Monday, August 23, 2010
#561) RICKEY HENDERSON
Rickey Henderson signed with the New York Mets as a free agent on December 16, 1998. "It's always a thrill to go play in New York," Henderson said. "People in baseball know that. That's where you want to be to have fun. If we want to have fun and get some attention, we have to win. I think we can do that." Although it had been semi-retired in honor of Willie Mays the club gave the speedster his accustomed uniform number "24".
The greatest lead-off man in baseball history struggled during his first spring training with the Mets hitting for a lowly .130 batting average. All of which changed when the regular season began. "I don't even worry about me," Rickey said following the second game of 1999. "I have 162 games, brother. One game ain't going to make me. One game ain't going to break me. I'll be there at the end." Over the season Henderson led the Mets team with a .315 batting average while collecting 12 home runs and 37 stolen bases for the National League Wild Card winner. That Wild Card entry earned after a 5-0 victory in Cincinnati facing the Reds in a one-game playoff game. "I never thought there was pressure in the postseason," remembers Rickey, who played left field that day and homered in the fifth inning. "The pressure was you had to get there. Then it was fun." Manager Bobby Valentine removed the veteran for defensive purposes late in the game that night. Henderson was dressed by the end of that game and waiting in the clubhouse for his victorious teammates.
After handling the Arizona Diamondbacks the Mets advanced to the National League Playoffs facing the Atlanta Braves. Rickey was removed in the eighth inning of Game 4 once again for defensive purposes. This time the removal occurred after Henderson had already taken his position in left field. Bobby Valentine called him back and inserted Melvin Mora as his replacement. A frustrated Rickey showered and left the stadium minutes after the game ended. "The timing of that was very bad, and in particular for a player of Rickey's stature," Valentine said before the start of Game 5. "I expressed the concerns to him yesterday."
New York would fall to the evil Braves in the decisive Game 6 at Atlanta. Outfielders Bobby Bonilla and Henderson spent the last three innings of the game in the clubhouse playing cards. "Guys who saw (the card game) wanted to take a bat to their heads after the game," one person affiliated with the Mets said. "There were players crying and screaming in the dugout (after the Mets lost the game in 11 innings). Then they walk in the clubhouse and see that?"
The incident would linger and lead to the club releasing Rickey on May 13, 2000. He was picked up by the Seattle Mariners two weeks later with the Mets paying the majority of his $1.9 million dollar contract that season.
Henderson, baseball's career stolen base leader, returned to the New York Mets as a guest spring training coach in 2006. He was brought in by General Manager Omar Minaya primarily to work with Jose Reyes. Rickey was still hoping to continue playing at age 47, and was quoted, "I thought maybe I'd come out here and trick'em. They'd look at me, give me a glove and say, Go play."
Following the mid-season dismissal of Rick Down, the Mets made Rickey the team's first base coach on July 12, 2007. The moves shifted Howard Johnson to hitting coach. "If it was a situation where we were going to win the World Series and I was the only player that they had left, I would put on the shoes," Henderson said with a smile. "I haven't submitted retirement papers to MLB, but I think MLB already had their papers that I was retired." He was not retained by the club for the 2008 season.
Rickey was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009. He received 94.8 percent of the vote during his first inclusion on the ballot. "I feel great about it. It's been a long time coming," Henderson said. "I was nervous waiting."
Rickey Henderson signed his card in the set for my friend Jessie through a Jack Berke Event held Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown, New York on July 23, 2010.