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Nothing can stop Rickey but Rickey

by Jerry Crasnick
June 1, 2004

NEWARK, N.J.--Magic Frank, the official magician of the Atlantic League's Newark Bears, attracts swarms of children on the Riverfront Stadium concourse during games. The kids chatter excitedly and their jaws drop in amazement as he turns nickels into dimes and makes a playing card mysteriously rise from the top of the deck.

Some feats of legerdemain--like finding a big league job for Newark left fielder Rickey Henderson--are beyond even Magic Frank's realm of expertise. Magic Frank, Lawrence Frank, Frank Robinson and Magic Johnson could pool their resources and imaginations, and it wouldn't make a shred of difference.

Henderson, baseball's career leader in stolen bases, runs scored and walks, needs more than a master magician to transform him from Newark Bear to major leaguer again. He hasn't hit .240 in five years, and he's at a stage when lots of guys can pop a groin muscle pull-starting the lawn mower.

Heck, Rickey's closing fast on 46, the age that convinced even Jesse Orosco to retire.

He refuses to give in because he wants to leave baseball under his own terms, whatever they may be. As long as there are bases to be stolen, young ballplayers to be tutored and third-person references to be dropped, Rickey will keep at it.

"Other players quit because they can't run around the field like a young buck," Henderson says. "They'll say, 'I ain't healthy.' You don't hear that from Rickey. This is what God gave me and I accepted it. People say, 'He's so cocky.' They don't sit back and say, 'Wow, that guy must really love the game.' "

Main attraction

Say what you will about Henderson's willingness to confront reality. The man does love the game.

He loves it enough to play for the Atlantic League maximum of $3,000 a month. He loves it enough to keep going even though some people consider his quest pathetic in a Larry Holmes-George Foreman sort of way. He loves it enough to ride the bus to Nashua, N.H., or drive there on his own, with an obligatory stop at McDonald's.

Some days, when Rickey's not in the lineup, he'll coach first base. He flips baseballs to his teammates in the cage before batting practice, and scoops up stray balls just like everybody else when BP is through. When boxes of wrist bands or batting gloves arrive from sporting goods companies, he distributes them to teammates like the Exit 15W Santa Claus.

He's the main attraction, although sometimes it's hard to tell. During a recent Bears home game, a father settled into his seat with his two daughters at a half-empty Riverfront Stadium and cheerfully yelled "Rickey!" Dad pointed to the runner standing on third base and told his girls, "That man is a sure Hall of Famer."

So what if it was Bears first baseman Michael Coleman standing on third?

"Autograph sessions on Sunday, they want to see Rickey," Coleman says. "Don't get me wrong--we've got some guys who can play. But they want to see Rickey."

Fast friends

In the Newark clubhouse, where the soft drink machine in the corner qualifies as an extravagance, the only concession to Rickey's fame is the two locker stalls that house his stuff. They're red, metal lockers like you might find in a high school corridor, with Henderson #24 stripped across the top in white tape.

Outfielder Michael Piercy has the locker next to Henderson. Piercy, 27, was born in Newark and played affiliated ball with the Expos, Pirates and Mets before going the independent route. "I've been in more places than FedEx," he says.

As a kid, Piercy idolized Lance Johnson, Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson. He saved his allowance to buy green Mizuno batting gloves, and read Rickey's book, "Confessions of a Thief," cover to cover numerous times.

Last year Piercy arrived at the park one day and found himself sharing an elevator with Henderson, who had just signed with the Bears. "I know more about you than you know about you," Piercy told his boyhood hero.

The two have become fast friends despite their 18-year age gap, so much that the other Newark players jokingly refer to Piercy as "Rickey Jr." Last year Rickey visited the Piercy home for family barbecues, and the entire crew fell in love with him. When Rickey signed with the Dodgers and homered in his second game, Dena Piercy called her son with breathless excitement in her voice.

"Rickey just hit a home run!" she shrieked.

"Mom, you don't even know how many hits I got last night!" Piercy complained.

Chasing the dream

Money notwithstanding, the Atlantic League is pretty good as independent leagues go. The front offices are professionally run, many of the ballparks are new, and several are packed on a regular basis. Most important, it's convenient for scouts to drop by and check out the merchandise.

The plan worked for Henderson last year, when the Dodgers signed him out of Newark in July in a desperate attempt to juice up their offense. Rickey hit two homers in four games, then the euphoria subsided. He finished with a .208 average in 72 at-bats, and needed a shoulder scope in the off-season.

The odds are longer this year. "I admire his passion for wanting to stay in the game," said an American League executive. "But at some point we all have to self-evaluate, and I think Rickey still has to do that."

You come to Newark prepared for a sad tale of self-delusion, and that's only half true. Rickey is playing independent ball at age 45 because he's convinced he's still good enough to contribute to a major-league team--a sentiment that 30 major-league teams apparently don't share.

But he's sufficiently well-off to commute from his place in Manhattan, where he spends a lot of time checking out Broadway shows. He owns a ranch outside Yosemite and spends the winter shuttling back and forth between Phoenix and the Bay Area.

"I ain't broke," he says. "If I left today, I would know my family and my kids are taken care of and I don't have to go out and work."

While Rickey's voice resonates through the clubhouse when he observes, "It's a shame that I'm here," no offense is intended. He's just passionate that he belongs at a higher level. Day-to-day, he displays none of the bitterness that made Jose Canseco's departure from the game such an ordeal to watch.

Before Newark plays the Pennsylvania Road Warriors, Rickey hauls out a folding table and a deck of cards and drums up a game. For more than an hour, he cackles, makes jokes and bonds with his more anonymous teammates.

"He lights up the clubhouse," Michael Coleman says.

Just like magic.

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