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Red Sox Free Agent Lookback: Rickey Henderson

The Red Sox signed one of the best players of all time 20 years ago today.

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Over their long history, the Boston Red Sox have had some of the greatest players in the history of the sport wear their uniforms. Some, like Pedro Martinez and Ted Williams, among many more, wore the jersey for most or all of their peak. Some, like Babe Ruth and others, achieved their true greatness after starting their career with Boston and then moving elsewhere. And then there have been others, like the great Tom Seaver, and who came to Boston at the end of a career in which they’d established themselves among the game’s greats. Exactly 20 years ago today, they signed one such player when they welcomed in Rickey Henderson on a one-year deal on February 13, 2002.

At the time he signed with Boston, the now-Hall of Famer was already 43 years old and had been performing as one of the league’s top players for over two decades, with his first full season coming way back in 1980. Henderson came up with the Oakland Athletics, immediately putting himself on the map as an impact base-stealer and on-base machine. Over his initial six-year stretch with Oakland, only five of which he played a full season, Henderson eclipsed 100 stolen bases three times. After those six years, however, Oakland dealt their star outfielder, sending him to the Yankees.

That would be the start of a career marked not only by greatness, but also constant moving between teams. From New York, Henderson went back to Oakland, then to Toronto for half a season before yet again returning to the Athletics, then moving to the Padres, Angels, back to the A’s for a fourth time, then to the Mets, the Mariners, and back to the Padres. That brought us up to the offseason prior to the 2002 season, when Henderson’s career was winding down but he was still hanging on. At this point he was the all-time leader in career stolen bases, and was already a shoo-in for a first ballot Hall of Fame election.

The Red Sox were coming off a middling 2001 season in which they won 81 games, and earlier in this offseason they had already made a major move in the outfield, signing another former Athletic in Johnny Damon. With Damon, Boston had a full outfield, but they didn’t have much in the way of depth behind them, so they signed the legendary Henderson to fill in. Though he was clearly well passed his prime at this point, Henderson still become a solid contributor off the bench for a Red Sox team that’d win 93 games that season, hitting .223/.369/.352 for a perfectly average 100 wRC+.

Having been only 11 years old by the time this season was taking place, I had a vague idea of Henderson’s presence as a historically great player, but the specifics of why he was so great were a little lost on me. That said, it was clear that base running was the thing Henderson was known for (even though he was clearly much more than just a good base stealer), and I remember announcers talking about the veteran imparting wisdom on players like Damon for things like secondary leads and timing to steal bases. Damon, for what it’s worth, stole 30-plus bases in both 2002 and ‘03, each with over an 80 percent success rate.

Henderson was already the oldest player in the league by the time he came to Boston, but the Red Sox would not be the final stop in his long, storied career. Heading into his age-44 season, he tried to give it one more go, signing with the Dodgers for the 2003 season and playing in 30 games for Los Angeles. He’d later sign a one-day contract with Oakland to officially retire as a member of the Athletics.

Ultimately, his brief stint on the Red Sox bench would become little more than a footnote in his career, probably most notable for the fact that his few appearances in center field when Damon suffered a minor injury made Henderson the oldest to ever play the position. His career was one of the best of all time, though, and his personality was the stuff of legends. Most won’t think of Boston when they think of his career, and nor should they, but the fact remains that Henderson is one of the game’s all-time greats, and Red Sox fans did get to enjoy him late in his career in a season that in a way started this modern era of Boston baseball.