Remembering the most exciting trade deadline deal in Blue Jays history

Toronto-Blue-Jays-Rickey-Henderson

Rickey Henderson played 44 games with the Toronto Blue Jays during the 1993 season and World Series run. (Sporting News/Getty)

It happened 25 years ago this week, and it hardly seemed real. And all these years later, it still seems hard to fathom that it happened: For a brief, fleeting moment in time, Rickey Henderson was a Toronto Blue Jay.

Growing up as a baseball fan in the 1980s, most of my favourite players would have been the typical collection of Blue Jays and Expos. But Henderson was such an exciting and compelling player that any opportunity to see him play was a must-watch occasion, back when those occasions were less accessible than now.

Henderson was – and remains – an incomparable baseball talent, who combined physical skills with a keen intellectual approach to at-bats and base stealing, along with effortless swagger and joy for the game. As the ’80s passed into the ’90s, Henderson was one of the most recognizable and accomplished players in the game, and truly deserving of the superstar moniker.

Even as a Blue Jays fan, it was hard to hate Rickey in 1989 when they squared off against the A’s in the American League Championship Series. Even as Henderson ran roughshod over the Jays in Oakland’s 4-1 series win, scoring eight runs, stealing eight bases without being caught, walking seven times and hitting two homers all while generally driving Toronto’s pitchers to distraction. Henderson’s on-base percentage for the series was .609, and every time that he was on was an adventure.

When 1993 arrived, Henderson was still thriving, though the rest of Bash Brother-era Athletics had begun to disperse, age out or get hurt. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were cobbling together a corner outfield rotation of Turner Ward, Darrin Jackson and Darnell Coles for most of that year, with none of them making much of a case for retaining the job full-time.

Trade deadlines were always exciting in those times, but obviously different than the constant stream of news and rumours and rumblings across all media that we see now. By the time that there was any notion of Henderson being a target of the Blue Jays, the trade was consummated.

He was the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the game, already baseball’s all-time leader in stolen bases who would go on to cross the plate more times than anyone who played the game. And then, he was a Blue Jay.

There was some modest griping at the time that the Blue Jays had given up too much, with their top pitching prospect Steve Karsay going to Oakland. But mostly, those grumblings were drowned out by the excitement of Henderson’s arrival.

The excitement, however, was quickly curtailed as Henderson was hurt almost as soon as he arrived. An injured ankle sapped Henderson not only of his game-breaking speed, but also weakened his contact, leading him to hit a mere .215 average over his 44 games as a Blue Jay. Given the resonance of that statistic, there are many who may remember Henderson as a bust, although his exceptional eye and ability to crouch his way into a microscopic strikezone led him to a .356 OBP over that stretch.

It could be that part of the reason why it’s hard to believe that Rickey was ever a Blue Jay is that he wasn’t completely himself, and with Roberto Alomar, John Olerud and Paul Molitor carrying the offence that year, one of the greatest to ever play the game was able to serve as a role player for those few months.

Moreover, Henderson’s most notable contribution was one of the strangest injuries ever in Blue Jays lore, as he fell asleep with an ice pack on that ailing ankle, forcing him to miss several games as he recovered from the ensuing case of frostbite. No, seriously.

For as much as we maybe never got the true vision of Henderson’s greatness as a Blue Jay, it shouldn’t go unnoticed the key role that he played in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6 of the World Series. With the Blue Jays trailing 6-5 and closer Mitch Williams on the mound, Henderson drew a four-pitch walk, then proceeded to mess with the remains of the Phillies closer’s mulleted head.

Even though Henderson wasn’t at his best, and had just three stolen bases versus two times caught stealing in that post-season, his aggressive leads kept Williams off his game. After a single by Molitor pushed him to second, Henderson made Williams turn for an awkward pickoff attempt, and three pitches later, a slider thrown with a slide-step to the plate was sent into the seats.

That’s not to grant all the credit to Henderson for Joe Carter’s classic moment. But Henderson’s ability to draw that walk was one of the small, unflashy things that he did to help his teams win games.

(It should be said, though, that Rickey being Rickey, his bat drop on that base on balls was pretty swaggy.)

In the moment, his acquisition might have ranked as the most exciting trade deadline deal in team history. And in spite of some of the disappointment in his play after he arrived, it shouldn’t be lost on us that Rickey Henderson is probably the greatest position player of all time to pull on a Blue Jays uniform.

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