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The Christmas Yankee – Rickey Henderson

I grew up as a Yankees fan in the late 1970’s. The first year I ever rooted for the Yankees was 1977 and my love of the team was cemented when Reggie Jackson hit three long balls into the night in October of that year.

It was a wonderful time to be a Yankees fan. I was too young to really understand the dynamics that created all of the turmoil that surrounded the team at that time – all I knew was that the Yankees won and won and won and that my favorite players seemed to be larger than life in so many ways. It seemed that every day there was a highlight…

In 1978, Ron Guidry wowed us all when he struck out 18 California Angels:

What a night that was to be a Yankees fan! Ron Guidry finished the 1978 season with a 25-3 record. As I watched the footage above, I also fondly remembered the announcing team of Frank Messer, Bill White, and Phil Rizzuto. Those three voices helped to shape my love of the baseball and the Yankees in particular.

And the highlights just kept coming. I’ll never forget Game 3 of the 1978 World Series when my favorite player of all, Graig Nettles, performed magic with his glove to turn the entire series around:

I had been a fan for two years and for two years, the Yankees were the World Champions. This was fun!

But, the fun wouldn’t last…

In 1979, the death of Thurman Munson was devastating. Until that point, I never truly knew that heroes could actually die…

In 1980, the Yankees went to the American League Playoffs and lost. Then in 1981, they went to the World Series and lost again.

In 1982, the Yankees were a poorly constructed club. They did well enough in 1983 and 1984, but they kept falling short.

The years passed and I wasn’t a little kid any longer. I was getting eager for a World Series…

And then, on December 5, 1984, the Yankees made a trade that I felt was the thing that would propel them to a collection of World Series titles – they acquired the great Rickey Henderson from the Oakland A’s.

This I couldn’t believe. Rickey was one of the young greats in the game. The Yankees acquired him for a package of players (Jose Rijo, Eric Plunk, Stan Javier, Jay Howell, and Tim Birtsas) that I knew would never amount to whatever Henderson would bring to the Yankees. The Yankees had a brand new superstar – one of the true stars of the game. Rickey Henderson was a Yankee. I couldn’t believe it.

In his career to that point, Rickey Henderson, born on Christmas Day, December 25, 1958, had accumulated a lifetime batting line of .291/51/271 in his five years with Oakland. We didn’t talk about On-Base Percentage back then, but we all knew that he walked all the time (his lifetime OBP at the time of the trade was .400) and that he stole bases, 493 in his career to that point, with abandon. Rickey was a superstar in every sense of the word. He was also only 25 years old.

Adding Rickey Henderson to the Yankees was a dream come true. I knew he’d partner with the young Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield to power the Yankees to success. I figured that with Rickey Henderson on the team, the Yankees would be winning pennants left and right…

And Rickey did his part.

In his first season in the Bronx, 1985, Henderson’s numbers were .314/24/72 (those were the stats we first looked at, always, back then) with 80 stolen bases and an unheard of 146 runs scored. HOLY COW! Rickey was awesome. Awesome. Rickey brought style and flair and excitement to the Yankees. When he wasn’t getting on base and stealing bases, he was blasting home runs. Henderson had a particular penchant for blasting home runs to start the game:

In that 1985 season, the Yankees were actually very very good. They won 97 games. Had there been a Wild Card back then, they would have made the post season and who knows what could have happened, but, alas!, in those days for expanded playoffs, they finished in second place two (long) games behind the 99-win Toronto Blue Jays. As such, there was no post season in the Bronx in 1985.

Rickey was a powerhouse again in 1986. His batting average (.263) was a disappointment, but he still slugged 28 homers, drove in 74 runs, and stole 87 bases. The Yankees won 90 games, again a second place team, finishing this time behind the Red Sox. 1986 was a frustrating year to be a Yankees fan as in the National League, the Mets won the pennant, and in an epic battle with the Red Sox, the World Series as well.

I figured that 1987 would be the year for the Yankees. It just had to be.

But it wasn’t. Henderson, when he played, was very good, he batted .291 with an On-Base Percentage of .423 (the highest of his career to that point), and he slammed 17 homers…but injuries limited the great Rickey to only 95 games. It was a frustrating season. Talks of Rickey being lazy or embellishing his injury captured the headlines as his “hammy” never seemed to heal quickly enough. The Yankees won only 89 games that year and finished in fourth place. (Meanwhile the Mets were winning another pennant, but not another World Series).

Before the 1988 season, the Yankees acquired superstar Jack Clark coming off what was his greatest season. Prospects were bright, hope was once again brewing… and Rickey Henderson said that he was gearing up to steal 100 bases…

In 1988, Rickey again did his part. He came back and played in 140 games. He batted .305. He scored 118 runs. And he stole 93 bases. For whatever reason, though, he stopped hitting homers, blasting only six all year. He was only thirty, but people started saying that Rickey was old. “He’s an old 30,” they said.

That 1988 Yankees team was a huge disappointment. In his only season in New York, Jack Clark hit only .242 with just 27 homers. The Yankees won just 85 games finishing in fifth place. The bottom seemed to be falling out…

And then, the next season, on June 21, 1989, the Yankees, in what was also a move that most fans saw as an immediate disaster, sent Rickey Henderson back to the Oakland A’s for three players – Luis Polonia, Greg Cadaret, and Eric Plunk (the same guy who went from New York to Oakland in the original Henderson trade). The Rickey Henderson era, begun with such promise, was over.

For his Yankees career, Rickey Henderson put up the following numbers: 596 games, .288/78/255. He stole 326 bases as a Yankee and scored a remarkable 513 runs. He was an exciting player when he first came to New York. He arrived filled with promise and he gave the fans a great deal of hope. In the end, though, during a period of turbulence with managers and players coming and going, the Yankees themselves never really got on a roll. As the 1980’s continued, the Yankees got progressively worse. In 1989, they won only 74 games, and then, in 1990, they hit rock bottom winning only 67 games finishing in last place.

Rickey Henderson, meanwhile, was experiencing a re-birth. Over the remainder of the 1989 season, he batted .294 for Oakland and clubbed nine home runs and stole 52 bases helping the A’s to a World Series Championship… just like he was supposed to do for New York. In the post season that year, Rickey batted .441 with three homers and eleven stolen bases. This was the Rickey Henderson I hoped to see as a Yankee. This sudden turn-around fed the narrative (true or not, I do not know) that Rickey didn’t give his all his last few years in pinstripes.

In 1990, as the Yankees were playing like the last place team they were, Rickey Henderson enjoyed his greatest season batting .325 with 28 home runs, 65 stolen bases, walking 97 times, and scoring 119 runs atop the Oakland A’s line-up. Rickey’s triple slash line that year was .325/.439/.577 with an OPS of 1.016. In 1990, Rickey Henderson won the American League Most Valuable Player Award as the A’s went to their second straight World Series. (The only saving grace for the Yankees was a hoolow victory, that longtime Yankee player and manager Lou PIniella, now managing the Cincinnati Reds, was able to defeat the A’s in the fall classic.)

In 1993, Rickey Henderson played with the World Champion Toronto Blue Jays.

By 1994, even with the crippling baseball strike, it seemed the Yankees were finally showing some promise and giving their fans some hope. The new glory days were only a few short years away…

In the end, in spite of the success he had, the short Rickey Henderson era in New York was full of unfulfilled promise. This period started with brilliance and then slowly faded.

I still wonder today what might have been.


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