Two Saturdays ago, Rickey Henderson’s number 24 was retired by the Oakland A’s, who are now coming alive but still in the cellar in the American League West. There was a sellout crowd on hand to witness the event, and a dozen or so of Rickey’s former teammates were on hand to wish him well. These former players were announced and driven onto the field in vintage cars that stopped in front of the A’s dugout so they could walk out onto the infield and gather near 2nd base.
They all looked expectantly down the red carpet that stretched from there to the centerfield gate.
When the gate opened, there stood Rickey, hands raised in salute to the cheering fans. He slowly walked down the red carpet, through what surely must have been the current baseball team from Oakland Tech High School, his alma mater, and, surrounded by annoying print and TV camera men,
made his way slowly to his former teammates. He picked up a gold ceremonial second base and held it aloft as he did when he broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record. He hugged his old friends in turn, and gradually made his way to his seat near the pitcher’s mound and the evening’s emcee, former A’s catcher and current broadcaster, Ray Fosse.
Ray gave a great tribute to Rickey, and announce that the City of Oakland has proclaimed the month of August 2009 Rickey Henderson Month. Ray was followed by Oakland Tribune sportwriter, Dave Newhouse, who remembered at great length his and Rickey’s times in Bay Area baseball. The most moving words came from Rickey’s longtime friend and fellow A’s pitching great, Dave Steward, who was propelled to the podium by the fans chanting “Stew, Stew.” He talked about his good friend, growing up near Rickey in Oakland, and playing together for the A’s. It was clear there was a lot of love between these two great players.
Rickey was then introduced and gave another wonderful speech. This time he gave the Rickeyism fans a few morsels to chew on. He said many of the same things he said in Cooperstown, but mostly he thanked the fans over and over again. For him, it was all about us. For those of us in the stands, it was a Rickey love fest.
Rickey said he was proud to have his number retired, and again he finished with the word “humble.” His mother gave him flowers and his 3 lovely daughters unveiled his jersey now affixed to the left field fence at the Coliseum.
I wish the photographers would not be so in the way!
Eventually, his number will go up on the tarp covering the top deck seats, along with those of Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, the only other players in the Athletics 106-year history to have their numbers retired.
All of us realized that we were in the presence of someone who did what no one will ever do again. The game of baseball has changed since Rickey’s day, and not just because of steroids. Pitchers are coddled, rarely staying in the game more than 7 innings and position players are regularly given days off. Stealing bases is considered a low-risk proposition in the Moneyball era, although the A’s stole the most bases of any team in the majors in July, perhaps a fitting tribute to Rickey.
Rickey’s records are likely to stand the test of time and he will be forever honored in the Hall of Fame and in the hearts of those of us who were lucky enough to see him play. Rickey, I wish you and your wife, Pam, and your three lovely daughters the happy lives you all deserve, and know that you will never be forgotten, certainly not by this A’s fan.