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Rickey Bears Soul
2003-05-14 00:27
by Mike Carminati

The NY Times has a great but short interview of the 44-year-old Newark Bear, i.e., Rickey Henderson.

Rickey on why he's playing in the minors this year: "Because I love the game, man. I have a lot of fun playing, being around the guys. And I know I can still help a major-league team. That's why I'm here -- to prove that I can still play."

"Wow. I don't feel that old."--Rickey upon learning that he played with teammates of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Warren Spahn.

That baseball couldn't use his talent and his personality shows you how mired in its own lore baseball truly is, on and off the field. Henderson is not the player he once was but can still be a useful role player. However, his effectiveness is not based on his batting average but rather his on-base percentage. Too few teams still value on-base to battine average. Off the field his fiery personality became regarded as abrasive instead of competitive. How competitive does a man have to be to be a major-leaguer into his mid-forties? Or to take a job with a minor-league club outside of organized ball in hopes to get back to the majors?

That his personality couldn't be more productively channeled is an indictment of the sport. The NBA knew how to market players like Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman and their teams knew how to win with their unique personalities. Baseball is not so forgiving nor so creative. Henderson was always respected but was never given his due as a marketable personality in his prime. The same could be said of Barry Bonds today. If baseball wants to know why it can't get enough fannies in the seats, the reason is that the keepers of the sport have been too busy over the last ten or so years trying to bust the union to actually sell the game.

One last quote from Rickey:

Q: If you get another chance in the majors and don't play well, will it hurt your legacy? People still talk about Willie Mays falling down in the outfield.

A: I don't know how long Willie Mays kept at it when it was frustrating to him. I'll quit before that. I haven't reached that point yet.

First, Willie Mays had a very quick demise. He has a poor half-season in 1972 with the Giants but more than made up for it with a great second half with the Mets. His final year, 1973, was pretty pathetic (OPS 19% below the adjusted league average), but it lasted only 66 games.

Those stories circulated about Mays, but how bad or slow could he have been if he stole 23 bases in 1971, his last full season. His range in the outfield remained well above average throughout his career. It was better than the Mets' 24-year-old, starting center fielder Don Hahn in Mays' final year. Injuries and age finally caught up with him, but it's not like he stuck it out for years when it was apparent that he no longer could compete. His second to last year his OPS was 31% better than the park-adjusted league average after all.

Also, Henderson is upholding an age-old tradition in baseball of players, even all-time greats, returning to the minors to finish out their careers. It seems odd today given the money that players are paid, but I think it's commendable. And contrary to what you might hear on Mike and the Mad Dog, it shows that Henderson is doing it out of a love for the game. It's a shame that it probably would lead him back to the majors.

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