OAKLAND, Calif. — The fun begins when he steps off the bag. His spikes in the sand make no sound, and yet you swear you can hear each new footstep, like horseshoes on concrete. One step. Two steps. He’s three steps off and leaning now. . . . Surely the pitchers hear this. Surely the catchers hear it, too, like a pulse, like a telltale heart. Rickey Henderson makes everybody nervous.

And then he runs. First to second. Second to third. Third to home. He’d steal fifth base if there were one. Two games have been played in this American League championship, and besides the realization that the Athletics are the most purely talented team in years and if they don’t win it all this time there’s something wrong with their Gatorade, here is the overriding conclusion: You can’t take your eyes off Henderson.

In Game 1 Tuesday night, he delivered the knockout blow with a slide. A slide? Yep. As Nelson Liriano took a perfect double-play throw from shortstop, he whirled, and Henderson was into him like a fire arrow. What the . . . ? Up in the air went a startled Liriano, into the dirt went his throw, around the bases came two Oakland runs, and you could close the lid on Toronto. Henderson

trotted back to the dugout, smiling like a man who cannot be killed.

“That,” Henderson later said with typical braggadocio, “was the best force-out of my career.” It happened in broad daylight

And that was nothing. Did you watch Oakland’s Game 2 victory Wednesday afternoon? In bright, warm sunlight, which seems the wrong setting for such thievery, Henderson stole four bases — a post-season record — and not one per at-bat, either. Rickey did it in two visits to the basepaths.

The first offense, which was no doubt reported to the Oakland police — bases missing, small, white, last seen at the Coliseum — was a beautiful thing to watch. Fourth inning. Henderson walked off Todd Stottlemyre, and the pitcher began to rumble like an ulcer. Lord help you if you walk Rickey Henderson. One step. Two steps . . . he broke like a stallion, he reached second in a blink.

And no sooner had he dusted himself off, then he was heading for third, arms churning like pistons, headfirst slide . . . safe! Carney Lansford, standing at home plate, could only laugh. The infield now had to move in, and Lansford stroked a single past shortstop Tony Fernandez, scoring Henderson. Here is the part that most people miss: With no runner on third, Fernandez would have been farther back; that single would have been an out. On such moments will a baseball series turn.

“Rickey’s amazing,” Lansford said. “He wreaks havoc out there.” And in the seventh, he was at it again, stealing second, wiping off, sending rumbles through the pitcher’s stomach, then stealing third again — on a ball four! The crowd exploded.

Four bases. One day. Back when he was a kid in high school, his guidance counselor offered Rickey a quarter for every base he stole. “I’d go out there just trying for the money,” he says. But there are bigger coins at stake now. With each stolen bag or key slide or base hit in these playoffs, Henderson — in only the second championship series of his career — comes up clapping, grinning like a lottery winner, because this is more than just baseball. This is pay-back time.

“What do you think George Steinbrenner is thinking right now?” Henderson was asked.

” ‘I made a mistake’?” he said, and laughed. Take that, George

In New York, King George never let up on his leadoff man. He rode him the way he rides everybody, to feed his own ego, he called the guy selfish, he railed about how long Henderson took to recover from injuries. Finally, in June, he traded him to the A’s — from whom he had taken him four years ago — and got in return pitchers Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk and outfielder Luis Polonia, who was last seen explaining himself to a judge about a 15-year-old girl.

It was like lighter fluid on a fire. The Athletics, missing only a leadoff threat, have never looked back. They’re the best in the game, and Henderson is having such a good time, only his agent is laughing more. In 85 games here, Rickey hit .294 and stole 52 bases. In less than 24 hours of these playoffs, he has stolen six more. And guess who’s a free agent after this season?

“Do you have Toronto’s pitchers intimidated?”

“I think maybe I do.”

“Did you know you had the record?”

“Not until some TV guys told me.”

Know this: Like the fat under Steinbrenner’s chin, Rickey Henderson is getting bigger with every game. And we are witnessing a leadoff artist in his prime. There is an art to baserunning — studying the pitcher, timing your break, judging the slide — and Henderson, 30, has it down pat.

“There is nobody like him in our league,” says Oakland manager Tony La Russa, who, thanks largely to Henderson, now sits on a 2-0 series lead. One step. Two step. There’s no telling where this will end.

“How exactly do you decide when to run and when to wait? What do you look for?”

He smiled. “I never give away my secrets.”

Fair enough. Any man who can steal something legally and make Steinbrenner look stupid has the right to keep it all to himself.

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