Art of thievery

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – Nowhere on his body did the grind of 1982 show on Rickey Henderson. Each of the 150 or so times he dove face-first into a base that year, a lithe torpedo of thievery, he came up feeling great in the arms, torso, hips and legs. Inside his head, well, with Rickey, it wasn't exactly screwed on straight in the first place, but that many kamikaze missions tend to rattle the brain.

"I don't know how I lasted hitting the dirt that many times," Henderson said. "But it is 25 years later, and I'm doing OK. And my name is still in there."

Yes it is, right next to the record that could last longer than DiMaggio's 56 game-hitting streak and Bonds' 73-home run season and even Ripken's games-played milestone: 130 stolen bases in a season.

"Seventy is tough," said New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, who leads the major leagues with 78. "Imagine 130. Look at my last two years. I had 124 total. He had 130 in one year."

Yes, in one year Henderson stole more bases than 28 major league teams have stolen this season, which is almost 90 percent completed. And that's with a stolen-base renaissance taking place this season.

Teams were on pace through Saturday to swipe more bases than any season this decade, with National League teams figuring to average nearly 99 per team and American League teams almost 97. Barring a huge drop-off, base stealers will set records for accuracy this season too, with NL runners successful at more than a 75-percent clip and those in the AL safe almost 73.5 percent of the time.

"In the '90s, we had so many guys who got home run crazy," Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Whether it was guys who were juiced or whatever else, home runs became so prevalent and such an offensive weapon, you didn't want to give up outs. Plus, teams built themselves around driving the ball. So that part of baseball was thrown aside."

Well, home runs are down more than 8 percent this year. Runners seem to be scoffing at pitchers using a slide step, which had been blamed for the slowdown in stolen bases. Catchers are turning in obscenely bad percentages for runners caught (with San Diego's Josh Bard leading (trailing?) the pack at – this is real – 9 for 112).

All of which means that this is a wonderful confluence, the perfect wave for somebody to ride all the way to 131 and wipe Rickey right out of the record books.


"There are plenty of guys who could steal 40 or 50 bases," Reyes said. "But 130? Come on, bro."

It's July 27, 1982. "Nobody can throw me out," Rickey Henderson says. He already has 94 stolen bases. Bob Boone, who would win one of his seven Gold Gloves that year, is catching. Rickey singles in the first inning. Boone throws him out. Rickey walks in the second. Boone guns him down again. Rickey singles in the sixth. Boone hits the trifecta. It was the first and last time in his career Rickey would be thrown out three times in a game.

Ninth inning. Tied at 5. Dave McKay stands on second. Rickey steps in against Bruce Kison and laces an RBI single to left field. And wouldn't you know it, one batter later, with two outs in the ninth and a one-run lead, against a catcher who has thrice embarrassed him, Rickey steals second base. If nobody can throw Rickey out once, twice or three times, no way somebody was gonna get him four.

At Oakland Tech, where Rickey went to high school, a guidance counselor named Mrs. Wilkinson would give him a quarter every time he stole a base. She found the stolen base baseball's greatest thrill, and even though Rickey wanted to hit home runs, the lure of George Washington helped him value the walk.

"That way, I could steal second and third," Henderson said. "I made $7 or $8. Back then, when a hamburger cost a quarter, that was a lot."

Rickey debuted with the Oakland A's at 20, and he wasn't even 22 when he booked his first 100-steal season. Coming into the '82 season, he was healthy and primed to go after Lou Brock's single-season record of 118, set in 1974.

During spring training, Rickey stayed late for film sessions. He studied the greats. Ty Cobb and Maury Wills and Brock, the man who saw greatness in Henderson and spent an evening with him talking about what it takes to be a great basestealer: arrogance.

"I wanted to run too much, I think," Rickey said. "I was always on the go. I always wanted to make something happen. I wanted to get into scoring position. Because coming up through the minor leagues, they taught us our roles, and as a leadoff hitter I was supposed to score runs."

Rickey did, scoring 2,295 in his 25-year career, tops all-time, along with his 1,406 stolen bases. Getting on base more than 40 percent of the time helped his cause, as it did on the basepaths. Which made 1982 all the more remarkable: Fifteen times Rickey finished a season with an on-base percentage greater than .400. That was not one of the seasons.

So Rickey brought something else that season: unmitigated abandon. He did not care if he got picked off. Pitchers caught him leaning and got him in a rundown 14 times. Getting caught did not bother him, either. Catchers nabbed Henderson 28 times, including three at home. Forty-two missed attempts could be a record that never falls too.

The book Baseball Between the Numbers explains the reason in a chapter entitled "What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia's Legs?" The book compares the greatest season by baseball's greatest basestealer to a home run-hitting jelly roll because of something called run-expectation tables.

Essentially, the tables show the probability of scoring a run from a certain base. Rickey's 130 stolen bases, according to the book's calculations, added 22.2 runs to the A's that season. His 42 times caught stealing, on the other hand, subtracted 20.6 runs.

With more runs scored than ever in the late '90s and early 2000s, a single out became all the more valuable. Current Athletics' general manager Billy Beane frowned on stolen bases because the numbers showed that to break even in run expectation, about a 75 percent success rate was needed. Stolen bases were not cool in Moneyball.

Yet, in the circular game, everything is cyclical. And, as Rickey admits, the athletes playing baseball today are in far better shape than ever. They've got video. They've got scouting reports that read like FBI dossiers.

Now, 130 beckons.

"The big question is, How much you want to do it," Rickey said. "You've got to enjoy hitting the dirt. You've got to be able to take the pounding on your body. I saw it as a challenge. It was me against the pitchers and catchers. They gunned for me. And I wanted to know if I could beat them."

It's Aug. 27, 1982. A day earlier, Rickey had tied Brock's record with his 118th. "I intimidate," he likes to say.

George "Doc" Medich, who eventually would become an orthopedic surgeon, walks Rickey with two outs in the third inning. He throws to first. Twice. Three times. And a fourth. When Medich actually delivers, it's a pitchout to catcher Ted Simmons. Rickey is running anyway. He slides headfirst into second and is safe by a pinch. He jumps up, lifts the second-base bag out of the ground and celebrates.

And that night, he goes on to steal three more bases.

Nineteen times in his career, Rickey stole four bases in a game. The Chicago White Sox's Scott Podsednik leads active players with four such games, though injuries will likely prevent any more. Kenny Lofton, now 40 and ranked 15th all-time with 622 stolen bases, is next with three.

"Jose doesn't have one?" Rickey asked.

Not yet.

Rickey shook his head and launched a geyser's worth of chaw expectorate.

"Soon enough," he said.

Rickey is the Mets' first-base coach. He spends every day with Reyes. If his protégé could just learn to take a few more walks – Reyes' great start has tapered off to a .364 on-base percentage – he might be able to crack 100.

"Yeah, 100 sounds right," Rickey said. "Same with Juan Pierre and that kid in Tampa Bay (Carl Crawford). It's how you got off in the first half. Reyes has (78) bases. I had 84 at halftime."

When he puts it like that, it sounds even more amazing. More stolen bases by the All-Star break than this year's leader. And Reyes' next stolen base will give him the most in a single season since Rickey stole 93 in 1988.

"When you look at Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, they were a different class of base-stealer," said Scioscia, a former All-Star catcher. "Some guys have potential like Reyes. There are guys who can be great. But off the charts like those others? I don't think so."

"I don't know how you can do that," said Mets second baseman Luis Castillo, who twice led the National League in steals. "You look at Reyes, at Juan Pierre, and they can steal bases. And they're not even at 100."

"One hundred thirty?" Angels catcher Jeff Mathis said.

He asked it like a question.

He snickered.

He didn't bother answering.

"Depends on how much I get on base," Reyes said. "If I'm on more, and take second and third right away, maybe. Who knows? Nothing's impossible. But it seems like way too much."

It was time for batting practice, and Reyes had to go. He slipped on his shoes, the number 7 stitched in bright colors on the back, and headed toward the cage. Rickey Henderson awaited. He didn't say much. He usually doesn't.

He just looked at Reyes, appreciating the beauty of his swing, the bunt as delicate as a fontanel, the way he corners a base, the grace with which he moves. Seemingly the perfect formula for 130.

"Well," Rickey said, "he's got to get that 100 first. And then he needs 30 bases. That's 30 great jumps. That's 30 calls. And that's 30 slides.

"And," he said, shaking his head, pantomiming the clearing of cobwebs, "those slides ain't no fun."

The stolen base, dead? Not even close. Teams are stealing more bases than they have in years – and at a higher success rate than ever.

National League American League
Year SB/team CS/team % success SB/team CS/team % success
2007* 98.67 31.84 75.60% 96.86 34.99 73.46%
2006 94.69 38.13 71.46% 89.43 35.71 71.46%
2005 84.31 35.00 70.67% 86.86 36.36 70.49%
2004 83.50 32.94 71.71% 89.50 40.93 68.62%
2003 80.88 36.56 68.87% 91.36 39.07 70.04%
2002 94.63 43.94 68.29% 88.29 41.36 68.10%
2001 91.00 45.94 66.45% 117.64 48.07 70.99%
2000 101.69 46.00 68.85% 92.64 41.93 68.84%
1999 122.44 51.88 70.24% 104.43 49.21 67.97%
1998 100.56 46.94 68.18% 119.64 53.86 68.96%
1997 129.79 60.07 68.36% 106.50 51.64 67.34%
1987 154.25 63.08 70.97% 123.86 55.14 69.19%
1982 148.50 68.50 68.43% 99.57 56.79 63.68%
1977 129.58 70.25 64.85% 104.43 66.86 60.97%
1967 69.40 47.00 59.62% 67.90 47.00 59.09%
1957 49.88 31.75 61.10% 46.00 38.00 54.76%
* – projected