Rickey Henderson/Wilie Mays; Michael Vick; Pete Rose/Joe Jackson; Brett Favre
Don’t get me wrong: When I got my Hall of Fame ballot, there was no question who would be at the top of my list. Rickey was a great player and a great character. He loved the game and played it with passion – and it seemed he wanted to play forever. He even played in an independent league in 2005, hoping to get another shot at the majors, which he didn’t. Like Jerry Rice, the only question about his Hall of Fame induction was whether he would ever retire so he could become eligible.
But, one local writer said that he was one of the top three players in baseball history, with Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. I’m sorry, but neither Rickey nor Bonds gets in that discussion. The only Bay Area player who does is Willie Mays, who was a better fielder than Rickey (with a far superior arm in his prime), a better hitter for average and power and, yes, even a better baserunner. Mays not only was a great baserunner, he sometimes even coached runners behind him on the bases.
The one area where Henderson had a clear edge on Mays – and everybody else – was in stealing bases, partly because his managers discouraged Mays from stealing because they feared he’d injure himself and they’d lose all his multiple skills.
But base stealing in itself does not have a clear connection with winning games. Carl Crawford is the best base stealer in today’s game, but his Tampa Bay Rays are a distant third in the AL East.
When Rickey set his season record with 130 stolen bases, it was because the A’s were losing and manager Billy Martin gave him the green light to run whenever he wanted, to give the fans some excitement. The fans loved it – but Rickey’s steals didn’t make the A’s winners.
Base running, which includes much more than base stealing, is very important to a team. Dan Fox did a series of reports for The Baseballl Prospectus which measured all aspects of the running game, including steals, advancement on ground balls and fly outs, as well as on passed balls, wild pitches and balks. By his measurements, going back to 1956, Fox has Willie Wilson, who played most of his career for the Kansas City Royals but had a brief spell with the A’s at the end, as the best baserunner of the last 50 years.
One aspect that can’t be measured is intimidation, and Rickey certainly ranked at the head of the class in that, perhaps rivaled only by Jackie Robinson in the era since Robinson broke the color line in 1947.
My favorite Rickey playing memory, in fact, is from a moment in the 1989 World Series when he so distracted Giants pitcher Kelly Downs that he lost his focus and fed a cookie to Jose Canseco, who hit a ball deep into the left field seats.
That 1989 A’s team was the best I’ve seen in the Bay Area, as I wrote in an earlier column, and the clubhouse at that time was a ot of fun, too. Canseco would hold court before games, often talking to writers for as long as 45 minutes. Closer Dennis Eckersley would entertain with his colorful vocabulary. For the more intellectual of the writers, Dave Stewart could dissect the pitcher’s art as well as anyone I ever interviewed.
Rickey? Though teammates in the last week have described him as friendly, I don’t think he was close to anybody but Stewart on that team. Rickey always went his own way. He didn’t even live in the East Bay, having bought a home in Hillsborough. Of course, at the speed with which he reportedly drove back on the San Mateo Bridge after night games, that was only minutes away.
He was probably interviewed less than the other stars because he was a challenge. Not because he was uncooparative, but his manner of speaking made it difficult. Scott Ostler called it “verbal jazz,” words just coming out of Rickey’s mouth in a mad jumble. It was clear when you were speaking to him what he meant, but it was very difficult to quote him directly. One radio guy told me he interviewed Rickey for 45 minutes one day but when he got back to the station and played the tape, he didn’t have one clear sound bite. Rickey’s teammates joked about his habit of referring to himself in the third person.
My most noteable interview with him came after Rickey had been traded to the Yankees in 1985. I was doing a lot of writing for magazines in those days, and Inside Sports assigned me to do a piece on Rickey. I tried calling Rickey, but that didn’t work; he always leaves his message machine on and he didn’t return my calls. I even went to see his mother to try to enlist her help, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t help me. Finally, Kathy Jacobsen, then heading up the A’s public relations office, told me Rickey would be at the A’s Christmas party for kids and suggested I talk to him there. After the party, Rickey sat down and talked with me for 45 minutes, in a much more straightforward manner than his postgame interviews. Among the things he said was that he would get more help with the Yankees than with the A’s, where he had to shoulder the whole burden. That enraged Dwayne Murphy, who had played an excellent center field alongside Rickey in left, though it was quite true that the A’s team Rickey was leaving was not very good.
But, that was Rickey. He was an original on the field and off, fun to be around and a pleasure to watch. In more than 50 years of watching major league baseball in the Bay Area, I’ve never known anybody else quite like him.
MICHAEL VICK: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has reinstated Vick but it’s a real question if Vick will play in the NFL this year.
Even before his conviction for promoting dog fighting landed him in prison, there were serious questions about Vick as an NFL quarterback. He is a great athlete but may be better suited to playing a Kordell Stewart role than at quarterback.
But, no NFL team is going to take on the grief that would be associated with Vick unless the team management thinks he can be a quarterback who gets them to the playoffs. Any team that picks up Vick is certain to face angry demonstrations from the PETA people, who never met a microphone they didn’t like. It wouldn’t be worth it for a player less important than a quarterback.
Plus, there is also the question of how much prison time has affected Vick, physically and mentally. He may no longer be able to play on the highest level.
Vick’s only recourse may be to play in the United Football League, which would welcome the attention he brings, even if it’s negative. The NFL wants good publicity. The UFL just wants publicity, period.
PETE ROSE: A report surfaced this week that commissioner Bud
Selig would lift the ban on Pete Rose being in baseball, which would make him eligible for the Hall of Fame. Rose’s election to the Hall should have been a no-brainer long ago because he didn’t bet on games when he was a player, which is how he should be considered.
But Rose’s omission isn’t the only error the Hall has made Joe Jackson should have been in there long ago. Jackson’s only sin was to be dumb enough to sit in on talks as White Sox players schemed to throw the 1919 World Series. He played no part in that, hitting a solid .375, but commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned him from baseball, anyway, along with his crooked teammates, though they’d been acquitted by a Chicago grand jury.
That kind of erratic judgment was common for Judge Landis. When he got evidence that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were conspiring to throw games, he suppressed it.
This information has been around for decades; I wrote about it in my 1980 book, “The History of American League Baseball,” when I was working mainly from what had been reported by earlier writers.
In late September, 1919, when Cleveland had already clinched second place, and Detroit was fighting for third, Detroit pitcher Duch Leonard met with Cobb, Speaker and outfielder Joe Wood to discuss the next day’s game. “Don’t worry about tomorrow’s game,” Speaker allegedly said. “We have second place clinched and you will win tomorrow.” Cobb was late getting his money down but Wood won $600, which he divided with Speaker and Leonard.
Leonard confessed all this in a letter to American League president Ban Johnson at the end of the 1926 season. He also produced corroborating letters from Cobb and Wood.
Johnson bought up the letters and suspended Cobb and Speaker, but Landis reversed the decision, saying the players had not been convicted of throwing a game. Both Cobb and Speaker retired after that season, but were neither suspended nor banned from the game, so when the Hall of Fame was created in the next decade, they were both voted in. Jackson was not eligible because Lanadis had banned him.
So, maybe Bud Selig isn’t the worst commissioner ever!`
LATINOS AND STEROIDS: Zev Chafets, author of the superb “Cooperstown Confidential,” made an excellent point in a recent interview saying that baseball may be alienating Latinos with its policy on steroids.
In South and Central American countries, steroids can be obtained over the counter. And, Latinos coming to this country may not understand English well enough to know what they aren’t supposed to use.
The result: Those stories about minor league players, who always seem to be Latinos, being suspended because of steroids use.
Even if you’re totally against steroids, this seems a bit ridiculous.
BEST NEWS OF THE DAY: Brett Favre won’t be back, announcing that he doesn’t feel physically able to join the Minnesota Vikings. Favre has had a great career, one which will certainly win him induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but this continuing offseason will he, won’t he soap opera had worn very thin. Enjoy your retirement, Brett.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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