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.
Induction Day: As we arrived at the Clark Sports Center
about a mile south of Cooperstown proper, two things struck us: it was raining lightly and there was a tent set up over the stage where the induction was obviously going to take place. We found where the tour company had set up our chairs and, after changing seats a couple of times to get a better view of the unlighted stage, we settled in to wait the hour before the festivities were set to begin. That’s me on the right in the picture below.
To set the scene, if I were standing on the stage at the podium, I would be looking out at gently rolling fields of grass ending perhaps a quarter of a mile away in thick forest. In front of the stage a rickety dark green picket fence cordoned off an area, which we rightly assumed were for the families of those who would be on stage and other former ballplayers and dignitaries and their retinue. You can see part of the green fence in the picture above. We found out later that we could have paid $200 extra to sit in the VIP area. I would gladly have paid it to sit closer, had we been given the option. But I digress.
Back to me pretending to stand on the stage looking out: to my right was a large TV screen which wasn’t anywhere near big enough to enable those who were near the aforementioned forest to see, but it would help those of us who were in the middle of the pack.
To the left along the road were vendors selling food and souvenirs, as well as a long row of portapotties lined up like fat blue soldiers. Shuttle busses arrived every few minutes behind the portapotties delivering more people and paraphernalia.
New arrivals came out to the field and set up their chairs higgledy piggledy on either side and behind the fenced in area. There were aisles whitewashed into the grass, but they were observed more in their breach than anything else. Over the next hour, those assembled were alternately getting wet when the heavens drizzled and hot when the sun came out, steaming them in their rain gear. The whole thing looked like a cross between an active bee hive and a homeless encampment. See slide show at: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/photogallery/year_2009/month_07/day_26/cf6074528.html.
Induction Ceremony begins Amid Sprinkles: Finally, the festivities began and we were welcomed by the President of the Hall of Fame, Jeff Idelson, who proceeded to introduce the 51 Hall of Famers (of the 65 still living) seated on chairs on the stage.
Those in attendance included such greats as: Dennis Eckersley, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Brooks Robinson, Lou Brock, Johnny Bench, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Senator Jim Bunning, Orlando Cepeda Carl Yastrzemski and Ozzie Smith, who rose as their names were called to standing ovations.
A slight woman with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper curly hair was introduced as Judy Gordon, the daughter of the Veterans’ Committee’s 2009 inductee, the late Joe Gordon who played second base for the Yankees and Cleveland from 1938-1950.
Judy gave a heartfelt speech about her father and what baseball meant to him and his family, declaring with tears flowing that her father refused to have any kind of funeral when he died in 1978, but “We consider Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame as his final resting place, a place he will be honored forever.” By now the sun had come out so it wasn’t rain that adorned the cheeks of many people in the audience.
Power-hitting leftfielder Jim Rice was next introduced to cheers from the many Red Sox fans in attendance.
He talked about his rise in the Red Sox organization where he played his entire career, poked a jab or two at the media with whom he had a testy relationship, and thanked the Baseball Writers Association for voting him in during his last year of eligibility.
Tomorrow: Rickey Steals the Show