day 35: man of steal

Today is 35 days, which is five weeks of the omer: malchut she’b’hod.

In 2009 Oakland retired number 24 in honor of left fielder Rickey Henderson, but since Bill James said, “If you split Rickey Henderson in two, you get two Hall-of-Famers,” a good case can be made that the As should have also retired the number 35 in which he began and ended his career, donning it 1979-1984, and then again in 2000, and finally 2002-2003. (Careful readers of this blog will recognize those years and that team as belonging also to Hunter and Holtzman, Day 27 and Day 30 picks, respectively. That Charlie O sure knew what he was doing.)

See for yourself: As #35, Henderson played 791 games with .291 AVG, .400 OBP, 586 runs, 520 walks, and 493 stolen bases. With #24, the stats were 913 games, .285 AVG, .416 OBP, 684 runs, 707 walks, and 374 stolen bases. Elu v’elu.

This clip, aptly entitled “Rickey Henderson Being Incredibly Fast,” says it all.

Henderson was born in Chicago on Christmas Day in 1958, in a 1957 Oldsmobile on the way to the hospital. As he often joked, he was fast from the very beginning. Two years later his family moved to Oakland, where he learned to bat right, even though he threw left, because all his friends swung from the right. He just thought that was the way to hit a baseball.

But it clearly worked for him, as he went on to become the greatest lead-off hitter of all time (all-time leader in homers with 81), in addition to a drawing a prodigious amount of walks (second all-time with 2,190) — necessary skills if you’re also aiming to hold the MLB record in stolen bases, at 1,406. (Just for comparison, the next guy on that list is Lou Brock with the considerably fewer 938 stolen bases.) Bottom line: Henderson made runs happen. He holds the all-time record for that, too, at 2,295.

As I said on Day 7 about Pudgemalchut represents creation, and I maintain that in baseball, whoever controls home plate controls the game. Henderson owned home plate (and really, all the other bases, too). It’s the sefirah of hod that is more of a stretch. Rabbi Art Green explains its association with Aaron, Moses’s brother, the quieter, more unassuming leader. Not exactly Henderson.

He was, in fact, larger than life. As Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci wrote in 2003,

There are certain figures in American history who have passed into the realm of cultural mythology, as if reality could no longer contain their stories: Johnny Appleseed. Wild Bill Hickok. Davy Crockett. Rickey Henderson. They exist on the sometimes narrow margin between Fact and Fiction.

According to the legends, Henderson regularly referred to himself in the third person; warmed up standing naked in front of a mirror psyching himself up with “Rickey’s the best! Rickey’s the best!”; framed instead of depositing a $1 million bonus check; never spent his on-the-road per diem, giving the money to his daughters; negotiated for himself bizarre clauses in his contracts; skipped meetings to review opposing pitchers, preferring to know nothing about their repertoires; perpetually forgot his teammates and coaches, reportedly asking “Whose Robson?” was when his teammates told him the hitting coach had been fired (though in his defense he did play for eight teams during his 25 year career, including four different stints with Oakland); and challenged everyone to (and often cheated at) cards, dominoes, tennis, and basketball. The ubiquitous rejoinder became, “That’s just Rickey being Rickey.”

But he concluded his Hall of Fame induction speech alluding to his hero Muhammad Ali, “I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time. And at this moment, I am … [pause] … very, very humble.”

So let’s take him at his word and count Day 35 in honor of this most humble king of the bases.


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