Mark McGwire's biceps symbolize big bang baseball. Rickey Henderson's thighs, which are responsible for what still may be the quickest first step in baseball, are the key to this: baseball's history is written largely in numbers, and numbers say Henderson's may have been the most impressive all-round career in the last quarter century.
His gaudiest number--1,299 stolen bases, and counting--is a record you will never see broken. Here is another: 130 steals in a season (1982). He already has 38.5 percent (361) more than the second greatest thief, Lou Brock. With Oakland last year, Henderson led the American League with 66 stolen bases--four more than the Mets' team total. Joe DiMaggio, a fine base runner, stole only 30 bases in a 13-year career. DiMaggio's season high was six. Henderson has stolen five in a game.
For half a century after Babe Ruth made baseball homer-happy, and especially in the 1950s, baseball became simple-minded. Most teams, most of the time, just tried to get runners on base and then get a home run. But in 1962 a small Dodgers infielder, Maury Wills, began helping baseball rediscover the running game. Soon Brock's Cardinals, playing in a big park with artificial turf, were winning by using speed to manufacture runs. Then Henderson began his sprint to Cooperstown.
Henderson, who was McGwire's teammate in the Oakland A's salad days of the late 1980s, is only 5 feet 10, 190 pounds, but his sculptured, 40-year-old body has about as much fat as a carrot. This year, his first with his sixth team, he will be the Mets' ignition system. He is closing in on two records set 71 and 64 years ago by two of the first five players voted into the Hall of Fame in 1936 . Henderson has (through last Friday's games) scored 2,026 runs, hot on the heels of Ty Cobb's 2,245. One reason Henderson has scored so many runs is that he has walked 1,903 times, just 166 fewer than Ruth's 2,056.
That Henderson is the greatest leadoff man in history has little to do with the record 73 times he has led off games with home runs. Rather, something mundane makes him spectacular--the banality of the base on balls. He knows how to "work the count." Last year he saw more pitches per at- bat (4.33) than anyone else in baseball. In addition to all his walks, he has 2,689 hits and a career on-base average of about .404.
Henderson's excellence involves a paradox. His career as a base runner is a reminder, after last season's home run barrage, that baseball is a team game: more often than not, and at its most interesting, scoring involves more than one big blast. On the other hand, Henderson, more even than a prodigious home run hitter like McGwire, demonstrates the pure individualism that is possible within the team game. In basketball, one man can take over a game. In baseball, no position player--no one other than a pitcher on an unusually dominating day--can. But for many years, Henderson has come close.
This will be the 20th season in which, when he reaches first base, the complexion of the game changes. The middle infielders have to prepare to cover second. The pitcher has to throw over to first, perhaps again and again, to limit Henderson's lead. The next batters, the big boppers in the heart of the lineup, can look for lots of fastballs from a pitcher who wants to get the ball to the catcher as quickly as possible, in case the catcher has to try to get it to second before Henderson gets there. To hasten his delivery, the pitcher may go to a "slide step," not lifting his front leg as high as he otherwise would--which costs the pitcher velocity.
Occasionally Henderson will stay at first just to make the pitcher do that: imagine throwing slide-step fastballs to young Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire with Henderson on base. That is what pitchers often had to do when facing the 1989 A's, a team that might have been better than the 1998 Yankees. This year Henderson, by staying at first, will sometimes make Mets catcher Mike Piazza an even better hitter.
People who say baseball is not a contact sport have never rounded third at full tilt, hoping to hit the catcher--usually the sort of person who looks as though he were designed by the people who designed Stonehenge--just as a relay throw from an infielder hits the catcher's mitt. And then there is contact with the solid earth of the infield.
To understand the toll base stealing takes on runners who slide head first, imagine hurling yourself on your chest, onto packed dirt, from a car traveling at about 20 miles an hour. Imagine doing that the 1,299 times Henderson has done it successfully, and the 304 times he has done it when he was caught stealing. Then add the 2,000 or so times he has dived on his chest back into first base to beat throws from nervous pitchers. Doesn't it make him ache just thinking about it? "No," he says, "you learn to land smooth, like an airplane," and he sweeps his hand on a gentle downward glide. (If you believe it is painless, hurl yourself from your car.)
This year Henderson probably will become the second 40- year-old to steal more bases than his years. (Davey Lopes stole 47 at 40.) When relaxed and voluble, which he usually is around ballplayers and rarely is among outsiders, he breaks into bursts of laughter and punctuates his conversation with little spasms of his body, convulsions of energy akin to faking a break for second base. Asked if, when he gets to first base, he assumes he will soon be at second by his own effort, he laughs: "Ten years ago I assumed." Then he heads for batting practice, radiating the electricity and professionalism that have earned him two world- championship rings--so far. Do not bet against Henderson's legs propelling the Mets into the postseason.
He began this season briskly. In the Mets' opening three- game series he reached base by hits or walks nine times, homered twice, doubled three times, drove in four runs, scored five and, of course, stole a base. He half expects to steal 50 when he is 50. Get out to see him this year. You will not see his like again.