Rickey Henderson has lost track of how many times it has happened. All he knows is that it has been a constant in more ballparks, airports and streets than the rest of us can imagine.
"They say to me, 'I was there at that first game, Rick,"' Henderson says during a quiet, brief conversation in a seat along the third-base stands at the Oakland Coliseum last summer. "They say, 'Yep, you and Billy were there. Place was rockin."'
Yep, and the Athletics were running away with the American League West, Lou Brock's stolen base records were declared an endangered species, and Billy Martin was ejected.
"That's the thing about the 'Billy Ball' days," Athletics equipment manager Steve Vucinich says. "There's a lot of myth to it."
Let's clear all that up.
On June 24, 1979, Henderson debuted with the Athletics on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and only 4,752 fans were there to see the A's fall to 22-52 by losing both ends of a doubleheader to the Texas Rangers. The 20-year-old playing leftfield that day stole his first base -- the catcher was Jim Sundberg -- and went 2-for-8.
Billy Martin was in New York, managing the Yankees. Jim Marshall was leading the A's -- in the wrong direction. Martin's confrontation with a marshmallow salesman -- the one that would result in his firing by George Steinbrenner and subsequent hiring by the A's -- had not yet occurred.
Still, there is something about the myth. Maybe because it's impossible to talk about Rickey without mentioning Billy. Maybe because when you recall the perfect player for Billy's style of ball, you think of Rickey.
Henderson played 89 games that first summer, stole 33 bases and hit .274. And even though "Billy Ball" -- a term created by late Oakland Tribune writer Ralph Wiley -- was a winter away, there was something significant about Henderson's arrival.
"He was the one guy everybody knew would be here," says Vucinich, a part of the A's staff during each of the team's 41 seasons in Oakland. "Everything else about the franchise, including where we would play, was up in the air, but we knew Rickey was going to be a part of it."
The A's lost 108 games in Henderson's rookie season and drew only 306,763 to the Coliseum. Martin was presiding over a Yankees team that was heartbroken over the death of Thurman Munson. The manager had sunk into a pattern of dark behavior.
It climaxed in December, when Martin slugged Joseph Cooper in a Minneapolis hotel. The Yankees fired Martin -- for the second time -- the next day. Roy Eisenhardt, brought aboard by the Haas family as it sought to buy the team, convinced outgoing owner Charlie Finley to hire Martin. Shortly after that, a harmonic convergence took place.
Nearly 25,000 turned out to the Coliseum on Opening Night to see Henderson homer and drive in three runs during a 9-7 loss to the Minnesota Twins. The A's, behind a phenomenal outfield defense and promising pitching staff, improved by 29 games.
Oh, and Henderson stole 100 bases, breaking Ty Cobb's 65-year-old American League record.
Billy "was able to take this raw talent and kind of mold it into maximum effectiveness," Dwayne Murphy, a former teammate and another essential member of the "Billy Ball" years, says. "Billy saw all the things Rickey was capable of doing, maybe even before Rickey really knew it."
Rickey "was a weapon from the first day he got there," says Shooty Babbitt, a teammate during the team's glorious 1981 season.
Why Henderson and Martin would take to each other is anyone's guess. Henderson says only, "Nobody taught me more about the game."
"I think with Rickey, there was a trust factor there," his mother, Bobbie, said during an interview last year. "It was a time in (Rickey's) life when his professional career was really taking off, and the things he was learning from Billy had a lot to do with it. So Rickey could see what Billy was doing and they sort of had that bond. I don't think there's a day go by that he doesn't think of Billy."
Indeed, many of those close to Henderson intimated that Martin would've been Henderson's first pick as the choice to introduce him at the Hall of Fame induction on July 26. Martin died in a car accident on Christmas Day in 1989.
Nevertheless, Martin won't be forgotten, because no discussion of Henderson's legacy is complete without him.
"Billy knew his job with us was to teach," says Murphy, who now coaches the outfielders with the Toronto Blue Jays. "And one thing I can say is this: Billy taught Rickey how to play the game. Billy taught him how to play defense with a purpose. Taught him how to prepare. Taught him how to read how a game was developing."
The harmonic convergence reached its height in the spring of 1981. The A's exploded out of the gate with as much power as Henderson displayed taking off for second. They opened with 11 straight wins, then the best start in baseball history, before losing the nightcap of a doubleheader to Seattle.
"Billy always took the blame for that one, too," Vucinich says. "Roy Eisenhardt wanted the players to come out and acknowledge the crowd in between games, and Billy let them do it. Billy always said, 'If I hadn't done that, we'd have been 18-0."'
As it was, the A's did start 17-1 en route to a playoff berth. The A's outfield, with Henderson in left, Murphy in center and Tony Armas in right, matured into one of the best outfields of all time. Their starters -- Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, Matt Keough, Rick Langford and Brian Kingman -- were as deep a staff as any in 1981.
They were, quite simply, the best story in baseball. Two years after drawing only 653 fans to one game, the A's averaged nearly 26,000 for 51 home games during the strike-shortened season.
"The one thing Rickey doesn't get a lot of credit for is his defense," Norris says. "There was nobody better at cutting off the ball down the line, and he could cheat that way because Murph was running everything down in center. Rickey turned many, many doubles into singles during those years."
The last great moment of the "Billy Ball" era came on Aug. 26 of the following year. Henderson broke Lou Brock's all-time single-season record with his 119th steal during a 10-3 loss at Milwaukee.
The A's fired Martin after enduring 94 losses in 1982. "You talk about a lot of great things that have happened during the A's history in Oakland, and I'm not sure the 'Billy Ball' era gets the play it should," Vucinich said. "I mean that was a really, really fun time. Rickey and Billy, that combo together lit up the game."