Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice were inducted into the Hall of Fame today. Henderson entered the Hall in his first year of eligibility. He was the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time, setting the career record for stolen bases (1,406), leadoff home runs (81) and runs scored (2,295). Rice waited until his fifteenth and final year of eligibility before he was enshrined in Cooperstown. He was one of the most feared hitters in the American League during his 16-year tenure with the Red Sox.
Both players are well-deserving of baseball’s highest honor. However, they were also key players in important Mets moments and without some of their accomplishments, the Mets history books might read quite differently.
Although Rickey Henderson played the majority of his productive seasons with the Oakland Athletics, he spent the 1999 season and part of the 2000 season with the Mets. One can argue that 1999 was his last Rickey-like season in the majors, as he hit .315 with 89 runs scored, 12 HR and 37 stolen bases in only 121 games played. He saved his best Mets moment for one of the biggest games in franchise history, the wild card play-in game in 1999 against the Cincinnati Reds.
The Mets had forced a one-game playoff with the Cincinnati Reds by erasing a two-game deficit with three games to play. The Mets went into Cincinnati needing to win the play-in game to make their first postseason appearance in 11 years. They needed to get off to a quick start to set the tone for the game. Rickey Henderson made sure that happened. He led off the game with a single and then scored on the ensuing two-run HR by Edgardo Alfonzo, giving Al Leiter a cushion before he even threw a pitch.
Henderson came through again in the fifth inning. With the Mets holding on to a 3-0 lead, Rickey led off with a home run against accomplished train whistle impressionist Denny Neagle to give the Mets a four-run lead. The Mets added another run in the sixth inning and Leiter did the rest, pitching a two-hit shutout as the Mets won 5-0 to clinch the wild card and advance to the NLDS in Arizona.
He continued his clutch performances in the NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Whereas the defining moment of that series was the Todd Pratt series-clinching home run against Matt Mantei, Rickey’s contributions put the Mets in position to win a number of those games. In the four games of the series, Rickey hit .400 (6 for 15) with five runs scored and an astonishing six stolen bases. The Braves were able to keep him off the bases in the NLCS, but that did not diminish his contributions to the team for helping them get as far as they did.
Jim Rice never played for the Mets, but he did play against them in the 1986 World Series. Rice hit the Mets well in the Fall Classic, batting .333 in the seven games. However, in the critical Game 6, Rice made two key outs that were overlooked once the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs.
In the seventh inning, the Red Sox had already taken a 3-2 lead against Roger McDowell and had Rice on second base when catcher Rich Gedman stepped up to the plate. Gedman was able to get a base hit to left field and Rice rounded third attempting to score an insurance run. However, Mookie Wilson played the hero for the first time in the game by throwing out Rice at the plate, keeping the Mets down by only one run. They were able to tie the score in the eighth inning and send the game into the memorable tenth inning, which may never have happened had Mookie not thrown out Rice at home.
In the tenth inning, the Red Sox had once again taken the lead on the Mets. However, this time it was a two-run lead. They had put runners on first and second when Rice came up to hit. Once again, Rice failed to help his team when he flied out to rightfielder Lee Mazzilli, stranding both runners. We all know what happened in the bottom of the tenth inning. How different would that inning have played out if Rice would have come through in the top of the inning?
Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice. The outspoken leadoff hitter and the quiet slugger. Although they were different off the field, they now share the honor of being inducted together into the hallowed Baseball Hall of Fame. For Mets fans, they share something else. They were both key components in some of the most special games in franchise history. Thanks for the memories and congratulations to both of you on your well-deserved induction into the Hall of Fame.