So maybe hiring Rickey Henderson to be a coach isn’t such a crazy idea after all.
Certainly, in the weeks since the New York Mets hired him as the team’s first-base coach, some players have come to swear by him.
“We’ve really connected,” 22-year-old outfielder Lastings Milledge said. “He’s helped me with my approach at the plate, my approach in general.”
Milledge, who can frequently be seen deep in discussion with Henderson on the field during practice sessions and in the locker room, has hit .286 through July 26, with three home runs and a .492 slugging percentage, and has made numerous crucial, hustling plays in the field and on the base paths.
“I think it’s just about giving him confidence,” Henderson said. “Maybe the last time up here, he didn’t carry himself as a major leaguer. But I’ve been very impressed with him since I’ve been up here.”
Few former players would have been considered a less likely choice than Henderson to mentor young players.
During his brilliant but tempestuous career with the A’s, Yankees and Mets, among other teams—he’s the all-time leader in stolen bases, with 1,406; his career on-base percentage is a robust .401; and back when he was signed by the Mets as a player in 1999, he’d led off more games with a home run (73) than the Mets franchise had in 37 years (72)—he seemed perpetually upset about his contract, though he usually was among the top-paid players in the game. He was known for providing reporters with ample material, often in the third person. (Rickey was just being Rickey long before Manny began being Manny).
Henderson’s playing tenure with the Mets ended poorly after reports surfaced that he and teammate Bobby Bonilla were in the clubhouse playing cards as the Mets battled the Braves during game six of the National League Championship Series. By the middle of the 2000 season, Henderson had complained his way into being released.
Still, after Rickey failed to find a major league club willing to let him continue his career after 2003 (he reportedly called Padres G.M. Kevin Towers and left a message that began, “This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey,” to no avail), Henderson decided that he wanted to do what it took to be a part of baseball.
He found a taker in the Mets, who announced him on July 12 as a full-time first base coach, after several week-long stints as a spring-training instructor.
The transition has not come easily for a man who, as recently as a few months ago, still held out hope of playing this season.
“What’s different is that you’re not physically out there playing,” Henderson said, sitting at his locker at Shea Stadium following a recent 8-4 loss to the Pirates. “So it’s strange, getting ready for a game and then having no place to put that physical energy. But it’s a definite plus, getting the chance to put that effort into these players, trying to help them get better.”
On game days, he seems to be everywhere, talking to the hitters as they take batting practice; standing next to the Mets’ young double-play combination, Jose Reyes and Ruben Gotay, as the pair stretch along the first-base line; and then ducking into a tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse, headset on, to provide the visiting Pirates’ radio affiliate with a few minutes of his time.
Nor can he keep still once the game begins. He’s constantly talking to the players at first base, and when the team is in the dugout, he can be seen going over the fine points of a batting stance, often jumping up and assuming his famous crouched deportment to illustrate a lesson.
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.”