Rickey Henderson signs Indy league contract

By Kirk Kenney
May 9, 2005

SAN DIEGO–The San Diego Surf Dawgs begin spring training Monday in Arizona as they prepare for the inaugural season of the Golden Baseball League.

Manager Terry Kennedy has 32 players in camp competing for 24 spots on the independent team’s roster, but Kennedy already has found a good candidate to bat leadoff: Rickey Henderson.

The future Hall of Famer has signed a contract to play for the Surf Dawgs this season. Henderson will earn the league maximum of $3,000 per month, but it is a marketing agreement with the GBL that will prove most lucrative to the 46-year-old outfielder.

One of the first special events: Rickey Henderson bobblehead night, of course.

The official announcement of Henderson’s signing is expected today when Henderson arrives in Mesa at HoHoKam Stadium, the spring training complex of the Cubs, where the Surf Dawgs are training. He was not available for comment.

Fans can expect to see Henderson in left field when the team opens the season May 26 at San Diego State's Tony Gwynn Stadium.

“He creates a buzz,” Kennedy said. “The two-sided thing for us is he will put people in the seats, and he can still play a little bit.

“When I spoke to him I said, 'Are you in shape?’ and he said, 'You know I am.’ Who else has that kind of body at age 46? It’s something that I can’t fathom because I was pretty sore by the time I was in my mid-30s, and he’s laid his body on the ground a lot more than I did.”

Kennedy, whose 14-year major league career included six seasons catching for the Padres, chuckled at the thought of managing a player who is just two years younger than he is.

“He still just wants to play,” Kennedy said. “I think he wants to be the first one to hit a home run, cross home plate and collect his salary check, pension and Social Security all at the same time.”

When the GBL was formed last year, organizers said they had little interest in signing former major leaguers just for publicity. This opportunity proved too good to pass up, however.

“As with any signing of a big athlete, someone who has a reputation, people are going to view it that way,” said Dave Kaval, the GBL’s founder and CEO. “But if people come out to the ballpark, they’re going to see how much Rickey plays. He’s such a competitor. He wants to win . . . The doubters and cynics will be pleasantly surprised.

“That he would choose the GBL to play is flattering to us.”

Henderson continues to delay his Hall of Fame eligibility by playing professionally. He played the past two seasons for the Newark Bears in the independent Atlantic League. In 2003, he batted .339-8-33 in 56 games before a midseason return to the majors with the Dodgers. Last season, he stole 37 bases for the Bears while hitting .281-9-31.

Henderson set the major league records for stolen bases (1,406), walks (2,190, since eclipsed by Barry Bonds) and runs scored (2,295), and is one of only 25 players to accumulate 3,000 hits. Henderson has 297 homers and holds the record for leadoff homers with 81.

Henderson’s 25-year major league career includes three seasons–1996, ’97 and 2001–with the Padres. That’s when he endeared himself to San Diego fans, who saw Henderson set major league records for walks and runs while wearing a Padres uniform in 2001. In addition, his 3,000th hit came at Qualcomm Stadium in the final game of that season.

The Surf Dawgs' spring roster also includes righthander Matt Wheatland, a 2000 first-round pick who played locally at San Diego's Rancho Bernardo High.

Kirk Kenney covers baseball for the San Diego Union-Tribune.