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Rickey Henderson’s Still Training

Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

Rickey Henderson will enter the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend as the greatest leadoff man in the history of the game, the all-time leader in stolen bases, walks, and runs scored.

Henderson played for a whopping 25 seasons, from 1979 through 2003, and never announced his retirement. Elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot after the mandatory five-year waiting period, he said recently that had he retired earlier—and not at the age of 44—he might have attempted to become the first player to make a comeback after his Hall of Fame induction.

At 50, Henderson still looks like he could give pitchers fits on the base paths. His arms are sinewy, his chest still V-shaped, his legs spring-loaded tree trunks. Only the wrinkles in the forehead and around the eyes betray his age.

Henderson stole 100 bases as a 21-year-old in 1980 and a record 130 two years later. Just 5-foot-10, with a crouched batting stance, he hit for power and drove pitchers nuts with his antics on the basepaths. So talented was Henderson that his legendary, keep-it-simple work ethic often gets overshadowed.

It shouldn’t. In 1998, during his fourth stint with the Oakland A’s, he stole 66 bases at the age of 39. In 2001, at the age of 42, he walked 84 times in 123 games for the San Diego Padres.

Former teammates say they rarely saw Henderson in the weight room. “Rickey’s just a freak of nature,” says John Flaherty, an analyst on the New York Yankees’ YES baseball network who played two seasons with Henderson in San Diego.

“I’m sure he has to thank his mom and dad for some of it,” says MLB Network analyst Al Leiter, who played with Henderson on the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Mets. “But he was as disciplined as anyone I’ve ever played with. You never saw him eat junk food. He didn’t eat late, and didn’t seem to drink anything but water and fruit juice.”

Henderson’s philosophy: Keep it simple. His daily routine consisted of 120 pushups and 200 sit-ups.

“I did some curls, but I didn’t lift weights a lot,” Henderson said. “I was never a big weightlifter. I did a lot of situps and pushups more than anything else.”

Most players used batting practice as a time to show off and build confidence, launching towering drives against measly 60 mile-per-hour pitches. Henderson did plenty of that, but he also used the time to get in a rigorous workout, even near the field. It was not uncommon for him to retreat to the dugout during batting practice and swing a bat to the point of exhaustion, working himself into a lather.

“I just kept things simple,” he says. “You have to enjoy what you do and decide how well you want to feel. Being in shape makes me feel great, so I continue to enjoy it. On the field, your body takes a beating, but you have to go out there and play in pain.”

Perhaps Henderson’s key to longevity was never thinking about retiring or actually doing so. Since getting elected to the Hall of Fame in January, he finally has conceded that his playing days are over.

“I’ve always believed that once you start thinking about the end, you’re ready to quit,” he said. “I never let myself think that way because then I’d be looking for a way out.”

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Longevity, Baseball

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