Bring back the jerk

Few players as great as Rickey Henderson have so alienated the public. But he can still help somebody win. Plus: A reply to angry Dale Earnhardt fans.

Topics: Baseball,

If there is ever a prize awarded by baseball writers for “Biggest Jerk Ever Elected to the Hall of Fame,” I’m sure Rickey Henderson will qualify for it. (I’m not including Ty Cobb in this category; his would be “Psychotic Racist.”) Unfortunately, it looks like he’s going to qualify for it sooner than he ought to: As I write this, Rickey’s agent is doing everything but offering coupons to get teams interested in his client; a minor league contract is even being talked about. Now, Rickey Henderson is either the best baseball player of the last 20 years or he isn’t, and, myself, I wouldn’t say he is, but he has definitely been one of the top four or five, and can anyone remember a player this great who had to beg for a minor league contract in order to get a shot at one more year in the bigs?

I can’t, but then, I can’t recall too many players who were as big a jerk as Rickey. And why the hell am I even calling him “Rickey”? If this was about Barry Bonds (who kind of stopped being a jerk last year) we’d just call him “Bonds.” But, dammit, we like Rickey Henderson, even though he’s a jerk — in other words, even though he doesn’t like us as much as we like him — and we call him by his first name.

For more than two decades Rickey has resisted our liking him, and now it looks as if he may depart without our ever really getting to know him or what makes him tick. What is particularly intriguing about Rickey is that despite his reputation for dogging it and being a jerk, so many people have been willing to stick up for him over the years. Don Mattingly, who was never, ever accused of dogging it, repeatedly defended him to the point of barking at sportswriters who had criticized him.

Rickey’s oddest defender was Billy Martin, the last guy you’d ever suspect of harboring feelings for a player who dogged it. You often hear people say how great managers don’t give players preferential treatment, but that of course is not true because truly great managers give preferential treatment all the time, they just have a genius for knowing how to do it. In Martin’s case, he let Rickey off from the tedious practice of wind sprints — wisely so, one might add, since the greatest base stealer in the game obviously knows whether he needs to do wind sprints — and simply asked him to do something else to show his teammates that Martin wasn’t letting him off easy. It’s a shame other managers over the years wouldn’t or couldn’t use the same tact as Martin.

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Then, for a player with a reputation for being sullen and selfish, Rickey has been remarkably sought after. The A’s brought him back to Oakland in 1990 and he helped lead them to the World Series that year and the Western Division title two years later. In 1993, Rickey was acquired by the Blue Jays, and he helped them win the pennant and World Series. The Mets got him in 1999, and last season he was a bargain-basement pickup for the Mariners, who nearly went to the World Series. As a big-time performer, Rickey ranks with Reggie Jackson and Joe Morgan. As with them, winning teams follow him around.

And that’s the bottom line, I suppose. Rickey Henderson’s batting average is just .282, 56 points lower than eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn, yet Rickey has reached base with greater frequency, with a .404 on-base average to Gwynn’s .388. He is the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, hitting 282 home runs, scoring more than 100 runs 13 times — Cobb did that 11 times; Pete Rose, 10 — and leading the league five times, which is four more times than Mark McGwire, the greatest power hitter of the era, has led the league in RBIs. And please note that I just made a sound argument for Rickey Henderson’s greatness without once mentioning stolen bases, the most publicized but least important aspect of his game.

Rickey Henderson needs three walks to pass Babe Ruth’s all-time record, and he needs just 68 more runs scored to pass Cobb’s record. This is a much more important record than Rose’s breaking of Cobb’s hits total, and Rickey is a better player than Cobb ever was, yet there is no media clamor for a team to pick him up and give him a shot at those records. It’s a shame, but Rickey has only himself to blame if he doesn’t get his shot. Rose was a jerk, too, but he was a jerk who appreciated his fans.

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The Earnhardt letters

I want to thank every one of the 1,863 (and counting) letter writers who responded to my column on Dale Earnhardt. Such numbers are going to help when I walk in and demand Paglia-Keillor-type money, and I didn’t even have to write about lesbians or Lutherans.

One of my favorites was from D. Crockmeyer, who swore he’d “never buy your paper again.” Well, you get what you pay for. A Donna from Florida wrote, “Maybe you are right, but why did you have to say it?” Another Donna from Florida said, “You are entitled to your opinion, but at a time like this it would be nice if you kept it to yourself.” Well, you might be right, but keeping my opinions to myself is not what they pay me to do.

I must have gotten at least 200 that said, in some form, “What does a New York sportswriter know about NASCAR?” To which I reply that I don’t live in New York, I’m from Alabama, and I never said I didn’t grow up with auto racing. A P. Taylor from West Virginia says that I could not possibly understand “the kind of values a Christian like Dale Earnhardt represented to other Christians.” Well, I am a Christian, albeit a poor one, and I don’t look to race car drivers or baseball players or any other celebrities for my role models. I’m a bit disturbed that at least 20 letters mentioned Earnhardt as an “icon”; I always thought icon meant a kind of false idol.

A Bill Jones from Mississippi writes: “Don’t you think it’s rather mean-spirited to imply that fans of NASCAR ‘don’t read’? Would you say the same of hockey and basketball fans?” Mr. Jones, your point is taken, and I apologize. What I meant to imply was that most NASCAR fans don’t want to read anything about NASCAR except “hero-worshipping profiles and industry gossip.” I stand by my point, but I made it poorly. This was my error, unlike most in this column, which can be traced to my editor.

Not one letter — not one — dealt with my comment about “the awe-inspiring sense of denial that a fascination with destruction and death is behind a large part of auto racing’s appeal.” I find this a bit, well, ironic.

All in all, the letters were negative by a ratio of about 3-to-1, but let me quote from one written in support: “There have been whisperings for a long time now about the inherent safety problems of NASCAR driving,” says M. Angelos from Alabama, a “huge NASCAR fan,” “and instead of calling a halt so things could be looked at objectively everyone piled right on out there and kept right on going. Dale Earnhardt’s death was a wake-up call for NASCAR, and the sport and its fans have slept right through it.”

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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