This Date in Mets History: January 12 - The Man of Steal Slides into Cooperstown

Ezra Shaw

A loving look back on Rickey Henderson's time as a member of the New York Mets.

If you could split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers.

That's the famous Bill James quote regarding the great Rickey Henderson, the inner circle Hall of Famer who rightfully gained election to Cooperstown on this date in 2009. Less hyperbolic and requiring much less experimental gene splicing, James wrote of the then-Mets outfielder in 2000:

Without exaggerating one inch, you could find fifty Hall of Famers who, all taken together, don't own as many records, and as many important records as Rickey Henderson.

While the bulk of Rickey's record-setting came with other teams, his last truly great season came as a member of the Mets in 1999. As the lineup's 40-year leadoff man, Henderson batted .315/.423/.466 in 526 plate appearances. That was good for 3.1 oWAR according to Baseball Reference. Almost historically good, in fact. Only a dozen players 40 or older have put up better seasons with the bat. In terms of base path prowess, Rickey's 37 steals that year are second only to Davey Lopes's 47 swipes in 1985 among quadragenarians.

While the Man of Steal had an ignominious end to his tenure, what with being Bobby Bonillia's pinochle partner during Game Six of the '99 NLCS, it's no exaggeration to say that New York wouldn't have made the playoffs without Rickey, or advanced past Arizona in the Wild Card round. Before taking tricks from Bobby Bo, Henderson took the D-Backs' battery to the woodshed, hitting .400/.500/.400 and stealing six bases in the four game series.

The Mets cut ties with Henderson six weeks into the 2000 season, as he finally began to show some signs of aging. Still, even as his batting average and slugging percentage mired in the low .200s, Rickey could still get on base. At the time of his release, his OBP was. 387. Asked to reflect upon his career three years later, during what would wind up being his last season in the bigs, Henderson told Dennis Manoloff of Baseball Digest:

I haven't mastered the homers or RBI. The little things, I probably mastered.

It's a rare bit of modesty from the man who once declared himself the greatest after breaking Lou Brock's all-time steals record. The biggest thing a batter can do is not make an out and few players have ever been more productive at not making outs than Rickey Henderson.

Birthdays

  • If you'd asked any Mets fan circa 2008 if s/he'd thought Luis Ayala would still be in the league and pitching effectively by his 35th birthday, said booster probably would have laughed at you through a face of bitter, bitter tears. Yet, here Ayala is, going strong four years after New York acquired him from the Nationals and impressed him into closing duties. In the past two seasons, the righty has made 50-plus appearances and posted a sub-3.00 ERA. FIP is less friendly (4.19 in 2011 and 3.67 last year), still that's a marked improvement over the 5.50 mark he put up as Billy Wagner's replacement. Man, relievers are unpredictable.
  • Randy Jones, the pitcher who beat Jerry Koosman for the 1976 NL Cy Young turns 63. "Junkman", as he was nicknamed, joined the Mets five years after his award-winning campaign, though by that point in his career he was about ready for the scrap heap. The lefty went 8-18 in 32 starts with an ugly 58:89 strikeout to walk ratio. Since retiring, Jones has worked as an independent pitching coach. His most notable student was Barry Zito, another soft-tossing southpaw who won a Cy Young over a more deserving candidate (Pedro Martinez) because of he had 20-plus WINZ.
  • One of two men with the name to play for the Mets, it's first baseman Mike Marshall who celebrates his 53rd birthday today. Picked up from the Dodgers to replace Keith Hernandez in the starting lineup, Marshall lasted just three months before being replaced by Dave Magadan, who went on to put up a very Keith-like slash line in 1990 (.328/.417/.457).
  • Jorge Velandia is 38. Looking for infield depth for the 2000 stretch run, GM Steve Phillips acquired Velandia from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for the rights to a 20-year old outfielder from the team's Dominican Summer League affiliate named Nelson Cruz. It would take seven years and two more organizations for Cruz to establish himself, but still, it'd be nice to get a mulligan on this trade.

Amazin'-ly Tenuous Connection
On January 12, 1969, quarterback Joe Namath led the New York Jets to a shocking 16-7 upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The Mets must have been inspired by their Shea Stadium roommates, as they would go on to win a rather miraculous championship of their own ten months later.

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