wanted him to play right field and bat fifth.

That's when Alderson and the A's swooped in at the last minute and made the trade.

"It was a surprise, but I was coming back home and that was the good thing," Henderson said. "And it was really new life. It was the right time, and everything fell into place."

If Henderson needed motivation in addition to coming home, he was in a contract year. It had weighed on him in New York as the 1989 season started and affected his performance. He was hitting .247 when he was traded, and the Yankees were looking to move underperforming players.

"Sometimes you get in the last year of a contract and you want to have great success to get yourself a contract and then all of a sudden, things ain't going right," Henderson said. "There was a deadline (Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner had set while he was out of town. Syd Thrift was the GM and that deadline was a day off when we made the deal with Oakland."

Alderson confirmed that it was probably something of a fluke that the A's were able to land Henderson, and confessed he didn't anticipate what was to come.

"We made the deal out of necessity because we were beat up," he said.

"Not everybody in the organization was in favor of bringing Rickey back, but Jose Canseco was on the disabled list and we really needed offense."

During the final 85 games of the season, Henderson delivered. He hit .294 with 70 walks, stole 52 bases (in 58 attempts, hit 9 home runs and scored 72 runs. Just as importantly, he provided a psychological boost to an already excellent team that had been to the World Series but had unexpectedly lost the fall before.

"Adding Rickey, we knew that we could handle anybody in the playoffs or World Series," outfielder Dave Henderson said. "There were times when our offense went stagnant during that year, but Rickey was the ultimate move that determined that would never happen again."

"It made a very good team great, and Rickey played as well as anybody I saw in my career for that second half of '89," added shortstop Walt Weiss. "Of course, you know how well he played in the postseason. It was like he came to us from a higher league, and he literally took us to another level."

As it turned out, Henderson's excellent second half was just a prelude to one of the finest postseasons ever by a major-league player, a stretch of games that probably represented Rickey at his absolute peak of performance.

In the four-games-to-one win against Toronto in the American League Championship Series, Rickey was an absolute terror.

--Game 1: Two walks, a hit by pitch, two stolen bases and a run scored.

He made the key play in a 2-2 game by breaking up a double play and forcing an error that propelled the A's to a 7-3 victory.

--Game 2: Two walks, two singles, four steals and two runs scored in a 6-3 Oakland triumph.

--Game 3: Walk, double, stolen base and two of Oakland's three runs in a 7-3 defeat.

--Game 4: Two home runs, four RBI and a walk in a crucial 6-5 Oakland victory. One of the home runs traveled 420 feet to dead center at Toronto's Skydome, overshadowed only by Canseco's fifth-deck blast in the same game. Afterward, manager Tony La Russa said, "The only thing Rickey hasn't done is triple."

--Game 5: A walk and a steal of second that set up Oakland's first run, followed by a triple to right-center that drove in Oakland's second run in a 4-3 series clincher.

Rickey was the MVP of that series and the toast of Oakland and the nation.

"NBC may not realize it yet, but they have a new hit series," veteran Dave Parker said. "It's called 'The Rickey Henderson Show."'

Henderson finished that Toronto series with a .400 average, seven walks, eight stolen bases without being caught, four extra-base hits and eight runs scored. Amazing as that was, he was just as good in the World Series sweep of the Giants, hitting. 474 (9-for-19) with five extra-base hits. He only stole three bases, but the A's hardly needed to run to win.

In his autobiography, "Confessions of a Thief," Henderson claimed he should have won the MVP in that series, too, an award that went to longtime Oakland friend Dave Stewart, who paid Rickey the ultimate compliment by saying Henderson was the reason the A's won it all.

"There's only one thing I can say about Rickey that's appropriate," Stewart said. "Wherever Rickey's been, he's always been the life of the party. Always."

Twenty years later, Stewart didn't waver from that statement.

"We had the right mentality on the field, but what helps you on the field is when you have the right mentality in the front office, too," Stewart said. "We really believed in putting our foot on people's necks, and getting Rickey was the move that put us over the top."

Henderson subsequently signed a new contract with Oakland -- one he complained was undervalued almost from the moment he signed it. It didn't affect his play in 1990. He hit a career-high .325 and matched his career-high of 28 home runs while stealing 65 bases and scoring 119 runs in 136 games. He reached base in 125 of the 136 games. He won his only MVP award, but the season ended on a downer when the A's were swept by Cincinnati in the World Series (Rickey hit .333).

That was followed by his eclipsing Brock's stolen-base record on May 1, 1991, at the Coliseum, which produced his infamous "today, I'm the greatest of all-time" comment, words he subsequently used out of his reverence for his boyhood hero Muhammad Ali.

"As soon as I said it, it ruined everything," he said much later.

"Everybody thought it was the worst thing you could ever say. Those words haunt me to this day, and will continue to haunt me."

In truth, the stolen base record meant less to him than the all-time runs record he broke late in his career.

"The whole purpose of baseball is to score runs to win a game," he said.

"Stealing bases was just something I did to put me in position to score runs."

Henderson's triumphant return to Oakland ended late in 1993 when he was traded to Toronto, where he won his second World Series ring. He would return for a third stint in 1994 and 1995, but while he played well, the A's were in decline.

"When I came back to Oakland the first time, it was the best time of my career," he said. "I'll always be thankful I got a second chance there."

While the Mill Valley phone booth is long gone, the memory still rings loudly.

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