The 1989 Project Day 4 – Rickey Henderson

Today we look at the 1989 Project’s first Hall of Famer, a living legend who re-emerged onto the national stage in 1989: Rickey Henderson.

1989 Donruss Baseball's Best

Rickey spent the mid-80s in something of a baseball ghetto: the New York Yankees. If you weren’t around at the time, it’s hard to understand just how bad the Yankees were back then, and they were definitely not national media darlings. You know what was? The Oakland A’s, and getting dealt back to them pushed him back into the public eye. The Yankees shipped him off to Oakland for a relatively meager package of Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk and Luis Polonia. I can’t recall the exact details of why the Yankees shipped him off for so comparatively little, but I suspect it’s a combination of his .247/.392/.349 line and the fact that he was due for free agency and a big payday. Again, it’s odd to think of the Yankees holding off on a potential free agent, but their spending habits were different, and they had quite a few solid outfield prospects, such as Bernie Williams, Gerald Williams, Deion Sanders, and possibly Hensley Meulens once he was moved off of third, so I suspect that made the decision a little easier.

1989 Fleer Update

Rickey took off when he got to in Oakland, hitting .294/.425/.438 for the rest of the year. He also stole 52 bases and was caught only 6 times. Seriously, six times. That’s insanely good. For the year, he led the majors with 77 steals and was only caught 14 times. He’s the all-time stolen base leader, but I still think it’s possible to underestimate just how damned good he was. He was also an effective hitter with a 2-1 count in 1989 – he hit .379/.373/.776 in that position. It’s obvious that players hit better when they’re ahead in the count, but his stats dropped on a 3-1 count. He was also known for his lead-off homers, and he managed five of those in 1989. Especially interesting was that he hit so well against staff aces; .313/.405/.477 in 1989. It’s the hallmark of a great hitter; anyone can knock around the fourth or fifth starter, but it takes a Rickey Henderson to consistently hit the aces.

Score Rookie and Traded

Rickey would become even more of a big deal going into 1990, as he became the first player to break the $3 million-a-year pay threshold in the 1989 offseason. It’s hard to explain to someone who wasn’t there what a big deal that was, and both the A’s and Henderson took a lot of flack for it. I was pretty amazed at the deal and wasn’t sure any baseball player was worth that amount of money, but in retrospect, he was worth a lot more than that, as he hit .325/.439/.577 in 1990, leading the league in OBP while stealing 65 bases (also league-leading) and hitting 28 homers, 15 of them leading off an inning and 5 leading off a game, helping the A’s make the World Series. He was an absolute beast.

1989 Topps Traded

The most puzzling part of Henderson’s 1989 Project cards is his complete omission from the Upper Deck High Numbers set. As I said, he was a big deal trade, and it’s shocking that UD decided to stay away from him. It’s not as if the trade missed UD’s cut-off; he was traded in June, and Walt Terrell was traded mid-July yet made the team. Very odd decision and I think this may well be a candidate for a future “what-if” custom card. The Donruss Traded omission is also an oddity. How do you include a player like Tom Niedenfuer, who was in no other traded set, and not hit Henderson? Anyway, great player, and I’m strongly considering making him another addition to my list of players that I collect. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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