The Long Beach Armada’s mascot, a parrot named Arby I, pronounced thoughtfully
as RBI, squirts me with a water gun. Maybe it’s because I’m sitting in the box
seats behind home plate when I’m supposed to be sitting up in the press box. Or
maybe it’s because the parrot knows that I’m rooting for Rickey Henderson, the
46-year-old marvel who refuses to retire and who plays for the visitors, the San
Diego Surf Dawgs, of the upstart Golden League.
Last time I saw Henderson was about three weeks ago down in San Diego, when to my surprise he did not hit leadoff. Perhaps as a concession to his age or as an acknowledgment of his power, he hit third that night against the Samurai Bears, an all-Japanese traveling team, a throwback to the days of the barnstormers, like the late Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, who once toured the country taking on the hometown hopefuls. Rickey himself is a throwback, a latter-day Paige. But can he still perform tricks like Paige, who would famously call in his outfielders and strike out the side on nine pitches? Specifically, can Henderson still steal?
Henderson looks great as he strolls to the plate displaying the same chiseled, 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame he has owned since he came up to the big leagues in 1979.
“Let’s go, Rickey,” someone shouts, as the future Hall of Famer falls behind in the count, one ball and two strikes. Three pitches, and he hasn’t swung. But Henderson’s patience has always been one of his greatest assets. He watches three more pitches sail outside the strike zone and trots over to first base with a walk.
Henderson takes a moderate lead off first base, and the Armada pitcher doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to the greatest base stealer in the history of the game. He doesn’t toss the ball over to the first baseman. He doesn’t stare Henderson back to the base. He doesn’t even look at him, but Henderson is reading the man.
As the pitcher gets into his next wind-up, Henderson takes off, barrels down the path and dives in headfirst into second. The catcher doesn’t even attempt a throw. There were always faster runners, like Willie Wilson, but no one had Henderson’s combination of speed and intelligence, the knowledge of the pitchers’ motions.
No doubt distracted by Henderson, the pitcher issues another walk. The next hitter lines a base hit to center field, but Henderson holds at third after the center fielder fires a strike to the plate. In his prime, he always would have scored from second on a single. But he is, after all, 46 years old.
When his teammate grounds out on the next pitch, Henderson eases into home with the first run of the game. He pauses as he steps on the plate, as if to remind himself what it feels like to score a run. How many times over the years has he gotten on base in the first inning, stolen second and come home to score, putting his team in the lead?
As the game moves on, Henderson gets called out on a disputed third strike, prompting one local fan to exclaim, “Mr. Umpire, we came to see Rickey, not you.” But the legend is gracious and does not contest the umpire other than to extend his bat to indicate how far outside the pitch was. Later, he grounds out to the second baseman and flies out to right field. He’s swinging late, and his average, which was well over .300 just a few weeks ago, has plummeted to around .250.
He looks tired. He squats in center field between pitches. He tosses the ball gingerly to the left fielder. He is always the last one on and off the field at the beginning or end of an inning.
But Henderson is clearly having fun. He gently high-fives the diminutive batboy after the kid has retrieved a ball. He nods to the fans. He twirls his bat like it’s a baton. And he sits on the dugout steps, relaxing with his teammates.
Finally, with his team leading 5-0 in the ninth inning, Henderson comes to the
plate for what looks to be the last time. He is facing a left-hander, a squat
hurler named Gavin Bangs from Bonita, California. Henderson strolls even more
slowly than usual to the batter’s box, and the fans give him his biggest applause
of the night. He takes the first pitch for a strike, and the second, too. He’s
behind in the count. The ball comes in, and he grounds it to the second baseman.
Again, he has swung late at the pitch, and again he is thrown out. The fans clap
politely as Henderson peels back the Velcro on his gloves and sits on the dugout
steps. He is tired, but he will play another day.