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July 27, 2009

Rickey has last laugh


COOPERSTOWN _ I can't recall a single time in my professional career that I've been interviewed, and that's a good thing.

I hope it never happens.

I've always had a soft spot for those labeled unintelligent in the media because they sound awkward in front a microphone, tape recorder or camera.

George Bush, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are recent examples of politicians who've taken heat, not just for their message but also for the way they delivered it.

As an interviewer, I've always tried to give sources the benefit of the doubt, knowing it has to be difficult to give answers at the spur of the moment and have every word come out as intended.

That brings me to Rickey Henderson, who gave the best induction speech out of the six or seven ceremonies I've covered for this paper.

He spoke for 14 minutes, 5 seconds Sunday at the Clark Sports Center _ sometimes funny and sometimes serious but always entertaining. In some respects, it mirrored his Hall of Fame career.

He thanked the people who helped him get to the Hall of Fame but wasn't overly thankful. He told some humorous stories but not too many. He had a message for young people but didn't beat it to death.

It wasn't perfect, but the imperfections made his speech even better.

Perhaps the lone person in Cooperstown laughing harder than yours truly when Henderson relayed a story about Reggie Jackson was Jackson himself, who buried his head in his lap upon hearing Henderson's tale.

"What about that Reggie Jackson?" said Henderson, who grew up in Oakland before spending many of his most productive seasons with the A's. "I stand out on the ballpark in the parking lot waiting for Reggie Jackson to give me an autograph. Reggie used to come out all the time and I'd say, Reggie, can I have an autograph?' He would pass me a pen with his name on it. He never gave me an autograph."

But Henderson's performance in the post-ceremony media conference might have been better than the speech itself.

It was almost Rickey being Yogi. Even fellow inductee Jim Rice smiled at some of Henderson's replies.

Asked how long it took him to select the white suit he wore for the ceremony, Henderson said: "I had it made. I don't know how long it took them to make it."

Asked about his emotions during the speech, he said: "I just think emotion is a great feeling."

During his induction speech, Henderson spoke of a counselor in high school who'd give him a quarter for every hit, run or stolen base. When a reporter later asked for the counselor's first name, he said: "I just called her Mrs. Wilkerson."

He also referred to the counselor as a fun lady who loved the game the baseball.

Then her named seemed to come to him. Now, the sound in the Clark Sports Center's gym wasn't the best, but I thought I heard Henderson say her name was, "Thomas." I conferred with a colleague who also attended the media conference and he confirmed Henderson said Thomas.

I'm guessing that wasn't her name.

Henderson also said he accidently left his children's names out because he didn't turn the pages of his speech properly.

"When you get flipping them pages and one gets stuck," he said, "you wonder where that page is and what that page was all about."

Finally, Henderson tried to squash rumors that he often referred to himself in the third person. That came after a video tribute before his speech alluded to the fact that Henderson did indeed use "Rickey" an awful lot when speaking of himself.

"I don't think I've ever called myself, Rickey,'" he said after the speech, adding that he doesn't talk that way.

It reminded me of a conference call Tony Gwynn had with reporters before his 2007 induction speech. The Padres honored Gwynn on the final day of the 2001 season with "Tony Gwynn Day." At that time, Henderson _ then a teammate of Gwynn's _ had 2,999 hits. Gwynn said Henderson came to him the night before about not playing the next day.

"Rickey was funny the night before," Gwynn said. "He said, Rickey don't want to take away from your day. Rickey do it another day.' I told him, You've got to get it done. The home folks are waiting to see this.'"

Henderson did get his 3,000th hit that day, and Gwynn said it made his day even better.

Without a doubt, Henderson made my day better Sunday, and I'll bet the estimated 21,000 fans on hand at the Clark Sports Center would say they enjoyed it as well.

Between the speech itself and the post-induction comments, I haven't laughed that hard since Bob Uecker's 2003 speech after winning the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting.

It was good stuff and reaffirmed my belief that being on the asking side of the tape recorder is a lot easier than the responding side.

Rob Centorani is a sports writer for The Daily Star. E-mail him at rcentorani@thedailystar.com.