Rickey's hand, average hurt, but mouth fine

TORONTO — TORONTO -- Rickey Henderson warmed up for the World Series yesterday by doing his customary verbal aerobics. Somehow, he did not strain any muscles while bouncing back and forth, unable to decide between the importance of Rickey and the importance of bringing another championship to Canada.

"I'm going to go out and play my game," he said. "I can't worry about fitting in. It's time to do my own thing, instead of trying to figure out what I can do best for my club."


And then, moments later . . .

"The winning is the biggest thing," he said. "We won in the playoffs, and people said Rickey didn't do what he did in the past. But we won."


They did. Henderson and his Toronto teammates reached the Series by dismissing the Chicago White Sox in six games. Now, as they prepare to confront Philadelphia, the Blue Jays are starting to wonder: Will Rickey ever start playing like Rickey?

Bothered by a bruised hand, Henderson hit only .120 in the playoffs, with three hits in 25 at-bats. This inefficiency followed two terrible months in Toronto, during which he hit .215 and made general manager Pat Gillick openly regret trading for Henderson.

The Blue Jays sent promising pitcher Steve Karsay and minor-league outfielder Jose Herrera to Oakland for Henderson. It obviously was not Gillick's preferred option, given his team's offensive strength.

"I know they were looking for a pitcher in the first place," Henderson said. "If that's the thing, then why did they want me?"

As the Blue Jays ponder that precise question, Henderson might begin pondering his baseball future. He can file for free agency after the World Series -- as part of the trade, Toronto relinquished its arbitration rights -- and that creates an intriguing Series subplot.

Henderson spent much of four years bemoaning his contract. Now, as he sits on the brink of financial freedom, his performance plunges. The market might not support $5 million per season for someone with declining numbers, rising age (35 in December) and a well-documented trail of turmoil.

Not surprisingly, this line of logic does not faze Henderson. Yesterday, he said he wants to be among the 10 best-paid players in the game. His post-trade slump simply traces to an abundance of injuries, Henderson maintained.

"I had a great year," he said. "I would have had a fantastic year, until I got hurt. The years I've played speak more than 1 1/2 or two months."


Henderson's health troubles began soon after he joined the Blue Jays. In August alone, he hurt his left hand while exercising; suffered frostbite on his foot when trainers left ice on too long; and bruised his right hand Aug. 22, when Seattle's hard-throwing Jeff Nelson hit him with a pitch.

This last injury still affects Henderson. In evaluating his playoff pratfall, Henderson credited White Sox pitchers for hitting the corners and blamed himself for chasing bad pitches.

Toronto hitting coach Larry Hisle mostly blamed the hand.

"I personally feel that's why he's not performing to his capabilities," Hisle said. "The White Sox knew it. They threw him a lot of fastballs inside, because that requires a hitter to use his top hand. He had to guide the bat with his left hand."

Said Henderson: "If I sat down and tried to get myself well, then I'd feel bad that I didn't try. That's something I'll probably regret -- I played almost two whole months hurt. Basically, I was supposed to sit down."

Henderson's hand is improving, "to the point where he should be able to drive the ball," Hisle said. Even so, when Henderson reached base during the playoffs he stayed alarmingly still; he had two steals in three attempts.


In the third inning of Game 2, with one out and Devon White at the plate, Henderson did not run on several 3-and-2 pitches. White kept hitting foul balls, and Henderson never ran with the pitch. He just stood there, antsy and agitated.

Henderson said yesterday that manager Cito Gaston had the "red light" on in that situation.

"I never stay on first base with a 3-and-2 count," he said. "Devon was up, and Robbie [Alomar] was coming up. They wanted to leave the hole open. It shocked me."

That's life these days for Henderson. His teammates speak of him as just another guy, no more vital to the offense than anyone else.

"We don't need to concern ourselves with just one guy," Joe Carter said. "If Rickey gets going, great. If he doesn't, we have guys behind him who can do the job. Rickey could cause a lot of havoc if he gets on base, but we have other ways to win."

Yes, baseball fans, this is Rickey Henderson on the Blue Jays -- a luxury, almost an afterthought. Imagine that.