JUPITER, Fla. – Rickey Henderson is still delusional.
An injection of Rickey every so often is good for the soul. It reminds us that personalities make baseball great, and Rickey – lip-flapping, self-aggrandizing and earnestly narcissistic to the end – is an all-timer.
Just ask him.
"Teams won't give me tryouts because most of them know I'll make the club," Rickey said Tuesday, on assignment here as a baserunning coach for the New York Mets. "If I don't make a club, I know I'm done. But I've still got that question mark. Look out here."
Rickey gazed around Roger Dean Stadium.
"I can play with these kids."
Maybe that was code for "most of them could actually be my kids."
Rickey is 47, and he is serious about coming back, even if no one else is. Rickey believes someone needs him. And he's right.
We need Rickey's innocence.
He popped out of the dugout Tuesday wearing a gleaming Mets uniform, a warmup jacket and a hat. He stretched with the players and laughed with them. He trotted around the outfield and wore Endy Chavez's glove.
Rickey looked like he belonged because for so long he did. He played for 25 years with nine teams. He still owns the major-league records for runs, walks, stolen bases and third-person references.
"In life, you're here for a reason," Rickey said. "This is my reason. I've been blessed to have this body. I've been blessed to never have a surgery. As much as I hit that ground, never. I didn't burn out. I can play."
We need Rickey's motor.
Rickey wakes up at about 6 a.m. and runs four or five miles, busting through the hills around San Francisco. He's got about as much fat on him as a filet mignon.
Last season, he played for the San Diego Surf Dawgs in the independent Golden Baseball League. Rickey was second in the eight-team (now six-team) league in on-base percentage and hit five home runs in 73 games. He stole 16 bases.
With all the running he did – 1,406 career stolen bases, almost 500 more than runner-up Lou Brock – his fingers are intact and his nails are in manicure-worthy shape.
Rickey's grandmother lived to 98, and he thinks he could play another five, six years.
"What, time ran out all of a sudden?" he said. "Please."
We need Rickey's flamboyance.
Throughout the Mets' pregame workouts, Rickey sported a diamond-encrusted watch on his right wrist. He talked so fast he sounded like a carnival barker. He strutted to assert himself as the preeminent 47-year-old on the premises.
There was another. Julio Franco is still playing, too, and Rickey couldn't seem to understand how Franco received a two-year contract with the Mets and he can't even get a minor-league deal.
"He hasn't accomplished as much as I have, and that's why he got it," Rickey said. "I know I have way more tools than he has."
We need Rickey's bluntness.
An exchange between an autograph-seeking fan and Rickey on Tuesday:
"Rickey, I've been a fan of yours for so long."
"I believe you."
"Can I have your autograph?"
"Remember me as a player?"
"Well, I'm a coach now. And I gotta coach."
And Rickey laughed like mad.
We need Rickey being Rickey.
The day Rickey starts making sense, we're all doomed. Rickey claiming he no longer can play baseball could throw the planet's equilibrium into a dysfunctional state. Barry Bonds might actually tell the truth.
Before Manny was ever Manny, Rickey was Rickey. He would talk in the third-person – a running gag, he now says – and toss out all kinds of malaprops. Like Tuesday, when he called it "talking in the third party." Or, as legend has it, when he was sitting on a bus with the Padres, and Steve Finley told him to take any seat because he had tenure.
"Ten year?" Rickey said. "Rickey's got 17 years."
We need Rickey.
It's that simple, really. Even though Rickey can't play – and he showed that by hitting .233 or worse with limited power his last four seasons – he's like that inappropriate uncle: You never stop shaking your head at him, but if he wasn't around, you'd miss him.
Soon enough, Rickey will be gone from baseball. In 2009, Rickey will earn first-ballot entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he'll grace us once more with his, um, wisdom. So appreciate him. Because by then, hopefully, he will realize that he's unwanted but not unloved, that he no longer needs to seek employment through bait-and-switch maneuvers.
"I thought maybe I'd come out here and trick 'em," Rickey said. "They'd look at me, give me a glove and say, Go play.' "
Yeah, Rickey's delusional, all right. And we wouldn't want it any other way.
- Rickey Henderson