We all have our idols, people we look up to as kids. We worship them. Not those important parental or educator types…the unattainable kind. Actors. Artists. Musicians. Entertainers. Athletes. Sometimes we grow out of that youthful infatuation and sometimes we hold them for our entire lives. It becomes an eternal adoration or idolization. For me, that person was Rickey Henderson. Yeah, he’s a love him / hate him kinda guy. He can be aloof and impersonal, distant and at times. Possibly even off-putting for some of those old school baseball folks that players should be less flashy and less self-aware. Rickey played to the beat of his own drum. He was the soloist in the Miles Davis quintet. A player that could make a team great, but by his own right was great as well. A singular character that played for some of the greatest Oakland Athletic teams in the 1990’s.
My initial attraction to him as a player was in 1982. I was six going on seven. He was headed towards 130 stolen bases. Stealing bases like he was put on earth to do just that…well, rattle the opposing teams pitcher as well…and I loved it. For me, that was IT! On the other hand, the baseball my father loved were the George Brett and Mike Schmidt kinda guys, phenomenal hitting third basemen that had a completely different way they approached the game of baseball…by no means bad at all…just different.
Around this time, I really began to love the game but didn’t have a favorite team. I grew up in San Antonio and really was not into the Astros with their sherbet rainbow pullovers or the players, short of Nolan Ryan. The other option I had as a kid in Texas was the Texas Rangers…yeah…NO. I had already fully established myself as a Washington Football Team (nee Redskins) fan and couldn’t attach myself to a Dallas area team of any kind. So, for the short time being I was a half-hearted A’s fan…really a Rickey Henderson fan, and he just so happened to play for the Oakland Athletics. This all changed in the Winter of 1984. He was traded to the New York Yankees. By this time, I’m a nine year old savant baseball fan…not really. I just watched games and bought baseball cards, but I loved the game so so so much before my first decade on earth. So, now it seemed like the perfect time to pick a ‘favorite’ team. Well, I might as well pick the team that my favorite player plays for, right? The New York Yankees. Yes. The Bronx Bombers or Evil Empire depending on whom you root for yourselves. I was a Rickey Henderson fan first and a Yankees fan second, but a close second, really it was 1A and 1B
By this time, my parents had split up and I was your typical latchkey ’80’s kid. The son of a single working mom. She attended night school working towards her bachelor’s degree. She worked a lot and we were ok financially, by no means set, but we were good. Well, not good enough to do anything we wanted to do, like take a trip somewhere fun and exciting. My mom knew this but she also knew how much baseball meant to me during the summer of ’87. She managed to purchase two seats for the New York Yankees vs. Texas Rangers in Arlington. Just a mere five hour drive to the north on I-35. That’s how far Rickey Henderson was from me. My idol. In my mind I was going to meet him and we were going to become great friends and I would write him and he would write me. I had it all planned out, you see. My mother reminded me that you should never meet your idols or those that you admire as they will underwhelm you. I wasn’t going for that. I wanted to get his autograph and tell him that he was my favorite player. Nobody in Texas could possibly be as big a fan as I was. I was his biggest fan in the biggest state…well the biggest state in the contiguous continent.
We headed up to Arlington early that Saturday morning for the five hour drive. South Texas is hot, but North Texas ain’t much better. The old 1984 Buick Skylark had marginal AC at it’s best and a strong tendency to overheat and breakdown on occasion. Guess what? It did just that. Broke down. On the side of the highway just north of Austin. Barely an hour outside of our home. That was it. I wasn’t going to see my favorite player on my favorite team play. I was dejected. Broken. On the verge of tears. Keep in mind, I was a kid that didn’t cry much, my expressions were released more physically and in a way that now embarrass me. My mom could see this and to her credit, she wasn’t letting this trip get away. After we found out from the local mechanic that we could ‘maybe’ make it to Arlington and back if we take it slow and constantly check the coolant in the engine we would be able to complete our road trip. And so, we did. I will never forget this act from my mother, she pressed forward when the smart thing was to turn back around and play it safe…she pressed forward. That five hour drive turned into a nearly 7 hour drive. We ended up going straight to the park, deciding to check into the Holiday Inn after the game. Arriving just in time for the first pitch. This wasn’t my first baseball game, but it was my first game outdoors, I had been to a few games in the Astrodome. This was different and it was AMAZING! The New York Yankees, THE NEW YORK FRICKIN’ YANKEES vs. the Rangers. We quickly made our way to the seats to watch Jose Guzman get Mattingly to ground out to first. I missed Rickey’s first at bat…damn.
Rickey came up three more times that night and ended up going 1-3 with a single. No stolen bases and a loss for the New York Yankees. Side note, this was also the last night Don Mattingly homered during his eight game consecutive streak. Knocking a dinger of Guzman in the 4th inning. I got to see that and that was a great piece of history to be a part of.
The next night, July 19th. Rickey doesn’t show up for pre-game warm ups. Rickey doesn’t have his name on the scoreboard. Rickey doesn’t play. Damn. We were headed back in the morning and I got to see my idol come to bat three times with one single and no stolen bases. Not to mention, this Sunday night, Mattingly goes homerless for the first time since July 8th and the Yankees lose 3-20. I did get to see Rick Cerone pitch to Bobby Witt, with Witt almost taking him deep with a couple long foul balls.
I did manage to get a photo of Rickey at the game and here it is!
Apparently approaching players in the bullpen during a game for an autograph is a no-no. Charles Hudson was happy to let me know that was the case. The trip wasn’t a failure, but it was not a success either in my 11 year old mind.
Let’s fast forward to 1990. The Oakland Athletics are dominant, like one of the greatest of all time teams dominant. A true murderers row of sluggers and solid defense. My mom always coming through knew how amazing it would be for me to see Rickey once again. She knew he was my guy, the only player that I really ever cared this much about. She did it again. For my 15th birthday, she got two tickets for the two games at the end of September. The last games of the season for both teams…well almost last games. We had tickets to the Saturday and Sunday games in Arlington. Same long hot drive, although less hot due to Fall all around us. Also, mom had a new car, a 1990 Corsica! Yeah! No need to stop and check the engine coolant, plus we were actually able to roll the windows down on this trip.
Our arrival this time allows us to check in to the hotel, get some food and head to the game for early BP. By this time I was a seasoned autograph hound and knew where to place myself for in-person autographs of players I wanted to sign. My mom hated this though, it meant we were in an incredibly uncomfortable hotbox of a stadium on a 90degree day. She had nothing better to do than to just sit in the stands and read a book while I grabbed the autos of my favorite players.
As I made my way to the lower bowl, I attempted to get McGwire autograph which was an absolute joke. He was swarmed and wasn’t even getting close to him. Canseco? Forget about it…Weiss signed. Lansford signed. The Eck even signed a few. The whole time I had my eye on Rickey. Rickey took batting practice. Rickey took in some sprints. Rickey untied his shoes. Rickey tied his shoes. Rickey walked around the batting cage. I’m standing off to the side just waiting, having given up on the other superstars. I wanted my superstars autograph.
Rickey had his head down. Rickey was walking to me. I was modestly shouting Mr. HENDER-SON. Rickey got close. My modesty turned to one of those Beatles fan-girl videos and I was just straight up shouting. RICKEY, RICKEY, RICKEY. Rickey looks up. Rickey sees me. Rickey walks towards me. Rickey gets closer. In seconds, I’m swarmed by other auto hounds…pushed aside by some adults that do not need to be here, but this is my chance. I am not going to fail. I am going to get this autograph. Rickey signs that guys card. Rickey signs that kids card. Then suddenly, Rickey signs my card. HOLY SHIT. I’m shaking…I got Rickey Henderson’s autograph during batting practice on September 29th 1990 on a 1990 Donruss, number 304. Here it is.
This is the last autograph I’ve ever asked of someone in person or through the mail, I stopped doing TTM’s. I stopped getting to games early for batting practice autographs. It all stopped. I got the autograph I wanted. Rickey Henderson. Just wish I had a better pen…
I’m your idol the highest title, numero uno…And now, a special presentation from Special Ed…He has a frog, a dog with a solid gold bone.