Season Four Episode 5

At age 46, legend Rickey Henderson refused to walk away from the game of baseball. Unsigned by major league clubs, Henderson instead joined up with the independent league San Diego Surf Dawgs. Rickey Won’t Quit tells the story of a baseball legend doing everything he can to keep playing the game he loves, whether or not it will ever love him back. 

This episode is narrated by The Undefeated’s Clinton Yates.

Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

 

 

JODY AVIRGAN: Hello and welcome to 30 for 30 podcasts, from ESPN Films and ESPN Audio. My name is Jody Avirgan.

There are many levels of professional baseball. There’s the big leagues — Major League Baseball. Then there’s triple A. That’s one step down. Then there’s Double A. A-Ball, Rookie Ball, Winter League. And you keep going down, all the way towards the bottom… there are the independent leagues.

Technically “professional,” in that players get paid…something…to play baseball. But those leagues exist several planets away from the show, as they call the majors, and most of the players in those leagues will never come close to putting on a big league uniform. They’ll play in tiny parks in front of near-empty bleachers until reality finally sets in and they hang it up.

For one summer, though, there was someone very different among them. One of – without question – the greatest baseball players, and personalities,  of all time.

And that’s what this week’s episode, produced by Pineapple Street Media, is about. The Undefeated’s Clinton Yates tells the story.

A word of warning – this episodes contains mature language.

Here we go with “Rickey Won’t Quit.”

 

*    * *    * *

 


NICK GUERRA: Looking back I don’t know if I would trade that for the world, i wouldn’t rather have been anywhere else when this whole year happened.

CLINTON YATES: In the spring of 2005, a construction worker named Nick Guerra went to an open tryout for a baseball team…the San Diego Surf Dawgs  that’s D-A-W-G-S…in the brand new professional league known as the Golden League.

NICK GUERRA: Told myself I was done with baseball, I told myself that this wasn’t the life I wanted anymore and — a couple years later, I get that phone call from Brian Condra, my coach at the time, and he’s like ‘Hey man there’s a try out coming up. You got to go play, you’ve got to go play. I know you can still play man.’

CLINTON YATES: So he showed up at spring training. And on the first day…

NICK GUERRA: Another catcher comes up to me and he sees I got a catcher’s glove on too. He says, hey man you got someone to play catch with? I was like no, I’ll play catch with you. We’re heading to the line, and then right around that time, you see cameras. You see this entourage.


CLINTON YATES: Nick just stood there, stunned.

NICK GUERRA: He just looked big league. He had his glasses. He looked old school though, I’ll say that. He had the same hair. He had the same style. There’s just a presence, there’s a charisma. There’s just something. You can’t help but look.

CLINTON YATES: Walking straight toward Nick was Rickey Henderson.


[ESPN INTERVIEW,

RICKEY HENDERSON: Rickey Henderson is just a great ballplayer. I just think I’m a big part of the club and everybody depends on me. Only way of playing is the Rickey way of playing. I think Rickey Henderson is just a great story. Good or bad.]  

CLINTON YATES: The greatest lead-off man of all time. Ten-time all-star, two-time World Series champion, American League MVP, and one of the best power hitters in the game.


[AL MICHAELS: And he hits a high fly ball to left field and that one is carrying and back goes Mitchell and it’s a launching pad again tonight.]

[YANKEES AT BREWERS, APRIL 19, 1986,

ANNOUNCER:  Fly away the 76th time in his amazing career that Rickey Henderson has led off a game with a home run…]

CLINTON YATES: He was also, of course, the greatest base-stealer of all time.

[ANNOUNCER: And Rickey’s running on the first pitch, a throw by Ron Karkovice is not in time, Rickey has stolen the base…]

CLINTON YATES: Nick and his brother used to take turns pretending to BE Rickey in their backyard. And now, here he was, standing in front of him, wearing a Surf Dawgs uniform.

NICK GUERRA: He comes walking up down the foul line, and he’s like ‘hey you got anybody to play catch with?’ And I was like, ‘No I don’t. I was like no I don’t.’ I was like, ‘Hey man, sorry, [laughs] Rickey Henderson wants to play catch with me, I’m gonna play catch with him.’ Like…I couldn’t feel the baseball you know?

CLINTON YATES: When Rickey stepped onto the field to play catch with Nick Guerra, dude was 46 years old. He’d been playing professional baseball for 29 years. And while almost every one of his teammates from the 80s had retired…Rickey kept playing.

[SPORTSCENTER,

JACK EDWARDS: Just before the trading deadline last night at midnight eastern, the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Rickey Henderson…]

CLINTON YATES: And playing. All through the 90s…and into the 2000s.

[SPORTSCENTER,

STEVE LEVY: As expected, Rickey Henderson has been traded north to the Angels in exchange for three minor leaguers.

ANCHOR: Rickey Henderson’s foray into free agency is over, he and the Padres have agreed to a one year incentive-laden contract.]

CLINTON YATES: Even after getting his 3,000th hit at age 42…

[ROCKIES AT PADRES OCTOBER 7, 2001,

ANNOUNCER: There it is! There it is! Number 3000 for Rickey Henderson!]

CLINTON YATES: …arguably the last milestone Rickey could possibly achieve in his historic and record breaking career…he still wanted to keep playing..

[REPORTER: Well Rickey I hope we get to see you next year because I’ll tell you what it’s been fun watching you play. Congratulations.

RICKEY HENDERSON: Thank you again, I’ll be back.]

CLINTON YATES: Rickey came back alright. In 2002, Rickey became the oldest player in the American League at 43 years old.



[ESPN, OUTSIDE THE LINES,

 

JEREMY SCHAAP: In nearly 200 at bats for the Red Sox, Henderson’s on base percentage was 369 — higher than Johnny Damon’s, higher than David Eckstein’s, higher than Alfonso Soriano’s.]

 

CLINTON YATES: Then, when the 2003 season rolled around … no one signed him.


CLINTON YATES: So he signed with the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League. An independent league, completely outside of the Major League Baseball system. It’s about as far away as you can get from the bigs and still consider yourself a pro ball player.

[ESPN, OUTSIDE THE LINES,

 

 

JEREMY SCHAAP: You’re the only player in Major League history who’s the all time leader in three major statistical categories. You know, you’re the greatest lead off hitter of all time, you’re going into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. A lot of people say — why is Rickey Henderson still doing this. And your answer is…

 

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: Still, I love the game. And if I don’t think people would really be asking me why I’m still doing this if I was in the Major League. It should be a thrill that at my age and the condition that I am, that I could go out there and play the game.]

 

CLINTON YATES: One theory was that Rickey was doing it for the money. His agent, the legendary Jeff Borris, put that idea to rest.


JEFF BORRIS: I mean obviously there’s some guys along the way who’ve made you know hundred million dollars and they have nothing to show for it at the end of the day. Rickey was never one of those guys that I was worried about.

 

CLINTON YATES: Rickey certainly wasn’t doing it to get rich. The Newark Bears paid him $3000 a month. But, according to Sports Illustrated, Rickey’s rent was $4000 a month.

 

[ROME IS BURNING,

 

 

JIM ROME: Rickey Henderson. Rickey is embarrassing himself with the Newark Bears in an unaffiliated league. Rick, you’re the greatest leadoff man in the history of the game. You shouldn’t be balling with beer salesmen and truck drivers. Now go home and wait for the Hall of Fame to call.]

 

 

CLINTON YATES: After two seasons in Newark, a frustrated Rickey decided not to continue with the Bears. But he didn’t go home and wait for the Hall of Fame call. Instead, 45-year-old Rickey Henderson got on the phone with his agent Jeff Borris and said: ‘What can you do to keep me in the game?’

 

JEFF BORRIS: As an agent, I have never been bashful to tell a guy it’s time to take off your jersey. If a guy can no longer compete at a major league level, I will be the first guy to tell him I think the time has come for you to get on with the rest of your life. But with Rickey, even though, when he got into his forties, I never felt that way about him. Looked like his body was chiselled out of granite.

 

CLINTON YATES: Baseball — at least the way Rickey Henderson played it, for as long as he played it is hard on the body… and the guy was a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. Everyone wondered what he was doing, why he kept going…but his teammates learned, retirement was a word that did not go over well with Rickey.

CLINTON YATES: Dave Stewart was a teammate on the Oakland A’s in the 90s.

DAVE STEWART: At the time that I decided I was going to retire in 1995, he was as mad at me about retiring as anybody I could have imagined. And I got it — I mean he’s a close friend. One of my best friends and he was very, very disappointed in me and didn’t speak to me for a few days. And his thought was that, you know, you love the game and he asked me that. I said yeah, I love baseball very much and I enjoy playing it, but I don’t enjoy playing it like I’m playing it. He told me that, that wasn’t a part of the plan and he thought that I was premature in making a decision that I was making to retire. And I told him, he’s not in my shoes.

CLINTON YATES: Paul Abbott was a pitcher who played with Rickey when they were both with the Seattle Mariners.

PAUL ABBOTT: I remember him watching the Hall of Fame ceremony on TV sitting there with him while we were in the cafeteria or the kitchen eating lunch, and him speaking up, saying you know, ‘I don’t want to be there.’ We’re like what? He said ‘Nah I don’t want to be there.’ What are you talking about? He goes, because if I’m there, I’m not here. That means he was done playing. He didn’t want to be done playing. He wanted to play forever.

CLINTON YATES: In the spring of 2005, Rickey got a call. Not the one he was hoping for, from a big league GM. But from this guy.

 

DAVE KAVAL: My name is Dave Kaval, I started the Golden Baseball League as a class project when I was back at Stanford business school.

 

CLINTON YATES: Dave’s league wouldn’t be affiliated with Major League Baseball, or Minor League Baseball for that matter. But it was still baseball.

 

DAVE KAVAL: We felt that there were a lot of communities in the western United States that lacked baseball teams because a lot of these cities had grown, like places like Chico, California, Yuma, Arizona could be supported with new minor league teams. Everyone thought we were crazy which we probably were.

 

CLINTON YATES: The Golden League would consist of eight teams including the Chico Outlaws, Surprise Fightin’ Falcons, Yuma Scorpions and…the San Diego Surf Dawgs. But Dave’s startup league would need some sort of attraction to get it off the ground. That’s where Rickey came in.

 

DAVE KAVAL: And so we would just talk about like what it would mean to play in the league. Be a part of something exciting and you know promote baseball in a lot of new communities, and get young people excited about playing again.  

 

CLINTON YATES: Somehow. It worked. The Golden League didn’t have a lot to offer, but Dave promised Rickey he would be treated like a star.

 

DAVE KAVAL: I think he liked the fact that it was a brand new league that was almost Rickey’s league, and that he was almost larger than life in the whole experience, and that kind of fit his ethos and who he was.

 

CLINTON YATES: Dave Kaval knew exactly who he was negotiating with and how to get his attention. Rickey had always had a reputation as a player with a huge ego. And generally, just — just kind of a weird guy. He would talk to himself on the field. He would speak about himself in the third person.


CLINTON YATES: Bomani Jones is a host for ESPN.

 

BOMANI JONES: The general manager of the Padres once said that talking to Rickey for a contract, because Rickey was negotiating his own deal. And he gets a voicemail that says, “this is Rickeyyyyy, calling on behalf of Rickeyyyy.” Like so even when he is being his agent — the agent gets to be in the third person.

CLINTON YATES: Rickey used to work out in front of a mirror while repeating his own name. He once asked for a Winnebago as a bonus in a contract negotiation.

[MIKE AND MIKE,

MIKE GREENBERG: Is this a true story? In the early 1980s, the Oakland A’s accounting department was freaking out because their books were off by a million dollars. They realized the GM had given you a $1,000,000 bonus check and instead of cashing it, you framed it and hung it on the wall in your house.

RICKEY HENDERSON: That’s true.

MIKE GOLIC AND MIKE GREENBERG: That’s true?

RICKEY HENDERSON: Yeah (laughs).

MIKE GOLIC: Fell asleep on an ice pack got frostbite and missed three games.

MIKE GREENBERG: In the middle of August.

RICKEY HENDERSON: Yes that’s with Toronto.

MIKE GREENBERG: Yeah. So you missed three games with frostbite in August.

RICKEY HENDERSON: Yes.]  

BOMANI JONES: Rickey was perfectly comfortable with Rickey as we were trying to figure Rickey out.

CLINTON YATES: Then there was the moment in 1991 when he broke Lou Brock’s base stealing record.

[YANKEES AT A’S, MAY 1, 1991,

ANNOUNCER: …pitch taken, he’s gonna have it. He does! Rickey Henderson, no contest steals third base, jerks the bag from its moorings and holds it aloft, representing number 939.

ARCHIVAL: Crowd cheering.]


CLINTON YATES: He took third, which is the toughest base to steal by the by.

BOMANI JONES: He stands up, he picks the base up, he holds it.

[YANKEES AT A’S MAY, 1, 1991,

RICKEY HENDERSON: Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing, but today, I’m the greatest of all time. Thank you.]

BOMANI JONES: ‘Today, I am the greatest of all time.’ And I don’t think anybody would expect anything less from Rickey Henderson.

FRED ATKINS: He used to always see Muhammad Ali say that. I’m the greatest.

 

CLINTON YATES: Fred Atkins has been Rickey’s best friend since childhood.

 

ATKINS: That’s what Rickey meant, it wasn’t like I’m this and Lou Brock is that. No, he never meant that, but people took it out of context and looked at it and wrote it like he said I’m better than Lou Brock. No he never said that. Muhammad Ali said, he’d get cheered for it. People cheer and clap for him when he said, but because Rickey Henderson said it, they said that he was wrong for saying it. I didn’t look at nothing wrong with saying it.

 

CLINTON YATES: For other people, it was proof of Rickey’s arrogance.

 

 

BOMANI JONES: The value of humility is preached and reinforced all over the place. And that’s what it comes down to. And he did not subscribe to that, and that never goes over well.

 

CLINTON YATES: There’s a lot of reason to believe that the perception of Rickey’s behavior and personality played just as much of a role as his age in the fact that he couldn’t get a deal with a major league team.

 

CLINTON YATES: When Rickey joined the Golden League and signed with the Surf Dawgs in 2005 at age 46, it was unsurprisingly a huge story.


[COLD PIZZA,

 

JAY CRAWFORD: Rickey Henderson at 46 has signed a contract to play for the San Diego Surf Dawgs. Can he still play?]

 

CLINTON YATES: The move drew all sorts of national media to San Diego, who came to chronicle the curiosity of Rickey’s latest attempt at a comeback. But for one local reporter, Tami Belmain, a great story had just landed in her backyard.

 

TAMI BELMAIN: I mean how many opportunities are you going to have to cover the year that a Hall of  Famer, in this tiny stadium, in this independent league? I’ve had to tell friends it’s like getting to watch Bruce Springsteen play in a garage band on Thursdays.


CLINTON YATES: Tami decided to spend the summer following Rickey and the Surf Dawgs, writing about them for a local blog. She sat down with Rickey weekly —

 

[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: Right here?

 

TAMI BELMAIN: Yeah, you…

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: I’m fine. Come on.

 

TAMI BELMAIN: You ready? Alright]

 

 

CLINTON YATES: And recorded a lot of those conversations.

 

[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

 

TAMI BELMAIN: … came in and be willing to severely compromise what you’re accustomed to to come here.

 

RICKEY: I think basically because of last year…]

 

CLINTON YATES: The sound isn’t always great, but there is Rickey Henderson, the unlikely star attraction of the San Diego Surf Dawgs.

 

[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

 

RICKEY HENDERSON:…And I think that’s what this league is giving me the chance to stay in shape and give a club a look and saying that I still love the game…]

 

CLINTON YATES: Tami, like everyone else, wanted to know why Rickey was there, Rickey’s answer was always very clear:

 

[ESPN SHOW,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: My whole goal is to get back to the Major League. I think every ball player, every kid dream is playing in the Major League, and it’s still my dream.]

 

CLINTON YATES: Sure, I love the game, he said, but I want to get back to the majors.


[LONG BEACH ARMADA AT SAN DIEGO SURF DAWGS, MAY 26, 2005,

 

ARCHIVAL: The Star-Spangled Banner

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: You know it’s the first game and so far, you know, to me it’s good competition especially in the bracket that this league is hosting, so I think it’s going to be a great league.]


CLINTON YATES: On May 26th 2005, the Surf Dawgs played their first game, in San Diego, against the Long Beach Armada.

 

DAVE KAVAL: It was like a breaking news moment. Rickey was back and it put this small fledgling independent league, the Golden Baseball League, on the map. Pat Sajak was one of the investors in the league…

 

CLINTON YATES: That would of course be Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak.

 

DAVE KAVAL: And so we landed him in a helicopter on the field. He got out and threw out the first pitch so that was like this incredible moment.

 

CLINTON YATES: The helicopter lifted off, and it was time to play ball.

 

[LONG BEACH ARMADA AT SAN DIEGO SURF DAWGS, MAY 26, 2005,

 

PA ANNOUNCER: The left fielder, number 24, Rickey Henderson.

 

ARCHIVAL: Fans cheering.]   

 

TAMI BELMAIN: There’s the dichotomy of you know, here’s Rickey, and then everybody else on the team looked like they were 11.

 

[LONG BEACH ARMADA AT SAN DIEGO SURF DAWGS, MAY 26, 2005,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: Let’s go Surf Dawgs!]

 

CLINTON YATES: The game sold out. Three thousand people, all waiting to see if the base stealing king still had it.

 

[LONG BEACH ARMADA AT SAN DIEGO SURF DAWGS, MAY 26, 2005,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: Nervous day today. Let’s go.]

 

CLINTON YATES: First at bat, Rickey grounds out.

 

[LONG BEACH ARMADA AT SAN DIEGO SURF DAWGS, MAY 26, 2005,

 

ARCHIVAL: Fans cheering.]

 

CLINTON YATES: Second time up? Rickey walks. Then he smacks a double

 

NICK GUERRA: Wow just an incredible swing.


CLINTON YATES: And comes around to score, but that’s not what people are there to see.

 

NICK GUERRA: I know that all of us are hoping that he steals a bag.

 

CLINTON YATES: Finally, in his fourth at bat, Rickey hits a single and he’s on first base.

 

NICK GUERRA: Alright, come on Rickey. That’s what we came — we all came here to see you take it.

 

TAMI BELMAIN: You watch and the fingers start twitching and he would hang his hand down and he would twitch his four fingers. The fingers stopped twitching and he gets going.

 

[LONG BEACH ARMADA AT SAN DIEGO SURF DAWGS, MAY 26, 2005,

 

ANNOUNCER: And now there goes Rickey. The 2-0 pitch the throw down to second base and there’s the slide! He’s in safely! First stolen base in the Golden Baseball League goes to Rickey Henderson. Who else?]

 

CLINTON YATES: Rickey goes two for three, scores a run and gets a steal.

 

NICK GUERRA: That’s the slide right there, that you always see on TV.

 

CLINTON YATES: The Surf Dawgs win their next game, too. And then later that week…

 

[ANNOUNCER: It’s gone! A homerun for Rickey Henderson! The first of the season and the first homerun in Surf Dawgs franchise history.]

 

REPORTER: First of all, only home run so far this season for the Surf Dawgs, what went through your mind getting the first home run in franchise history to the left field wall?

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: It was a good feeling that you got the first one out the way. I thought maybe a few of the young guys was gonna eventually get the first home run but so far I got it so I can brag right now (laughs).]

 

GUERRA: He still ran like a gazelle, man. You’d watch him– we had little run down exercises that we would do. He’s 46 years old and can outrun all of us.

SETH PIETSCH: The guy was in better shape than almost all of us on the team and we were early 20s.


CLINTON YATES: Seth Pietsch was one of Rickey’s teammates on the Surf Dawgs.


SETH PIETSCH: 100 percent shredded from head to toe. Muscular.

 

[ANNOUNCER: Henderson will go off and running. The throw down to second base, it’s not going to be in time. And his sixth stolen base of the season comes here in the first inning.]


 

CLINTON YATES: On the field, Rickey was killing it as a Surf Dawg. He and his teammates all felt like winners, but off the field things weren’t so pretty. Here’s Jeff Borris.

 

JEFF BORRIS: I’m not going to lie. It’s pretty bad. I mean the conditions are horrid. The hotels are fleabag hotels. The club houses are dilapidated. I’ve been to some little league fields that are better than some independent ball places.

 

[ESPN INTERVIEW,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: Aw, we’d go out and we’d be catered at the Major League level and now we got to go out to the grocery store, and grab some bologna and ham and some peanut butter and jellies. But other than that you know, as long as that keep the guys from being hungry and gives them the enthusiasm go out there play.]

 

NICK GUERRA: You know we get like peanut butter and jelly or some cereal or something you know, whatever was at the 99 cent store that time probably. Rickey comes out, he’s like man this is what you guys are eating we are like, yeah. And he’s like ‘nah we ain’t eating this.’ One day we had pasta. The next day we had fried chicken and potato salad and all that stuff. I mean our spreads all of the sudden became good after that.

 

CLINTON YATES: If Rickey was disappointed by the conditions around him, he sure didn’t show it to his teammates.

 

SETH PIETSCH: He kept everybody loose. You know, he was just another one of the guys.

 

[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: They probably tell you I try to mingle with them. I didn’t feel like I was as old as their dad or I was their dad watching them or I was trying to tell them what to do. You know, be yourself, enjoy yourself.]

 

CLINTON YATES: For guys like Nick Guerra, Rickey went from childhood hero to not only teammate, but father figure and friend

 

NICK GUERRA: I was taking some left handed swings and Rickey’s like, ‘Hey man you got a nice swing.’ I was like thanks, you know, but I gotta get my right side back too and it’s not really going like I want it to, and he’s like, ‘oh let’s work on it.’ He’s like, ‘I’ll pick you up tomorrow before — before practice.’ I was like what? He was like ‘yeah we’ll come in here and do some early work.’ And I’m like shoot. OK. All right. Heck yeah.

 

[SURF DAWGS PRACTICE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON coaching teammates: …drop your knees. There you go. Keep the head down…]

 

NICK GUERRA: He came down, he hit with me. He was like, ‘man your swing is still there it’s still there. Like c’mon.’

 

[SURF DAWGS PRACTICE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON coaching teammates: …when you do that, you got it…]

 

CLINTON YATES: Surf Dawgs manager Terry Kennedy saw him mentoring some of the guys and started thinking, I’ve got Rickey Henderson here, maybe he’d be willing to help me out as well.

 

TERRY KENNEDY: I ask him will you take the position players out there to first base and talk about breaks and leads. And he said sure. I thought he was gonna turn me down, but he didn’t. He took them out there. And then the other team was — they saw him doing his thing and they started getting closer and I said, well you know, this is an independent league, I said come on over. I just let them — I let them listen too.

 

NICK GUERRA: Rickey took us base to base. He has a little bit different of a first step. He pushes off his inside foot, opens up his right foot. On average he would get five more feet than the average person.


TERRY KENNEDY: He went through the whole thing, it was very good.


SETH PEITSCH: To be honest with you, I tried to mimic what Rickey did.


NICK GUERRA: It definitely wasn’t helpful for me.


PEITSCH: And I didn’t have a lot of success doing it that way.


GUERRA: I was rounder than I was later on in my career, so I wasn’t stealing bags. [Laughs.]


CLINTON YATES: By the 4th of July, the Surf Dawgs were in first place. The team was in Surprise, Arizona, and they pulled out a tight game against the Fighting Falcons. The stands were packed. This business school kid idea, on some level, had worked.

   

NICK GUERRA: The fireworks after the game. Being in the middle of the desert. It’s just what baseball’s supposed to be. Like it’s summertime, here in America.

 

NICK GUERRA: Being there with Rickey Henderson, being there just, you know, on a big league field man this is — this something i’ll never forget.  


CLINTON YATES: Nick remembers looking across the field and seeing Rickey, just staring into the sky at the fireworks. And he thought, this has been fun, but Rickey won’t be here much longer.

 

NICK GUERRA: I honestly believed he was going to get back to the big leagues at some point.


TAMI BELMAIN: You wanted it to happen just because you know he was so passionate and he so clearly loved the game that you wanted him back in it. You knew that baseball would be better with him in it.

 

[COLD PIZZA,

 

SKIP BAYLESS: Knowing Rickey, I think at 46 he COULD help a big league team.

 

PARDON THE INTERRUPTION,

 

MICHAEL WILBON: I think Rickey Henderson can actually make it back, you know why?

 

TONY KORNHEISER: Why?

 

MICHAEL WILBON: Because Rickey can say “I got legs! I got legs! Rickey Henderson’s knees still work…]

 

CLINTON YATES: In order to get called back up to the majors, Rickey was going to need to put up big numbers, particularly at the plate to impress clubs. But the problem was that in this league, he couldn’t get a pitch to hit.

 

TAMI BELMAIN: Eight weeks into it he already had like 63 walks. He told me, he goes, ‘It’s not even like — they can’t even cheat the pitch.’ Like, it would be like three feet over his head, two feet below his knees.

 

CLINTON YATES: They were young kids intimidated by throwing at their childhood hero. Rickey was doing everything he could to stay at the plate.

 

TAMI BELMAIN: There was one game, the umpire had actually lost track of the count.

 

[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: Umpire said it was ball four, he goes no, that’s ball three. I said I just know he threw five pitches. And everybody in the stands said ball four, ball four. I go that’s OK, that’s OK, ball three, ball three. Give me one more.]

 

TAMI BELMAIN: And Rickey’s like no no no. It’s three. It’s three. Cause he just wanted to get a hit.

 

[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: …and he throw it way up in the air and I go, I gave you five! And he threw the ball way up there, so he walked me anyhow, so…]

 

TAMI BELMAIN: And he was so like upset because he just wanted to hit.

 

CLINTON YATES: For weeks now, Rickey had been calling his agent. Daily. Every time it was the same thing — ‘Did anyone call from the bigs? Is anybody thinking about calling me up?’

 

JEFF BORRIS: I was calling everybody. And teams were like, ‘Yeah I love Rickey. I still think he could play but he’s just not a fit over here. We’re going with the youth movement. I got some 23 year old 24 year old kid who’s going to be playing left field and leading off for me and…’ So I mean I was getting every excuse in the book from the owners.

 

[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: …now they all for it. I had just turned 40 and they told me I was too old. But now you seeing guys that’s 40 years old doing a great job.

 

TAMI BELMAIN: Right.

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: So, what’s wrong with me?]

 

TAMI BELMAIN: He got really fired up about why he wasn’t there and could rattle off all of the players that he thought were in lesser shape, but yet still hanging on.

 

DAVID GRANN: He was always looking at the box scores to see who was hitting and who wasn’t hitting,

 

CLINTON YATES: That’s writer David Grann — he followed Rickey for a while that season and wrote a story about him for the New Yorker.

 

DAVID GRANN: He would often say, it’s like, this guy they’ve got this guy over me? Like, he was studying the box scores the way, you know, like in New York real estate, you know, people look to see the obituaries if someone died and they might get an apartment.

 

CLINTON YATES: Rickey was frustrated and growing desperate…and he just couldn’t understand why Major League Baseball couldn’t just give him one more chance.

 

[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: …but if you go up there and I can’t compete, hey you know you just made me the happiest man in baseball because now I’m pretty much getting bitter on baseball because I can’t see that a player of the class, of the way I played the game and done so much for the game and you can’t get a chance? I could see if I was…]  


CLINTON YATES: By mid July, Rickey’s numbers started to slide.

 

[ANNOUNCER: And now the 2-2 offering on the way. Called strike three with a curveball, and Henderson drops the bat in disgust.]

 

CLINTON YATES: In a month, Rickey’s batting average dropped more than 50 points.

 

[ANNOUNCER: A called strike three that ends thing inning.]

 

NICK GUERRA: I mean everybody has that point in the season. When, you know The bat feels heavy, your hands slow down a little bit.

 

CLINTON YATES: July 31st was MLB’s trade deadline … Rickey’s last real gasp. Lots of Surf Dawgs were hoping for the call and lots didn’t get it.


TAMI BELMAIN: That first week of August was kind of the sobering realization that you weren’t going to get picked up, and you were going to be there.

 

DAVID GRANN: He got into a situation that he thought was just going to be a few weeks and it turned into years and he couldn’t get out.



[TAMI BELMAIN REPORTING TAPE,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON:…so, what’s wrong with me?

 

TAMI BELMAIN: What do you think it is?

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: I don’t know. Ohhh baby. I asked so many reporters and so many people, please tell me what it is. I want to ask the organization owners, if I had a chance to have a meeting with the owners, tell me what did I do wrong? I played the game too well? I done too much? I got the records too much…]

DAVID GRANN: It was a trap of his own making. But it was also the trap that when he was invincible he had always gotten out of. He had always gotten out of the trap, right? He could always get off first base. He could always outrun you. And when he failed he would get right up and he would do it again. And so I think he got into the Golden Baseball League thinking I’ll get out of this. I’ll steal this. I mean, I’m Rickey Henderson.

 

CLINTON YATES: But Rickey couldn’t steal his way out of this one, and he became a different guy out there on the field.

 

DAVID GRANN: He was studying the pitcher for his tell and doing all the things he would do. Getting ready to steal. The crowd, the other team, his teammates were all on edge waiting for him to go. And each time he didn’t go and then as he walked off and he didn’t steal, he was cursing. About the sun in his eyes. “Mother fucking, god damn” you know. And he was furious and he was furious because he knew he could have gone. And I could tell he didn’t run because he doubted himself. And I remember he said something to me at one point that really stayed with me. He said “you know Rickey is still trying to figure out all the pieces to the puzzle.”

 

FRED ATKINS: He just realized that, you know, he had gave the best he could give and you’ll come to a point where you go, ‘I just see that they’re never give me the opportunity.’

 

CLINTON YATES: That’s Rickey’s best friend, Fred Atkins.

 

FRED ATKINS: It’s not for any bad reason but it’s for the fact that they feel they want to go a different way.

 

JEFF BORRIS: I think it just — it was a sad ending to the story. I would have liked to have seen him go out on his own terms rather than the game turning its back on him.


 

CLINTON YATES: But the story hadn’t ended. Rickey Henderson still had one last chance to put on a uniform and go out and play the game. The Surf Dawgs had squeaked their way into the Golden League playoffs.

 

TAMI BELMAIN: They did the playoffs in a weekend series. It was like a double elimination tournament. And I remember Rickey was not thrilled with the format because, “Oh that’s like my brother’s adult softball league.”

 

CLINTON YATES: The 2005 Golden League playoffs took place over Labor Day weekend. In Long Beach. Maybe it’s that he knew it was finally the end …. Maybe he felt he owed it to these guys who were his teammates. Whatever the reason, Rickey turned it on one more time.

 

NICK GUERRA: He calls us–calls the meeting brings us all together and he’s like, alright guys I got something to tell you. You know, just want to have a little talk. You guys have been carrying me all year. He’s like, now it’s time for you guys to jump on my back. Sure enough, comes out, first at bat. Blair Field is a monster field. It’s right on the water, the air’s thick, the ball doesn’t go anywhere there. First at bat of the game and Rickey’s leading off. Crack! Home run.

 

CLINTON YATES: Rickey came to life during the playoffs — getting on base, hitting home runs … He looked like the Rickey of old.

 

[ANNOUNCER: …Henderson digging for second base. It’ll be a stand up double for Rickey Henderson, putting runners at second and third for the Surf Dawgs here in the 3rd.]

 

NICK GUERRA: Baseball’s like, it’s almost like a living thing. It like, it pays legends back. I mean Cal Ripken in his final All-Star when he hit that homer, Derek Jeter hitting a home run for his 3000th hit. It’s special to see moments like that and to be a part of that and it wasn’t on the stage where everybody can watch it on TV. It wasn’t on the stage where everybody could read about it in the paper, or turn on ESPN and see it. You had to be there to feel that and see that and be there with him. And it was the way it was supposed to be. It was the way a legend should be. That’s the way he should go out. Just like that.

 

[ANNOUNCER: …San Diego captures the first ever Golden Baseball League Championship here at Blair Field. 9-6 the Surf Dawgs get the victory and in 2005 San Diego, the Surf Dawgs are champions.]

 

TAMI BELMAIN: I wanted him to go and have an amazing second half of a season somewhere and and then be able to go and give some beautiful lovely speech at the end of the game, and go out on this big glorious stage. I mean that’s the Disney ending. And then it didn’t happen, but it still had a happy ending, because it was still at the end, it was a man in love with the game that he’d always loved. And there was something really beautiful about that.

 

CLINTON YATES: It’s not clear when Rickey officially retired — but he never played another game. The ending that a lot of people had been trying to write for Rickey for a long time … it was here.

 

CLINTON YATES: Looking back on it now, though, that season, it’s the opposite of a punchline. Rickey was asked over and over why is was doing this? And his answer was always the same:

 

[ESPN, OUTSIDE THE LINES,

JEREMY SCHAAP: Why is Rickey Henderson still doing this?  And your answer is…

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: Still, I love the game.]

 

CLINTON YATES: I love the game. It’s hard to argue with that. He played more Major League baseball games than all but three players in history. His stolen base record — 1,408 bags — will never be touched.

 

CLINTON YATES: After his year with the Surf Dawgs, Rickey did make it back to the majors.

 

[SPORTSCENTER,

 

NEIL EVERETT: Rickey Henderson is back in a big league roster. Named to the Mets staff Thursday, replaces hitting coach Rick Down who was fired…]

 

CLINTON YATES: And then he returned to the Oakland A’s, where it all started for him.. Today he’s the Special Assistant to the President, who is … Dave Kaval. The guy who started the Golden League

 

DAVE KAVAL: When I took over as team president it was kind of like really — it had come full circle. Like, I called him and I said ‘look Rickey I’d love to work together, and someone who’s from Oakland, the greatest player in the history of the franchise, one of the greatest players of all time someone who knows the game loves the game, Someone who I’ve developed a friendship with, that we could be together kind of advocating and advancing this amazing mission is kind of an incredible thing to be a part of.

 

[2009 BASEBALL HALL OF FAME ENSHRINEMENT CEREMONY,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: I hope everybody’s having a great time…]

 

CLINTON YATES: On July 26, 2009, Rickey showed up in Cooperstown, New York to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Dave Stewart, Rickey’s long time friend and teammate, was there that day.

 

DAVE STEWART: People were expecting the worst of his induction speech and he got up and he spoke.

 

CLINTON YATES: Rickey began his speech at the end of his career, acknowledging his years in the independent league.

 

[2009 BASEBALL HALL OF FAME ENSHRINEMENT CEREMONY,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON:  I love the game of baseball. That’s why it was so hard for me to walk away from the game…]


CLINTON YATES: But now, he said, he had nothing left to prove.

 

[2009 BASEBALL HALL OF FAME ENSHRINEMENT CEREMONY,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: My favorite hero was Muhammad Ali. He said at one time (quote), “I am the greatest” (end of quote). That is something I always wanted to be. And now that the Association has voted me into the Baseball Hall of Fame — my journey as a player is complete.

 

CLINTON YATES: Rickey finally accepted the honor that for so long he hadn’t been ready for. And here, at the very end, he showed a side of himself people had never seen.

 

[2009 BASEBALL HALL OF FAME ENSHRINEMENT CEREMONY,

 

RICKEY HENDERSON: I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time. And at this moment, I am very, very humble. Thank you.

 

ARCHIVAL: Crowd applauding.]

 

 

Credits

Rickey Won’t Quit

This Episode was created in partnership with Pineapple Street Media.

Jody Avirgan, Host, Senior Producer and Series Editor

Erin Leyden, ESPN Films Senior Producer and Series Editor

Clinton Yates, Narrator

Julia Lowrie Henderson, Producer and Editor

Pineapple Street Media

Agerenesh Ashagre, Producer

Joel Lovell, Editor

Martin Johnson, Audio Mix

Diane Hodson, Researcher

Jenna Weiss-Berman, Executive Producer

Max Linsky, Executive Producer

30 for 30 Podcasts

Andrew Mambo, Producer

Ryan Nantell, Producer

Keith Romer, Producer

Vin D’Anton, Associate Producer

ESPN Films

Connor Schell, Executive Producer

Libby Geist, Executive Producer

Rob King, Executive Producer

Adam Neuhaus, Director of Development.

Jenna Anthony, Associate Director of Development

Deirdre Fenton, Producer

Tom Picard, Director, Production Management

Catherine Sankey, Production Manager

María Delgado, Production Manager

Jennifer Thorpe, Production Manager

Louise Argianas, Director of Footage Licensing

Alex Bohen, Development Production   

Paul Williard, Associate Producer

Eve Wulf, Production Assistant

Sean Mercer, Production Assistant

ESPN Audio

Traug Keller, Senior Vice President

Tom Ricks, Vice President, Audio Digital Strategy & Marketing

Megan Judge, Director, Audio Distribution & Marketing

Pete Gianesini, Senior Director, Audio Production

Ryan Granner, Director, Digital Audio Operations

Devon McGowan, Senior Marketing Manager

Elizabeth Feirman, Senior Manager, Event Marketing

Additional Production Support

Brad Ross, Roger Jackson, Tony Chow, Justin McCraw, Linda Tran-Tutovan, and Mitchell Clements.

Special Thanks

Chris Berube, Jack Cronin, Juliana Paoli, and Tami Belmain.

30 for 30 Podcasts theme music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the Song Exploder podcast.