I’ve written about this before, but with Jim Rice going into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, it seems appropriate to drag it out again.
It was the late 1980s, and I was at the Oakland Coliseum, covering an Oakland A’s game against the Boston Red Sox for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. After the game, all the reporters rushed down to the clubhouses to do our interviews, then rushed back up to bang out our stories on deadline. For the Boston papers, the deadline was particularly brutal because of the time zone.
Anyway, when I came back up to the press box, I was stunned when I saw Steve Fainaru of the Boston Globe. Steve is the older brother of Barry Bonds tormentor Mark Fainaru-Wada, and a brilliant reporter in his own right. In fact, Steve Fainaru is no longer in sports and now works for the Washington Post. Last year, he won the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for his series on private security contractors in Iraq. As an aside, I felt that Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle should have won a Pulitzer as well for their BALCO reporting, but that’s another topic.
Anyway, here’s what I saw that night: Fainaru typing away madly on his computer, wearing the tattered remains of what had once been a button-up shirt. After we had finished our stories, I asked Steve what had happened. Turned out he had gotten in a heated argument in the clubhouse with Rice, who didn’t like something Fainaru had written. At one point, Rice reached down, grabbed Fainaru’s shirt by the collar, and ripped it off, buttons flying. Fainaru had no choice but to go back to the press box and write his story, practically bare-chested.
As a footnote, I heard that Rice eventually apologized and bought Fainaru a new shirt. It’s not the first writer-player confrontation I’ve been around, and it won’t be the last, but it was definitely the weirdest. That doesn’t mean Rice was a bad guy. Read here how he once helped save a little boy’s life. But he didn’t have much fondness for the media, which might have been one reason his Hall of Fame election took so long. But the real reason is that Rice’s qualifications were right on the Cooperstown borderline. I voted for him every year, but I certainly understand why some opposed his election.
I spent considerable time around Rickey Henderson, the other inductee, and he was always a delight. HIs post-season performance for Oakland in 1989 — I covered every game — was nothing short of breathtaking. In the ALCS against Toronto, which the A’s won in five games, Rickey hit .400 (6-for-15). He scored eight runs. He hit two homers, a triple and a double, and drove in five. He was 8-for-8 in stolen bases. He had a .609 on-base percentage and a 1.000 slugging percentage for a 1.609 OPS. Then, in Oakland’s World Series sweep of San Francisco, Henderson hit .474 (9-for-19) with two walks, a double, two triples, a homer, three RBI, three stolen bases in four chances, a .521 on-base percentage, .895 slugging percentage and 1.419 OPS. He absolutely took over the post-season and dragged the A’s to the World Series championship.
Everyone knows the numbers — the walks, the runs, the stolen bases, the power, the on-base percentage. I like Bill James’s quote on Henderson best: “If you cut him in half, you’d have two Hall of Famers.” He was the best leadoff hitter ever, of that I have no doubt. And he was just a kick to be around — arrogant in a likeable way, ever-approachable, ever-quotable, hilarious in both intentional and unintentional ways. Everyone has heard the stories. Some of them are even true. As with Yogi Berra, it stopped mattering a long time ago whether the stories were true. Like Yogi, Rickey has become a mythical figure. He never actually said of John Olerud, after joining the Mariners, that he used to play for a guy with the Mets that wore a helmet on the field. But he could have said it. That was Rickey. Rarely has there been a more worthy Hall of Famer. And I’m sure his speech is going to be a real hoot.
(Seattle Times photo of Henderson by Steve Ringman; Rice photo by Associated Press)