Meet the New Mets Mentor: Rickey Henderson

Mets third-base coach Sandy Alomar Sr., who managed Henderson in winter-league ball, believes he has all the makings of an excellent coach.

“He brings a lot of understanding of the game,” Alomar said in the Mets’ clubhouse Wednesday night. “We have a lot of players here who can listen to him, absorb, and really take advantage. He’s been around the game, and really has a chance to be great at this.”

Despite sometimes having difficulty keeping track of his teammates as a player (a staple of the many Rickey Henderson stories, some apocryphal, others true, involves Henderson failing to recognize longtime teammates), he seems to have blended in with the rest of the coaching staff.

“He’s been great to work with,” said Alomar. “He’s added to everything we do.”

Henderson, at least, professes to be unsurprised by the turn of events.

“I always thought I’d be around the game,” Henderson said. “I knew I loved the game so much, I’d want to be able to help guys reach their goals.”

His first chance to do that came when he was hired by the Mets as special instructor during spring training of 2006. He spent the lion’s share of time with Jose Reyes, the Mets’ star shortstop, whose effectiveness during the 2005 season had been compromised by his inability to resist swinging at bad pitches. Reyes walked just 27 times in 2005, earning him a .300 on-base percentage—well below the league average.

Enter Rickey, a man who walked more than 100 times on seven occasions, and at least 95 times in another five seasons.

“He told me how to read a pitcher, at bat and on the bases,” Reyes said. He declined to get into specifics—“I don’t want pitchers reading this”—but added, “He’s taught me a lot. And that was in just a week. Now I get to see him every day.”

Reyes nearly doubled his walk total, to 53, in 2006, and is set to shatter that in 2007, with 52 through the Mets’ first 100 games. His on-base percentage rose to a respectable .354 in 2006, and stands at .376 this year as of July 31—within hailing distance of Henderson’s career mark.

The two of them can often be found standing on the base paths, Reyes in his about-to-steal posture, as the two of them compare notes on the hundreds of small details that can give a base stealer that critical extra few tenths of a second.

“He’s becoming a complete player,” Henderson said of Reyes. “He’s learning every year how to become better, and he keeps applying himself to it.”

Teaching a player of Reyes’ prodigious athletic gifts also allows Henderson to avoid the frustration many great players feel when they turn to coaching. Notably, Ted Williams, who managed the Washington Senators from 1969 to 1971, reportedly often complained that he was a better hitter in his 50’s than the players he oversaw.

“It is a privilege to have a hand in developing a player with his caliber of ability,” Henderson said. “It is a pleasure just being around him.”

Since coming to the Mets, Henderson may have no more important job than helping with the adjustment of Milledge, who drew controversy during his precocious first call-up with the Mets last year, and who, in a move many observers did not feel was coincidental, was recalled from the minor leagues the same day that Henderson was hired.

The pair can frequently be seen talking prior to batting practice and on the bench during games. Milledge has credited Henderson with helping him to relax and perform, blocking out the media distractions that both of them have known so well.

Henderson has told Milledge to worry about his on-field performance rather than let the media’s treatment of his personality affect him.

“It’s something I can relate to,” Henderson said. “I went through the same thing when I was a player. I told him to just be yourself. You can be yourself and still be a great major league ballplayer.”