OAKLAND, Calif. — If Rickey Henderson were an insect he’d be a gnat, buzzing in your ear, watering your eyes, tickling your nostrils, everywhere and nowhere. You try to swat him and you miss. Where is he? Why can’t you catch him? In other words, a pain in the neck.

He plays that role in baseball. Did it several times Monday to the Toronto Blue Jays — without hitting a ball beyond the infield grass — he danced, he leaned, he threatened, he got them nervous, and by the time he was finished, so were the Jays.

“Yeah, I got ’em thinking a little bit,” Henderson said, standing with his arms crossed in the entry to the locker room showers, after Oakland stayed alive with a 6-2 win over Toronto. “They noticed us today. And they noticed me.”

As he spoke, his teammates tried to get around the huge pack of reporters that engulfed him. Several gripped their towels for fear of being stripped by a cameraman. Of course, Rickey could have gone to his locker, taken the media with him. But no. He stood there, in his flip-flops.

“HEY, RICKEY, WHY DON’T YOU JUST BRING ALL THEM REPORTERS IN HERE WITH YOU!” someone finally yelled from the shower stall.

“Maybe I will,” Henderson said.

But he didn’t move.

The point is this: Rickey Henderson goes where he wants.

And largely because of that — and the gutty pitching of his longtime teammate Dave Stewart — the Athletics are flying back to Toronto, still breathing in this American League pennant pursuit.

N ow I admit I’m not crazy about Henderson off the field. He can be a prima donna. He gets hurt too often. He has a habit of wanting a new contract before the check clears on the old one. But inside the white lines, he has always been something to behold, a muscular blur. If psychological warfare had a body, it would be Rickey Henderson.

Just ask David Cone. He walked Henderson to start the third inning Monday, and, immediately, the gnat began buzzing around Cone’s ear. He danced off first base. Cone threw over. Buzz, buzz. Cone threw again. Buzz. Now the crowd was making noise and the pitcher was slowly losing it. His coach came out and said, “Forget about him.” But he couldn’t forget. He threw again, and almost got Henderson, who slid back under the tag. Now Cone was tempted — that little gnat, I got him now — and he threw again, and he threw wild, into the dirt. The ball got past the first baseman and rolled to the wall, and Henderson was off like Carl Lewis. He was on third in a heartbeat.

Seconds later, Jerry Browne singled. And Rickey came trotting home with a run. Smiling.

“I think the reason Cone threw over that last time was that near-pickoff the time before,” he said. “He got tempted.”

Bad move. Better to ignore Henderson. He’s gonna steal. He has stolen more

bases than anyone in history. And how many pitchers have blown games thanks to Henderson’s distraction? Remember the 1989 playoffs against the Blue Jays, when he was all over the page? He scored eight runs in five games, drew seven walks and stole eight bases. Toronto pitchers were having nightmares about the guy. He was a police car in their rearview mirror.

Here he was Monday, doing it again in the fifth inning, laying down a beautiful bunt and beating it out for a hit. Buzz, buzz. He was on first. Moments later, Browne singled to right and here came Henderson, chugging toward third, and Joe Carter, with the ball in rightfield, had that same fleeting thought as Cone — “I can get him, I can nail Rickey Henderson!” and he threw, and the ball was wild, it got past the third baseman, and here was Henderson again, streaking home with another run as if it’s perfectly natural. Doesn’t everyone score from first on a single?

T he answer is no. Not everyone does. Henderson can. Even at 33, he is pure lighter fluid. No player can light things up the way Rickey does when he’s at his peak. True, he did not have a great season. He was injured (again) and for the first time in four years failed to win the stolen-base title. In this series, he had only one hit and one steal in his first three games. “People were expecting me to do what I did in ’89, and I pushed too much,” he said.
“Today, I told myself, ‘Relax.’ “

This is how Henderson relaxes: two hits, two runs scored, two errors forced by his baserunning. He left the game early to rest a hamstring. But he’s OK. Warning to Toronto: you have not won this series yet. And the last person you wanted to wake up was Henderson.

As the crowd around him dispersed, he peeled off his undershirt to reveal that hard, defensive-back body. He grinned when someone mentioned Game 6. Maybe he knows this: If Oakland wins 6, the pressure of 7 is all on Toronto, a team that still has never closed a championship deal. (Trivia note here: Henderson has stolen more bases off Jack Morris than any pitcher he has ever faced. Morris would pitch Game 7. Hmmm.)

“Was it important today not to lose this series at home?” a reporter asked.

“I don’t plan to lose period,” Henderson said.

And with that, he tossed his shirt high in the air and it landed on a teammate’s head. By that point, however, the gnat had buzzed into the shower. And the reporters did not follow him. He was too fast.

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