Oakland Tech product Rickey Henderson’s pro baseball career spanned parts of four decades, included stints on nine major league teams, and ended with the hometown hero holding career records in stolen bases, runs scored, and leadoff homeruns. Widely considered the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, he also provided innumerable amusing and often head-scratching quotes that only enhanced his flair on the field.
On Saturday, Henderson’s long, sometimes strange, and always wildly entertaining trip took the legend back to his North Oakland roots. Just a few months after being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, Henderson attended a dedication ceremony at the now-former Carter Field as the baseball diamond was renamed in his honor.
“As a kid I never imagined something happening like this, that they could name a field after you at the school you played with,” Henderson said in a quiet moment before the program began. “It’s an honor. It’s something you cherish. Now maybe the kids today who play here can grow up and have something they never imagined possible happen to them.”
The push to rename the field after the former Oakland Athletic began with a petition to the city school district that was approved a few months ago, said Matthew Gabel, president of Oakland Field of Dreams, the non-profit group that maintains the diamond.
“What would be more appropriate than naming the field after one of the greatest Tech players and one the greatest ballplayers of all time, with his just being inducted in the Hall of Fame?” Gabel asked on Saturday. [Click here to see Henderson’s Hall of Fame induction speech]
In the warm autumn morning sun, facing scores of bleacher-seated fans and admirers and flanked by purple and gold banners and balloons, Henderson humbly spoke to the gathered crowd about playing sports at Bushrod Park as a kid, as well as his childhood dream of playing not baseball, but pro football.
His compact frame looking fit as ever and decked out in a half-unbuttoned white dress shirt, silver crucifix necklace, bulbous Hall of Fame ring, and dark sunglasses not unlike the stylish shades he sported on the Oakland Coliseum base-paths, the fifty-year-old appeared still capable of batting leadoff for the 2009 A’s that afternoon against the Los Angeles Angels.
Henderson graduated Tech in 1976, the same year he was drafted by the A’s, whom he would lead to a World Series title in 1989. Apart from his statistical accomplishments, Henderson was known for his flamboyance on and off the field. On the diamond, the recently-minted Hall of Famer was known for boldly diving headfirst into the base he just stole, and for his stylized ‘snatch catches,’ where he would nonchalantly await a fly ball seemingly without reaction before at the last moment plucking the white orb quickly out of the air. Off the diamond, Henderson often referred to himself in the third person. One widely reported story has him on a job search telling a major league general manager, “This is Rickey. Calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.”
Ken Korach, the A’s radio play-by-play man who emceed Saturday’s event, said it was “a thrill to call Rickey’s games.” Korach started with A’s in 1996, just in time to broadcast the tail end of Henderson’s Oakland career, and recalled watching the leftfielder play in the early 1980s from the Coliseum stands, calling the games by himself into a tape recorder.
“He could do it all – run, hit for power, field – there was nothing he couldn’t do,” Korach said in his sonorous announcer’s voice. “Any time you’re a first-ballot Hall of Famer, you’re the elite of the elite.”
Korach’s charity, Winning for the Community, raises money for Oakland Athletic League baseball programs. Over the past three years, he said, it’s raised more than $50,000 dollars for high school teams, and also played a role in the 2007 construction of Rickey Henderson Field, then called Carter Field.
The field was built in a grassroots, volunteer effort by Oakland Tech parents and community members, said Oakland Field of Dreams chairman Paul Brekke-Miesner, an eight-year Tech parent.
“What really inspired us was, before the OAL season would start every year, a lot of the time the team would travel through the tunnel out to the suburbs and play on amazing, beautiful fields and say to us, ‘Why can’t we play on a field like this?’” Brekke-Miesner said. In response, he said, more than two hundred volunteers raised over $350,000 in cash and service donations to construct the field. Rickey Henderson Field is currently home to several youth leagues, in addition to the Oakland Tech baseball team.
“Today is the culmination of an almost three year journey to what really is a field of dreams,” Brekke-Miesner said at Saturday’s dedication program. “We could see it in our minds, then we built it. It was just an incredible community effort.”
The significance of the two year-old state-of-the-art facility and its new namesake are far from lost on Tech players and coaches.
“This goes beyond words,” said baseball coach Eric Clayton. “I’m sure as the kids keep playing on this field over the years, they’ll honor and understand the legacy of baseball in Oakland.”
Standing on the dirt infield wearing the purple and gold Tech uniform after the dedication ceremony, senior pitcher and first baseman Kelvin McMiller echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“It’s a very special thing to play on a field named after Rickey Henderson,” McMiller said, surveying the immaculately groomed diamond as, nearby, a crowd of autograph-hounds besieged the Hall of Famer. “I know he’s one of the greatest players to play at Tech; he got drafted out of high school, went to the pros, and did his thing. It’d be an honor to follow in his footsteps.”