MLB Draft: Rickey Henderson and JJ Guinn Still Close After 45

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At around 5:30 p.m. on the last day of June, the two old friends met in front of the media gate on the west side of the Oakland Coliseum. It was the first time they had seen each other in over a year, but they had lasted longer.

Their lives were never on parallel paths. One was a player who played for generations. The other is a part-time baseball scout who spends his days as a police officer patrolling the streets of Berkeley, California.

Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, widely regarded as the greatest first batting and sole stealer in baseball history, wrapped his arms around JJ Guinn in a firm hug. The two of them walked slowly to Henderson’s suite on the second floor of the ballpark. It had been 45 years since the Oakland Athletics selected Henderson in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft, at Guinn’s insistence.

The draft, an annual June event moved to July this year to coincide with the All-Star Game, begins Sunday in Colorado. High school and college playersHe will be selected by baseball’s 30 teams in the first step of a long and arduous journey to majors, many of whom are known only to scouts seeking talent in the country.

On draft day in 1976, Henderson, who was only 17 at the time, felt he was committed to Guinn.

“It wasn’t about the game at the time,” Henderson said. “I was a single parent child. I didn’t have that father figure. JJ was interested in you, what you do, teaching you. He looked after us.”

The last time they got together, Henderson noticed a faded piece of paper in the old scout’s hand. Guinn, 83, brought up a 1976 report and began to read:

“Player: Henderson, Rickey Henly,” he said. “Best athlete in three sports.”

Henderson sat back and listened with a smile as Guinn described his strengths and chuckled as he described his weaknesses. Those words took both men back to Bushrod Park in North Oakland on a warm April afternoon, two months before that year’s draft.

Henderson was a stout teenager with little interest in baseball. Back then, he had his eyes set on playing football and becoming the next OJ Simpson. Worried about the injury, Guinn and Henderson’s mother, Bobbie, had other plans.

When it was decided that Henderson should pursue a career in baseball, the man who would one day set major league records with 2,295 runs and 1,406 stolen bases went to his room and cried.

The decision went against the views of many who watched Henderson. Football coaches praised Henderson’s physique and praised his speed. But he found less reassurance in baseball. Some scouts were concerned with his arm, crouching batting stance, and the fact that he hits with the right hand, but throws with the left hand.

Those scouts focused on Henderson’s flaws. Guinn focused on his strengths: Henderson’s speed, athleticism and lateral range. Where others saw obstacles, Guinn saw possibility.

There were only two MLB teams for an American Legion game at Bushrod Park that day in 1976: the Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers. After Henderson struck at the first two horse-bats, the Dodgers scout stood up. “I’ve seen enough,” Guinn remembered saying. “I have a plane to catch.”

Henderson returned home in the next two horse-bats, and Guinn fervently wrote a report to the director of exploration. His advice: Sign Rickey Henderson “now”.

JJ Guinn was born in 1937 in Jefferson, Texas, but spent his childhood in South Berkeley. He had positive interactions with the local police while growing up, and after studying criminology at Santa Rosa Junior College, he was hired by the Berkeley Police Department in 1969 as a foot patrol officer in south and west Berkeley. The department had a program aimed at strengthening the relationship between the community and the Law Enforcement Department. As a Berkeley native, Guinn seemed like the perfect fit.

From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, Guinn would walk through some of Berkeley’s most crime-ridden streets to connect with the residents he was charged with protecting. Few had ever seen a Black police officer.

“Most people think these street kids are stupid, but they’re not,” Guinn said. “They know if they can trust you. I had to instill that trust. But because I grew up in Berkeley, if I didn’t know them, they knew my kids or I knew their parents. They knew I was real.”

As a scout, Mehtap further raised her position in the community. He joined the A’s part-time after a friend introduced him to the team’s farm manager, John Claiborne, in 1972. Owner Charlie Finley offered Guinn a salary of $500 a year and after a bargain eventually raised it to $1,000.

Guinn was with the organization from 1972 to 1991, and the most he ever earned was $3,500 a year. Of the 10 players he signed to Oakland, four advanced to the major leagues. His approach to his full-time job and his part-time job was the same: Look for the best in people and don’t be afraid to give anyone a chance.

Known to most as Mr. Guinn, JJ was also a Grade AAA player. The lessons he learned were passed on to his son, Brian, who played minor league ball for 10 seasons and ran free clinics for aspiring basketball players in San Pablo Park.

One of the actors who attended these clinics was Marcus Semien, who will eventually play alongside his grandson BJ at JJ’s University of California, Berkeley.

“We named him ‘Papa Guinn,'” said JJ Guinn. “They helped kids get into baseball that they might never have had. A lot of young baseball pays for it, pays for it. We couldn’t afford it when we were kids. Their support was huge for me.”

Guinn became famous for finding players in unusual circumstances.

Shooty Babitt was picked up by the A’s at Guinn’s suggestion in the 25th round of the 1977 draft and eventually became the major. He said Guinn told him he was signed because of the way he took off after a flying ball on a windy day.

“He said he talked to my character: I caught a ball that a lot of guys would give up,” Babitt said.

Outfielder Claudell Washington wasn’t even playing high school baseball when Guinn found him, but was eventually selected to the two All-Star team.

After retiring from the police department in 1991, Guinn spent time scouting with Atlanta before eventually becoming a full-time special assistant scout with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He retired in 2002.

When Guinn talks about his time as a scout, he describes a man who was satisfied with his quiet influence.

In 1991, Henderson said that after Lou Brock broke the base record stolen in his career, he received a call from Guinn Sports Illustrated about a potential feature titled “Police Catch a Thief.” Guinn turned them down.

“They just wanted to mention Claudell and Rickey in the article,” Guinn said. “I told them they had to give the names of all the other players I signed because I live in a community where these kids know who you are. And if you leave them out, they’ll think you’re a frontrunner.”

Guinn said he never told people he signed Henderson because “the only person who needed to know was Rickey.” Throughout their relationship, Scout made a conscious effort not to be seen as a sycophant. Henderson might have been a star, but deep down he was a North Oakland kid. A kid who can tell if Guinn is real.

So Guinn remained loose in contact. He used to go to A’s games to see his precious signing, and sometimes Henderson didn’t even know he was there. But in times of need, Guinn has made its presence known.

In 1976, Henderson found himself in Boise, Idaho for his first major league season, his first long time away from home. He missed his mother and still thought football was his best sport. He went on the defensive by making 12 mistakes in 46 games. He wanted to leave.

Guinn called him.

“I think sometimes we believe we just don’t have a chance,” Henderson said. “But only one person who truly supports you is enough. I decided, I decided to do it, I’ll do it not just for me, but for him as well. Because he believed in me. I’ll play harder.”

Henderson kept his word until a career compiling 3,055 hits, 2,190 walks, 297 home runs and 1,115 RBIs.

Guinn never stopped watching.

In the weeks before Henderson’s Hall of Fame induction in 2009, Guinn said that television media personalities were excited to hear Henderson speak because they expected Henderson to speak in third-person, as he occasionally did while playing games. days. Guinn wasn’t going to let them make fun of his student, so he called a longtime friend who teaches speech at Laney College and suggested that Henderson enroll.

It was a learning process, but Henderson came out with more confidence as a public speaker and felt that the hard work paid off on the start day. After thanking his close family and friends, Henderson thanked Guinn halfway through his speech.

At their meeting last month, the two men stayed in Henderson’s suite for about five circuits, but didn’t pay much attention to the game. He had other things to catch: life, family, past, future. They promised not to wait another year before reuniting.

On their way out, Guinn turned to Henderson.

“You made me feel higher than God,” he said of the night that just ended. “I guess I didn’t know you cared so much about me.”

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