As an intelligent baseball fan, you have surely by now read or heard the famous and apocryphal story of Rickey Henderson renewing his acquaintance with John Olerud. If not, here’s the original tale, as told by ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian:
In spring training 1999, Rickey Henderson of the Mets was reunited with first baseman John Olerud, who had been his teammate with the Blue Jays six years earlier. As most people know, Olerud had an aneurysm in college, which required brain surgery. So to protect his head, he was allowed to wear a helmet in the field. As the story goes, Henderson was talking to Olerud one day, noticed the helmet and said “You know, when I played in Toronto, we had a guy who wore a helmet.”
“Rickey,” said Olerud, “that was me.”
Now, for your enjoyment, please partake of three adaptations of this timeless yarn.
It had been weeks now, but John never got used to hospitals. The stinging scent of disinfectant, the hollow glow of the fluorescent lights, the squeak of intern’s sneakers in endless tiled hallways: all of it felt synthetic, unnatural, unwelcome. John reached room A232, took a single deep breath, and pushed through.
There, lying crumpled in the white sheets, lay Rickey, once so strong. The deep lines of his face made his sleep look troubled, pained, but John knew it was just sleep, just a blink of an eye for him. He told himself that. It’ll be over and it never happened at all, he thought. The accident, the head trauma, the hours of surgery, none of it had ever happened, as far as Rickey knew. Just a flash of light, a screech of metal, and then a whiff of Purell. John fought the words of the doctors, the ones who warned that if Rickey did come out of it, he might not be the same Rickey. He’ll be the same. It’ll be the same.
John sat down in the chair and pulled out his book, a worn copy of Ethan Frome. The wrong fucking book, John thought.
“Hey,” a voice said.
John looked up. His eyes were open, looking at him. John couldn’t gauge the feelings behind them, couldn’t see the soul in them. “Rickey,” he said, and waited.
The eyes seem to read him as well. “You know,” Rickey whispered, “when I played in Toronto, we had a guy who wore a helmet.”
“Rickey,” John said, shuddering with relief, “that was me.”
“I was the greatest,” Rickey murmured, staring intently at the black checkers on the board in front of him.
Ten years, John thought. Ten years difference between us, and so much time. He looked at Rickey’s face: folded like origami, creased into a permanent smile. The twinkle in his eyes was still there, but it seemed as though it had been painted in.
“You know where I was when Carter hit that home run? Where were you when it happened? I was on second base“, he said, and wheezed a long laugh.
John moved a red checker and smiled sadly. We all grow old, he thought. We all change. No matter how hard we work, no matter how hard we train and fight, it happens. Senility isn’t a dirty word. It’s our reward for a lifetime of dealing with an uncaring universe. He allowed himself a thought of his wife, knitting sweaters for the new granddaughter on the way, and pushed it down.
Rickey forgot himself for a minute, probably standing on that second base, reading Mitch Williams. Then he opened his eyes, laughed, and made the double jump John had left him. “King me, you bastard,” he cried triumphantly.
As John reached into the box for another checker, Rickey continued. “Ninety-four,” he sighed. “I was… it was…” He looked up and saw John, perhaps for the first time that day. “You know, you remind me. You remind me. When I played in Toronto…” he chuckled. “In Toronto, we had this guy who wore a helmet.”
“Rickey,” John said quietly, sliding a checker, “that was me.”
Spring. Rickey Henderson is sitting by himself in the grass, stretching his calves. Rickey still has great legs, Rickey thought to himself. These legs could still swipe sixty bags. Eighty. Maybe even a hundred. Rickey closed his eyes and imagined each one.
Suddenly, John Olerud appeared next to him.
“John,” Rickey said. “Didn’t see you before. Where’ve you been?”
John smiled. “Oh, I was right here.”
Rickey didn’t like arguing with John, so he shrugged, and switched legs. “What do you mean? I’ve been alone out here. They got the kids running. Rickey doesn’t need to run; he already knows how.”
John put his feet together and did a butterfly stretch, leaning slowly forward. “Don’t tell anyone this,” he said conversationally, “but this helmet is actually the mythical Tarnhelm, magical helm of German lore. It confers upon its user invisibility.”
Rickey was impressed. He should ask for one of those in his next contract, he thought.
“You know,” Rickey whispered, “when I played in Toronto, we had a guy who wore a helmet like that. Also, this morning somebody ate my last doughnut.”
“Rickey,” said Olerud, “that was me.”