Rickey looking forward to induction
Baseball world anticipating colorful speech from legend
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Talent often goes wasted when not paired with drive, desire, a willingness to learn and sincere attempts to improve.
Despite often making baseball look like a ridiculously easy game, Rickey Henderson put all of the above attributes together on his way to becoming a Hall of Fame player.
He's done the same in advance of his highly anticipated Hall of Fame speech on Sunday, going as far as attending public-speaking classes at a college in his hometown of Oakland, Calif.
"I just want to make sure I don't make any mistakes," Henderson said at an induction eve news conference Saturday.
One of the most gifted athletes to emerge from the talent-rich playgrounds of the East Bay Area, Henderson could do it all.
He was so dominant in basketball, a childhood friend recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, "If Rickey was on your team, nobody could beat you."
So dominant in football was Henderson that as a high school All-American, several major colleges offered him full scholarships as a running back. And he insists to this day that if he'd been allowed to play for his hometown's NFL Raiders, he'd have been Bo Jackson before even Bo knew Bo.
Following the advice and insistence of his beloved mother, however, Henderson eventually settled on a singular focus, and we all know how that worked out. It's what brought him here this weekend, for his Sunday induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
But while the Hall of Fame, at its core, is about talent, there are scores of ballplayers blessed with sensational skill sets who never reached the level of achievement and acclaim for which Henderson is being recognized this weekend.
Former teammates will tell you Henderson's immense talent obscured the fact that he was one of the most intelligent and well-prepared players they've ever seen.
On Saturday, Henderson spoke of the preparation he's put into his Sunday speech. At the urging of his friend, Fred Atkins, he spent two weeks as a guest student at Laney Junior College in Oakland.
"He wanted me to get in touch with people, so he took me to a class to get in front of students," Henderson explained. "I thought I was going to listen to the students give their speeches, but [the instructor] called my name and sent me right up to the podium to speak to the kids."
Initially reluctant, Henderson warmed to the process and became a regular, soliciting, receiving and implementing feedback from his far less-famous classmates.
Eventually, Henderson delivered his speech in front of the class outdoors in an effort to replicate the environment in which he'll speak Sunday.
The class instructor, Earl Robinson, told the Oakland Tribune that Henderson was a model student, impressing with the same work ethic and ability to make adjustments that helped pave the way to a Cooperstown career.
"[One] class ended at 8:15, but Rickey wanted to keep working," said Robinson, who played for the Dodgers, Orioles and White Sox in the mid-1960s. "The students didn't want to leave, either. I finally said, 'Folks, we have to go home.'
"He was committed, and he was more organized than I thought he would be. He was on time, he was patient, he listened, he absorbed and assimilated the suggestions he got and tweaked it. I was impressed.
"He astounded me, in fact."
Astounding observers is nothing new to Henderson, who owns the all-time records for stolen bases in a season (130) and career (1,406), for runs scored (2,295) and for leading off a game with a home run (81). He also held the career record for walks (2,190) before it was broken by Barry Bonds.
He was a Gold Glove left fielder, a 10-time All-Star, a three-time Silver Slugger Award winner, the 1990 American League MVP, the 1989 AL Championship Series MVP, and the AL single-season leader in stolen bases 12 times. When his 25-year career came to a close, Henderson had amassed 3,055 hits with a .401 on-base percentage, 297 home runs and 1,115 RBIs.
"He could make a lot of things happen," said former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, a fellow member of the HOF Class of 2009. "I mean, a lot."
A remarkable physical specimen to this day, Henderson never officially retired from the game and has frequently mentioned over the years that he could probably still play.
With that in mind, someone asked him Saturday if he'd been in recent contact with general manager Kevin Towers of the Padres, the team with which he set the career record for runs scored -- with a slide into the plate following a bases-loaded walk -- at age 42 in 2001.
Henderson's Hall of Fame plaque will picture him in the cap of his hometown A's, with whom he had four stints, but fans on both coasts and in Canada called him their own at one time or another. He also played for the Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres, Angels, Mets, Red Sox and Mariners.
"I haven't been in touch with Kevin Towers about playing any more," Henderson said with a sly smile, "but the way the Padres are playing, all he's gotta do is give me a call and I'll go out there and try to help him."
That drew the biggest laugh of the day. But Henderson was stone serious in his initial response to another reporter's playful observation that Rickey had yet to refer to himself as Rickey.
"I really don't think you know me," Henderson said sternly, "because I never talk in the third party. ... It was like a joke that just stuck with me."
He went on to explain, in less harsh tones, that his reputed affinity for speaking in the third person has been largely overblown. He suspects it came from his frequent self-admonishments in the batter's box.
"People thought I was talking to myself, and they thought I was in the third party," he said. "But I never answered myself. I let the bat do all the talking."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.