Oakland's champion base stealer's secret: he's just faster than others

It is not unusual for a ballplayer nearing a record to build excitement quickly, hype attendance wherever he goes, and put tons of pressure on himself.

The first two statements when applied to outfielder Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A's are true. The last one is not. But Henderson, barring injuries, will soon eclipse Lou Brock's all-time major league mark of 118 stolen bases in a single season.

Still there is little about Rickey physically to suggest the performance of a greyhound. Actually his pistonlike legs create a kind of blocky look, especially on a man 5ft. 10in. and 198 pounds.

You're almost tempted to say that he must have gotten his speed by looking in the Yellow Pages. Leroy Nieman probably would paint him as a halfback. In street clothes, he could be any 23-year-old with a rugged build.

''Once you know you have the ability to be successful at something most of the time, then there is no reason to put pressure on yourself,'' Henderson told me in the visitors dugout at Anaheim Stadium. ''When my chance comes to run, no matter how often the pitcher throws to first base to restrict my lead, I'm going to steal. If I'm picked off or thrown out, I accept it as part of the game and figure I'll make it next time. I always look ahead, not behind.

''The way I steal is to study opposing pitchers and commit their movements to memory,'' Rickey continued. ''I don't care who the pitcher is or how long he's been around, his move to home plate will be different than the one he makes to first base. Once I get that picture in my mind, I know when to stay and when to go. If a pitcher is careless and gives me the chance to get a big lead, I'll take it. But usually I'm never off the bag more than 31/2 steps.''

Since so much has been written about how the legs of Ty Cobb and Maury Wills always took such a beating from slides and collisions with opposing infielders, Henderson was asked how he handled that part of stealing.

''To tell you the truth, I'm not having problems like that, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way I slide,'' Rickey replied. ''When I first started to steal in the minor leagues, I used a conventional seat-first slide into second base and occasionally picked up some injuries along the way.

''But once I began wearing gloves and started sliding headfirst into bases, because I found it got me to where I was going quicker, I rarely got banged up at all. There really isn't much contact when the infielder straddles the base and has to reach down to make the tag. Also, the lead I take off first base is short enough so that I can usually get back to the bag on a pickoff throw without having to dive on the ground.''

Asked if he was aware that Brock always said that the distance from first to second base for him wasn't 90 feet but 131/2 running steps, Henderson seemed surprised at the information. ''You know, I've never counted how many running steps it is for me, but 131/2 sounds about right,'' he said.

Oakland Coach Charlie Metro, who once managed the Chicago Cubs and scouted Wills and Brock often enough to be familiar with their styles, says that Henderson has the quickest takeoff of any runner he's ever watched.

''The reason I'm willing to make a statement like that is because Rickey gets to where he is going faster than either Wills or Brock did,'' Metro volunteered. ''We've put a stopwatch on him a couple of times when he's stolen second and come up with the figure 2.8 seconds. I mean that's about as fast as you can get, and when you add the headfirst slide, the infielder taking the throw is almost always reaching for his target.''

Henderson despite all his ability, almost never runs without first getting a signal from Manager Billy Martin or one of his coaches. If you ask Rickey if Martin's way creates additional problems for him, he won't knock the system, but you get the impression that he'd prefer to run on his own.

Henderson isn't just a great base stealer. He's also a great outfielder with an even .300 batting average for his first three years in the majors. He really added to Oakland's offense in 1980 when he walked 117 times to go along with 179 hits, including 22 doubles. That was also the year he broke Cobb's American League record of 96 stolen bases in a season, finishing with an even 100.

Defensively, from his left field position, Rickey can get to almost any outfield fly that stays in the ballpark. Opposing line drives hit into the power alleys between outfielders that generally go for extra bases against other clubs are often caught by No. 35.

Henderson's unusual batting stance, which resembles a guy getting part way up off a couch to hit, makes him look as though he's swinging up at the pitcher, and he says gives him a better look at the ball. It also just about guarantees a lot of walks each season, which helps to explain why Henderson seems to be on base all the time even in a year like this one when his batting average has tailed off a bit to the .270s.

When you put it all together and add the 96 stolen bases he has already piled up (through Wednesday night), it's easy to see why he is a leading candidate as the American League's Most Valuable Player for 1982. The only thing Rickey doesn't have, in fact, is power - a minor point when you consider that he turns nearly every walk or single into a two-base hit.

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