Growing up in Oakland, he dreamed of being the Raiders‘ running back. But Rickey Henderson had to settle for being one of the best baseball players of all time, spending much of his career with his home-town Athletics.
After 14 seasons, 1,768 hits, 867 stolen bases and 1,270 runs scored in the green and gold, Henderson received the ultimate honor from the A’s who, prior to Monday’s season opener, renamed the Oakland Coliseum playing surface “Rickey Henderson Field.”
Henderson said that news of this decision was shocking:
“It’s a great honor. When I was growing up in Oakland, as a kid playing in the parks around the ballpark, I had no idea that this chance would ever come. The first thing was, me getting the opportunity to play for the Oakland A’s, being from Oakland, and now this has happened. This just a special great moment.”
An Oakland Tech High School graduate and 1976 fourth-round selection of the A’s, “The Man of Steal” finished his 25-year career the major league record holder for steals — both season (130 in 1982) and career (1,406) — runs scored (2,295) and home runs leading off a game (81). His Hall-of-Fame resume also includes 3,055 hits and 297 home runs (167 with his A’s).
All told, he was the obvious choice for this honor, according to team president Dave Kaval, who offered the story of the decision’s Rickey-quick run from not a thought to actually happening. It was birthed during a fan visit during his office hours:
“Someone came in and said ‘hey, we should honor our past more,’ and that’s something that really struck a chord for me as a fan of baseball. They said, ‘how about we name the field after someone,’ and I said ‘Rickey Henderson Field.’ It just kinda came to us, we gave each other a high-five.”
“It’s the least we can do to honor such an amazing person, not only in baseball — really an American treasure — but also in this community of Oakland.”
In fact, the only question still lingering is, why did this take so long.
The self-proclaimed “greatest (base stealer) of all time” (a sentiment certainly backed statistically) retired in 2003. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame 2009, the same year his number 24 — which he wore in his third and fourth (of four) stints with the team — was retired by the A’s.
For the man himself, though, the club’s willingness to honor its storied past (which it hasn’t done much of) is of much more importance:
“I think it’s a long time coming — I thought they really should have been doing this a long time ago. But, you know, it took a special man (Kaval) to come here before us to realize that all these great players that came out of Oakland need to be embraced, they need to be coming around the ballpark.”
The club’s current manager Bob Melvin concurred:
“You could say this type of thing is a long time coming maybe. Embracing the guys from the past, for an organization that has so much history of success, it’s definitely the right thing to do.”
Henderson also had some thoughts regarding the team, and game, Melvin is coaching in these days.
Saying that the current mold of moving station-to-station — one base at a time — while on the base paths has robbed the game of its excitement, saying that the players capable of taking extra bases when possibly are groomed to refrain for fear of their making outs doing so.
He did add, however, that Oakland’s new center fielder and lead-off hitter Rajai Davis — who grew up idolizing Henderson — does bring a flashback to that exciting era of the game he so loves:
“When I heard that Rajai was coming back, I was very happy, because when he was here, and we were together and we were learning about stealing bases, he showed me something that most base-stealers don’t have today — an aggression on the base paths.”
Long before Davis began to torch these Oakland base paths. Before Rickey did. Before he proudly proclaimed, with the third base bag in hand, “Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing. But today, I’m the greatest of all time.” Before he popped his collar rounding first, and introduced pro sports to Oakland swagger. Henderson’s memories went back to a time when he had to steal his way into the Oakland Coliseum:
“This stadium means a whole lot. I grew up in Oakland, I used to come to the ballpark — a lot of times I didn’t have the money to buy a ticket, so somehow we would find a way to get into the ballpark.”
To see the game played on a park that now bears his name.