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Barber: Too long of a wait for Rickey Henderson's Bay Area honor

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The Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame will come of age on May 11.

The hall is in its 40th year of existence. It has enshrined 190 athletes, coaches and executives. But its collection of plaques has been incomplete for years. That will change in 2020 when the club admits Rickey Henderson.

BASHOF announced Tuesday that Henderson, recently retired Giants manager Bruce Bochy, former 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young, swim legend Natalie Coughlin and sailing captain Paul Cayard will compose the Class of ’20.

The question, in Henderson’s case: What took them so long? What took us so long, considering that most of the votes are cast by Bay Area media members?

I don’t want to rag on BASHOF, because I’m a fan. Every league and every sports team has its private hall of fame, but a geographic grouping is in some ways deeper. Only an organization like BASHOF could include, say, baseball slugger Willie Stargell, who grew up in Oakland but never played professionally around here; Joe Montana, an outsider who adopted the Bay (and vice versa) as a 49er; and basketball coach Tara Vanderveer, who has built a dynasty at Stanford.

BASHOF ties all of those threads together, acknowledging that there is no single formula for winning the love and admiration of sports fans from Milpitas to Healdsburg.

But Henderson’s omission (I will resist the impulse to refer to him as “Rickey,” though that’s how he echoes in my mind) was a puzzle, if not an outright travesty. I just don’t know how you can have a Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame that excludes someone who is (a) one of the greatest homegrown athletes and (b) one of the greatest professional athletes in Bay history.

Look at the baseball men enshrined by BASHOF since Henderson’s last MLB season in 2003: Jerry Coleman, Will Clark, Gaylord Perry, Bert Campaneris, Dave Righetti, Tony LaRussa, Dusty Baker, Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Matt Williams, Matt Cain and Dave Dravecky.

No offense to any of those players, coaches and managers. All of them are worthy honorees. But just one, Bonds, is as obvious a choice as Henderson. Coleman, Righetti and Bonds are the only Bay Area natives on that list, and the likes of Bert Campaneris (a personal favorite) and Jeff Kent simply can’t compare to a presence like Rickey Henderson.

Other post-2003 BASHOF enshrines have included skier Jonny Moseley, swimmer Rick DeMont and golfer George Archer. And no Rickey Henderson? Guys, what are we even doing here?

Think of it this way: Bruce Bochy waited less than four months for his induction. Henderson has waited 17 years, though he has already been a member of that other hall of fame, the one in Cooperstown, for a decade.

It might have something to do with a bias toward the San Francisco terminus of the Bay Bridge. I don’t think voters or BASHOF officials would cop to it. It’s probably a subconscious tendency. But if you look at the ratio of 49ers to Raiders, and of Giants to A’s, the gap is larger than you would expect, even if you compensate for the longer time periods the SF teams have played here.

Oakland has spent a long time trying to escape the shadow of San Francisco, a city that is seen as richer, more refined and more privileged. BASHOF membership reflects that dynamic.

But hey, I suppose my timing is unfair. It took an unimaginable length of time for BASHOF to honor Henderson. Now he’s in (or will be after a ceremony on May 11), and we should celebrate the occasion.

Can you imagine a more “Oakland” athlete than Rickey Henderson? He grew up there, close enough to the Coliseum that he sneaked into countless A’s games as a boy, climbing or cutting a chain-link fence and outrunning security guards if necessary. At Oakland Technical High School, he was as good at football as he was at baseball; Henderson turned down a dozen scholarship offers and took his mother’s advice to play baseball.

His baseball career eventually became an odyssey, but Henderson’s most memorable years were with the A’s. It was in Oakland that he burst onto the scene like a comet, stealing 100 bases as a 21-year-old in 1980. And that is where he became the difference-maker in the A’s only World Series championship since 1974, after returning via a midseason trade with the Yankees in 1989.

I was playing high school baseball in the early 1980s when Henderson became a phenomenon. The A’s had been dreadful for several years, but were on the upswing under manager Billy Martin. I watched a lot of their games on TV.

Whenever Henderson reached first base, the cameras would zoom in on the unfortunate pitcher as he fidgeted and bluffed, trying to keep this explosive substance from getting too big of a lead. I would stand in my living room and practice reading the pitcher’s delivery, breaking back to first base or taking the first step toward second depending on his first move. And yes, I always slid headfirst on the diamond, though that was where any resemblance ended. Henderson wasn’t an easy guy to emulate.

These are mere personal reflections. The facts speak for themselves. Despite those other MLB stops, Henderson is the A’s all-time leader (and this includes the years in Philadelphia and Kansas City) in runs, walks and wins above replacement. Oh, and stolen bases, of course. He’s the greatest, most disruptive leadoff hitter of all time, and the greatest Oakland Athletic. It makes perfect sense that the current A’s play on Rickey Henderson Field.

Henderson hasn’t disappeared from view, either. As a special assistant to A’s president Dave Kaval, he is a common visitor to team functions.

Henderson’s absence from our local athletic shrine has been glaring. I’m thrilled that it’s about to end, and that he will take his rightful place alongside Bill Russell and Jerry Rice, Willie Mays and Billie Jean King. If the voters hadn’t finally come to their senses, Henderson might have had to jump the fence and sneak in.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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