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Rickey steals show at rainy Hall of Fame Classic

Henderson, Gossage, Niekro thank fans on wet weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y.

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Disappointment ran deep here this past weekend, as deep as the nearby Susquehanna River that took on significant water from the same storms that washed away most of the activities planned for the Hall of Fame Classic. Sometimes, though, the best laid plans give way to better alternatives.

Among the more disappointed was a 54-year-old man who had traveled here from Northern California for what he expected to be a grand experience. The weekend, he hoped, would afford him a return to his younger years, a chance to relive the good times. But among the goings-on that were lost to the weather, along with on-field clinics Friday afternoon and a parade on Saturday, was a seven-inning game that was to have been the focal point of the weekend.

So Rickey Henderson had to make do. He did, and, in the process, he made himself and scores of others happy. What he and three other Hall of Famers provided was more rewarding and entertaining than a come-as-you-were party disguised as seven innings.

Rickey wanted to play, wanted to lead off and swing for the fences. And if he had to settle for a single or even a walk, he wanted to run and slide and get his uni dirty. "I came here, to play," he said, still unsettled by the notion of retirement.

"They call, Rickey'll be back," he said. "I'm ready. I know Rickey can hit .180 ... Lotsa guys hittin' .180, under two bills, these days. Rickey can do that right now."

And make no mistake, he was here as "Rickey" and "Rickey" only. Reference to him as "Henderson" will confuse the matter. He refers to himself in the first person but as "Rickey," seldom as "I."

Rickey had come to play and, if possible, show off. He carried a smidgeon of hope in his back pocket. Minnie Minoso pinch-hit for the White Sox Oct. 5, 1980, 55 days before his 55th birthday. Rickey doesn't turn 55 until Christmas Day. He wanted to show how much he had left. Maybe the current Bill Veeck would be watching.

Grounding out clearly hadn't occurred to him. He hadn't traveled cross-country for anything so unrewarding, so unglamorous so un-Rickey. When in Cooperstown, you do as the Hall of Famers do -- or did. That was his intent until the weather interfered.

Instead, he was seated in a tall director's chair in the hall on Saturday afternoon -- Goose Gossage and Goose's HOF plaque to his right, his own plaque to his left. And in front of the two former teammates, a long line of folks longing to meet them, a different sort of parade.

Autographs were out, the guests had been made aware of that one restriction. Instead of signatures, they got smiles, handshakes, memories and thank yous. Yes, it was the players -- Rickey, Goose and, nearby, Rollie Fingers and Phil Niekro -- expressing gratitude. "Thanks for coming."

They posed for so many photos with young kids, they nearly wore out their laps. A little girl wearing a pink Yankees' 13 -- A-Rod -- was part of the parade. Others rolled their eyes at her choice of uni, but said nothing. And she smiled sweetly.

The elements had rained on more than the planned parade. But the four Hall of Famers made the best of a wet situation. "This is fun," Fingers said. "This is great." Every comment about his handlebar mustache prompted a genuine smile from the former A's and Brewers closer.

Niekro took special interest when the two Boy Scouts approached, as he'd been a Scout. One teenager acknowledged the autograph embargo, but asked that Niekro demonstrate his knuckleball grip.

"I don't know why it does what it does," Knucksie said as he accommodated. "But it does." He indicated the success of R.A. Dickey last season had increased the number of knuckleball inquiries.

A kid in a Yankees jacket and with a Pirates cap posed with him. He'd never heard of Bill Mazeroski or Roberto Clemente. But his favorite player was Andrew McCutchen. Four others wore likenesses of McCutchen's Pirates No. 22 uniform. Derek Jeter's Yankees No. 2 and Mickey Mantle's Yankees No. 7 and Rickey's A's No. 24 were the most popular jerseys of the day. A grandfather and grandson wore Stan the Man's No. 6.

Sandra Fonseca, 45, of Staten Island, approached Rickey wearing an A's uniform shirt. She turned to show him the bottom of the back. Some of Rickey's Hall of Fame resumé had been printed there.

"That's a fan," Rickey said.

"And nobody wants to wear 54," Goose said, feigning insult.

Rickey recalled the tempest he had created when he joined the Mets in 1999 and wore No. 24. Joan Payson, one of the original owners of the Mets, had promised Willie Mays in 1973 that his Mets No. 24 would be worn by no other player. Mays was a tad miffed when the Mets broke her promise for journeyman first baseman Kelvin Torve in 1991 and eight years later when Henderson donned 24. Thirteen-year-old Chris Powers of Woodbridge, N.J., dressed to salute his team, the Yankees, posed with Goose and Rickey. "Why the Mets cap?" he was asked by a tongue-in-cheek bystander. Goose winked and smiled. Powers said sternly: "Don't even joke about that."

A man who had identified himself as a Red Sox rooter by his choice of clothing, posed with Goose and his son with Rickey. A woman waited to snap a photo of the four. Unhurried, Rickey continued his conversation with the father as the woman waited. "Rickey, pay attention," the father said.

"The guy's gotta be a teacher," Goose said. Rickey paid him no mind.

Another young man challenged Rickey to a race. "Which way you want Rickey to run, backwards?" was the response. Rickey had come to play. He is five pounds heavier than his final playing weight. No adolescent sprinter was going to faze him.

And so the day went for the Goose and his buddy.

"I used to hate Rickey," Goose said. "I told him I did. But how can you hate a man who enjoys himself as much as he does? He makes all of us laugh. We want him here anytime we come here."


Rickey enterained everyone on Saturday, especially Desi Relaford, former Phillie, Met, Rockie, Royal and Ranger. He told of how he had traveled to Cooperstown -- a flight from Oakland to North Carolina (city unspecified) to Albany, N.Y., and then ground transport. Relaford laughed. But that itinerary didn't challenge the circuitous route Rickey had taken to Spring Training in Fort Lauderdale in 1989.

Oakland to Atlanta to Baltimore to Miami. And then he took a flight all the way from Miami to Lauderdale. "You didn't," Relaford said. "Yes. Why not?' Rickey said. "Rickey had too many bags to walk."

Rickey Nelson Henley Henderson is a Hall of Fame revelation. "Rickey being Rickey" once was a phrase used to explain away his behavior. It means something else these days. He was something less than a reliable teammate and person when he played. If he were scheduled to arrive at 8 a.m., he might not show until 10:30. Were he scheduled to show at 11 a.m., he might not show until 12. Questions about his effort were not uncommon.

But since his HOF introduction speech wowed -- and surprised -- the masses in 2009, he has been a model inductee, willing and pleased to share all he has and all he has been, an absolute delight.

His disappointment in the rainout was quite genuine. The wet grounds prompted a memory.

"We needed George out there today with those helicopters," Rickey said, referring to an unfathomable episode that occurred one spring during his tenure with the Yankees. A Spring Training game in Fort Lauderdale was in jeopardy of postponement because the field, particularly right field, was saturated.

George Steinbrenner arranged for a helicopter to hover, close to the ground in right field, hoping to dry the turf. When the Yankees owner realized more was needed, he removed his shoes and socks and rolled up the bottoms of his slacks, and he raked.

"That was the best thing I ever saw," Rickey said. "We thought he was crazy that day. But he worked at it, and we played. I told him if he needed money he could work on my ranch."