SPORTS

The passions of fall ball

MVP Rickey Henderson stole the show

BARRY CAME October 16 1989
SPORTS

The passions of fall ball

MVP Rickey Henderson stole the show

BARRY CAME October 16 1989

The passions of fall ball

SPORTS

MVP Rickey Henderson stole the show

They are vastly different players of the same game. One is a short, scrappy black veteran, as tough as the Oakland, Calif., streets where he grew up. The other is a lanky white boy from New Orleans, who made his way into the sport by way of university and the Summer Olympic Games. But they do have one trait in common. They both know how to play baseball with a rare skill that borders on genius. And last week, as the race for a spot in the World Series began, Rickey Henderson and Will Clark put all of their varied talents on stunning display.

On consecutive days, under a cloudless California sky by the shores of San Francisco Bay, Henderson almost single-handedly destroyed the Toronto Blue Jays in the opening phase of the American League championship series. There, the 30-year-old left fielder led the Oakland Athletics to 7-3 and 6-3 victories over the hapless Jays. In nine trips to the plate, he reached base seven times. He had two hits and scored two runs. But what really felled the Toronto team was his exuberant dance around the bases. He stole six bases in the two opening games, setting an American League playoff record. And he accomplished that feat in typical Henderson style—sliding, jogging, shouting, singing and punching the air with balled fists. That performance outraged some of the Jays, prompting Toronto outfielder William (Mookie) Wilson to label Henderson “a royal pain.” But it delighted Oakland players and many of the 49,000 fans in the stands. Said Athletics first baseman Mark McGwire: “We call it a Rickey rally. That guy really makes things happen.”

Not long after Henderson’s display, it was Will Clark’s turn to set a few records of his own as the National League championship opened on a chill evening in Chicago’s venerable Wrigley Field. The 25-year-old San Francisco Giants first baseman, star of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, quickly dampened the ardor of Cubs fans among the 39,195 spectators crowding the 75-year-old ball park on Chicago’s north

side. The man whom teammate and ex-Blue Jay Bob Brenly christened “Will the Thrill” lived up to his nickname. He went to the plate four times. And four times he crushed the ball, hitting a single, a double and two home runs—one of them a grand slam—over the ivy-covered wall in Wrigley’s right field.

The resulting six runs that he drove in, besides establishing a National League playoff record, allowed the Giants to demolish the Chicago Cubs 11-3.

Clark’s performance on the night set other firsts as well—including the first playoff grand slam home run in 12 years and the first playoff game two-homer by a single player during the past five years. Said San Francisco manager Roger Craig: “I had a feeling he was going to have an outstanding series. He may have trouble topping what he did tonight, but he’ll be getting a lot more hits before this one is over.” Added subdued Cubs manager Don Zimmer after Clark’s opening-night performance: “He had one hell of a week.”

For the Cubs, that first game was a slow start for a team that has not won a league pennant for 44 seasons and last went to the World Series 81 years ago. But Giants fans who assumed that a Cubs collapse was under way swiftly discovered their mistake. The following night, in fact, as a brisk wind blew out of the old park onto frigid Lake Michigan, Chicago struck back, g As often happens during postai season baseball, there was a certain symmetry in the vengeance. And this time, it was Clark’s opposite number at first base, another 25-year-old by the name of Mark Grace, who supplied the power. “Amazing Grace,” as the Cubs’ vociferous supporters delight in calling him, stroked

three hits—two of them doubles—to drive in four runs. With trumpets blaring “Happy days are here again” and screams of joy rising from the capacity crowd, the Cubs went on to down the Giants 9-5. That victory evened the series at one game apiece, setting the stage for more pyrotechnics when both teams travelled to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park for a three-game matchup. As for Clark, the hero of the opener, the Giants’ first baseman was held to a single hit on four trips to the plate. But his Cub counterpart was quick to disclaim any thoughts of an individual struggle between the two men. Declared Grace modestly: “This is not a battle of the first basemen. I’d be crazy if I tried to compete with Will Clark.”

Such modest responses were in shorter supply among the players in the American League championship. As the Blue Jays and the Athletics shifted their contest to Toronto’s SkyDome, members of the two teams engaged in a bitter slanging match over base-thief Rickey Henley Henderson. Toronto catcher and fan favorite Ernie Whitt—the prime victim of Henderson’s base-stealing—described Henderson’s antics in graphic, unprintable terms. Toronto third baseman Kelly Gruber, who shared in the failure to get Henderson out on the base paths, suggested that Jay pitchers should throw the ball at Henderson. Gruber and other

Jays were particularly incensed by the Oakland player’s showmanship—flashy play that the tradition-bound game refers to as “hotdogging.” Among the few Blue Jays who were not visibly upset by Henderson’s flamboyance were Toronto’s restrained manager, Cito Gaston, and centre fielder Lloyd Mose-

by. Said Gaston: “A lot of people don’t like the way Rickey Henderson plays, but you’d love to have him on your team.” As for Moseby, who grew up with Henderson in Oakland, the Toronto outfielder even had dinner with the man most of his teammates love to hate.

Predictably, the Oakland players took de-

light in Toronto's irritation. Said Tony La Russa, the lawyer-tumed-baseball-strategist who manages the Athletics: “When you get beat two games, nobody’s going to be in a real good mood.” And Henderson himself revelled in the Blue Jays’ discomfiture. As he went through a series of warm-up exercises at the SkyDome last week, he remarked with a grin: “I guess they’re feeling a little intimidated. I play hard, and if Whitt thinks that is showing him up, then I’m going to keep on showing him up here in Toronto.”

When Friday’s game began, it looked for a while as if the wiry outfielder’s prediction might prove true. To the dismay of the record 50,268 fans packed into the SkyDome, Toronto pitcher Jimmy Key did what he had not done in his past three starts—he walked a lead-off hitter. That player was Henderson, who scored Oakland’s first run three batters later. He scored again when he came to the plate in the third inning, after driving a double down the third-base line, stealing third on the very next pitch and reaching home on the pitch after that, when third baseman Carney Lansford singled to centre. The steal was Henderson’s seventh of the series. It cemented his hold on the record book.

The situation soon changed, as the Blue Jays staged one of their patented fourth-inning rallies. A walk, three singles, a double and an Oakland error resulted in four runs, erasing the three-run lead the Athletics had built. Egged on by the delirious crowd, described after the game by Toronto catcher Whitt as “our 25th player,” the Jays added three more runs in the seventh to win the game 7-3. As for Henderson, his bat was uncharacteristically silenced, his speed nullified.

Not for long, however. The following day, as Toronto and Oakland met in the SkyDome for the fourth encounter of their series, it was once again Henderson who made the difference. This time he sank the Blue Jays with his bat, swatting a pair of home runs. Each drove in two runs as the Athletics went on to down Toronto 6-5, seizing a 3-1 lead in the American League championship. Then, on Sunday, Henderson led off with a walk, stole his eighth base of the series, scored the first run and drove in the second as Oakland struck out the last Jay and won the game 4-3, claiming a second consecutive league championship. The Giants, meanwhile, took a commanding 3-1 lead over the Cubs.

Henderson, who was named series MVP and will be a free agent next spring, declared: “I’ve been striving for this moment for about 10 years. This is the day everything came true for me.” That was only slight solace to the Jays, who once again mounted a late attempt to come from behind, taking Sunday’s game to a 3-2 count in the ninth inning with two out and the tying run at third. Leaving runners on the base paths was not an affliction suffered by the A’s of Oakland—or their fleet free agent— and that made them the champions.

BARRY CAME