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OAKLAND — As hard it may be to believe, Rickey Henderson has slowed down a bit in middle age, so much so that he was 15 minutes late to his own press conference Monday to talk about the Oakland Coliseum field being named in his honor.
“You waitin’ on me?” said Henderson, sporting sunglasses and a big smile as he walked into a packed interview room.
Rickey was known to be fashionably late even in his base-stealing heyday, so no one seemed to mind he slid into the press session a tad past 5 p.m.. But even though he was behind schedule, he caught up quickly to the magnitude of the honor being bestowed upon him.
“Growing up in Oakland as kid, playing in the parks around the ballpark, I had no idea that this chance would ever come,” he said. “The first thing was getting the opportunity to play for the Oakland A’s and being from Oakland, and now this has happened. So it’s a special, great moment.”
The on-field ceremony was, to be sure, a special and great moment. Large, stylish placards proclaiming “Rickey Henderson Field” were unveiled in left-center and right-center field to the delight of fans, and after a panorama of highlights were displayed on the Coliseum scoreboards, Henderson himself strolled in from center field with giant flames shooting out of the turf to his left and right.
Never one for fancy oratory, Henderson nonetheless followed up his wonderful, eloquent 2009 Hall of Fame speech in Cooperstown by nailing another address to the Coliseum crowd, albeit losing his place once and apologizing, which only made it more endearingly Rickey.
“My journey could not have been complete with the support of my family, Major League Baseball, the city of Oakland, the Oakland organization, the Oakland school system, Oakland parks and recreation, my teammates, the Oakland Coliseum personnel, but most of all, the fans,” Henderson spoke. “Especially the Oakland fans.”
For a city that has been battered by the forthcoming exoduses of two of its pro sports franchises, Henderson’s words provided much salve.
“My heart and soul are forever Oakland,” Rickey told the crowd. “Thank you, Oakland, I love you.”
It didn’t hurt that another local Oakland favorite son, former pitching great Dave Stewart, was on hand and Stewart actually crouched behind the plate to receive Henderson’s first pitch. Also present were Rickey’s mother, Bobbie Henderson, as well as the area scout who originally discovered and signed Henderson, James Guinn.
Earlier, Henderson said he has had Little League parks named after him around the East Bay, but having the Coliseum field christened in his honor truly humbled him.
“I really was shocked, and happy,” he said. “When I first heard about it, there was a belief that, `Wow, this could really happen.’ To have a major league park named after you? Never in my dreams would I have believed that could happen.”
Henderson revealed that when he was kid, he often didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket for a game, so he and his friends found a way to covertly find their way through the fence out behind the Coliseum bleachers. He maintained he never got caught.
“We would find a way to get underneath the fence or cut the fence, and sneak in and see the ballgame,” he said. “A lot of my friends got caught, but I was too fast.”
Henderson credited new A’s president Dave Kaval for making it happen. The two forged a relationship a decade ago when Rickey and couldn’t find a major league job as a player. Kaval invited him to play for the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the Golden Baseball League, an independent circuit Kaval founded straight out of Stanford University’s business school.
“I think very highly of him … he treated me very special when I played for him in the independent league,” Henderson said. “I was trying to get back to the big leagues, and he treated me like I was in the big leagues. It was very special to me and it was very special to him. We formed a relationship that was special, and it shows today.”
Henderson carries the title special assistant to the president and performs a variety of roles for the club, from coaching to personal appearances to advising on player development. Kaval said the idea to name the field after Rickey was born out of the weekly meetings he has with fans in his office.
Rickey Henderson on his favorite ways as a kid to sneak into what is now going to be called Rickey Henderson Field. #Athletics pic.twitter.com/4H6yVDSOiM
— John Hickey (@JHickey3) April 4, 2017
“Someone came in and said, Hey, we should honor our past more, and that’s something that really struck a chord for me as a fan of baseball.’ (The fan) said why don’t we name the field after someone and I said, `Rickey Henderson Field.’ It just kind of came to us. I think we high-fived each other, me and the guy from the office hours.”
Kaval subsequently broached Henderson about the idea and he was all for it.
“Since we had had a previous relationship going back 10 years, it all kind of fell into place,” he said. “It’s the least we can do to honor such an amazing person, not only in baseball — really, an American treasure — but also in this community of Oakland. That’s why it’s such a special day here at the Coliseum.”
Henderson thinks it’s great that under Kaval’s leadership, the A’s are finally embracing the players from their illustrious past.
“It’s been a long time coming, I thought they should have been doing this a long time ago,” he said. “But it took a special man (Kaval) to come here and realize these great players who came out of Oakland, they need to be embraced around the ballpark and show the young guys what it took to play the game and how to go about the game.”
If there was anything bittersweet about Monday’s Q&A session, it was a question about the Oakland Raiders and the notion that they may not be playing much longer on the “Rickey Henderson Field” turf.
“I’m a Raiders season-ticket holder, so it hurt my heart that they had to leave,” Henderson said. “I thought Oakland was their base, and they’re the most popular with the fans. The fans were behind them 100 percent. They leave once, then come back and leave again, I think it’s hurting us a lot more. I’m really disappointed that the city and the Raiders didn’t get together and work out a deal to keep the team here. But a lot of times, it’s about business, If it’s not working for one another, they’re going to move.”