Henderson takes back seat to Bonds

Padres player set to break runs record

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

SAN DIEGO -- Don't forget about Rickey!

While Barry Bonds chases Mark McGwire's home-run record, and Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn collect retirement gifts, Rickey Henderson has been quietly -- yes, Rickey can do things quietly -- pursuing a record that's as simple as it is important.

By touching home plate two more times, the 42-year-old Henderson will break Ty Cobb's major league record of 2,245 runs.

He also needs just five hits to become the 25th player to reach 3,000.

Breaking Cobb's record might not be as glamorous as the home-run mark. But scoring runs is what baseball's all about, and Henderson, considered the greatest leadoff hitter ever, said it'll be the record he'll cherish the most.

He's been the stolen-base king for a decade, broke Babe Ruth's career walks record in April and has a big-league-record 79 leadoff homers. Getting Cobb's record will help fill up Henderson's plaque when he goes into the Hall of Fame.

''That's the main one,'' the San Diego Padres' left fielder said recently. ''That's the big one that to me, as a leadoff hitter, you want to try to achieve, being able to score runs for the ballclub. That's what wins ballgames.''

Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who's three years younger than Henderson and has signed him twice, thinks it's kind of sad that Henderson's dual pursuits have been overshadowed in the season's closing weeks.

''I know he's played with several different ballclubs, so it's different than a Gwynn or Ripken,'' Towers said. ''If you're a true baseball fan, you need to get out to the ballpark in the next two weeks and watch one of the greatest players ever to play the game.''

Henderson has been inconsistent this season, his 23rd in the big leagues. He was hot early, breaking Ruth's record with his 2,063rd walk on April 25 (he now has 2,137) and helping San Diego briefly reach first place in the NL West in late May.

But he's struggled with the high strike zone and has had to share playing time.

While his average hovered in the low .200s, he kept his on-base percentage up by walking 77 times.

He hit a crescendo in Denver's thin air this week. Including his first four-hit game of the season, Henderson had six hits and five runs in the first two games of a four-game series against the Rockies.

If he ties Cobb on Wednesday night, Henderson will sit.

Manager Bruce Bochy plans to rest Henderson on Thursday, setting him up to break the record either this weekend in San Francisco -- Henderson grew up across the bay in Oakland and starred for the A's for years -- or next week in San Diego.

Henderson has been playing so long that he scored his first 160 runs while Jimmy Carter was president. He keeps himself in such good shape that all those headfirst slides haven't taken much of a toll.

''Longevity in the end, I think, is what gets the most respect, and here's a guy that's been a marked man from Day 1 and he keeps succeeding,'' said St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who managed Henderson with Oakland where they won World Series rings in 1989.

''He kids me that I wouldn't have that without him, and he's right,'' La Russa said. ''He was the difference. We had a really good club and he made us, I think, a great club.''

La Russa also was a rival of Henderson's during the seven-plus seasons he managed the Chicago White Sox.

''He's the guy you feared the most if you had a lead in the ninth because he could do so many things to make a run,'' La Russa said.

Not much has changed, and Henderson shares the credit.

''I do a part of it, being able to get on the basepaths and stealing bases, but somebody's got to knock me in,' he said. ''I've got to make the RBI guy look good.''

Padres cleanup hitter Phil Nevin saw Gwynn's 3,000th hit from the on-deck circle two years ago and he'd love to have a hand in Henderson breaking Cobb's record.

''I've told him all along, 'I want to be the guy to drive you in,''' Nevin said. ''He told me he'd give me the ball.''

Henderson is still a pain to pitchers. He leads the Padres with 25 stolen bases, giving him 1,395 for his career.

''Whether they're paying more attention to him maybe than they would another guy, because it's Rickey, it does seem like I get a few more pitches to hit when he's out there,'' Nevin said.

Henderson, who wants to play one final season, never thought he'd reach 3,000 hits because he walks so much. Now, he theoretically could get the runs record and his 3,000th hit on one swing.

However he gets them, ''being able to do both of them is more of a great achievement,'' Henderson said.

Ever the showman, Henderson plans a special touch when he breaks Cobb's record. He says he'll slide across home plate.

''Maybe I'll get the chance to dust myself off,'' he said. ''Because when I was a kid, I always felt when I had to come home, I had to be dirty or my mom would always say, 'You were not playing baseball.' So I was always diving in the dirt trying to score runs. So I guess that's the way to go.''

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