Speech students at Laney Junior College received a rare experience the past two weeks. Not only have they been listening to the Hall of Fame induction speech Rickey Henderson will make on Sunday, but they also have been critiquing it.
Henderson essentially has gone back to school for much of this month to craft and polish the address he will give at Cooperstown, N.Y., when he is inducted.
This speech is much-anticipated by those who have become familiar with Henderson's use of the language, which has affectionately come to be known as "Rickey-speak." Henderson acknowledged this past week that formal public speaking frightens him.
"Speech and me don't get along sometimes," he said. "I'm not a doctor or professor, so for me to go and write a speech or read a speech, it's kind of like putting a tie too tight around my neck."
But those expecting a rushed, disjointed talk may be in for a surprise. At the suggestion of best friend Fred Atkins, Henderson became an extended drop-in student at two of instructor Earl Robinson's summer classes at Laney: Public Speaking and Introduction to Speech. Robinson also "coached" Henderson at Rickey's home and after class. Henderson was so dedicated to getting it right that he kept Robinson at school until 10:30 one evening.
"The class ended at 8:15, but Rickey wanted to keep working. The students didn't want to leave, either," Robinson said. "I finally said, 'Folks, we have to go home.'
"He's going to do just fine."
Atkins, who has taken a number of Robinson's classes at Laney and played baseball when Robinson coached at Merritt College, knew the instructor could help Rickey.
A former major leaguer who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox in the mid-1960s, Robinson got to know Rickey when he worked for the A's from 1981 to 1986. Robinson also went to Berkeley High with James Guinn, the A's scout who signed Rickey to his first professional contract.
Robinson never anticipated that Henderson would be so dedicated to refining his skills at public speaking.
"He was committed, and he was more organized than I thought he would be," Robinson said. "He was on time, he was patient, he listened, he absorbed and assimilated the suggestions he got and tweaked it. I was impressed. He astounded me, in fact."
After Henderson read Robinson his rough draft one weekend, the instructor hit on an idea.
"I told him, 'Let's give this a live audience,'"" he said. "So he came into the class and presented it to the students. They liked it, but they also gave honest evaluations, because that's what they do to each other, and they talked to him about how he could improve it. A lot of times, he'd stop at a passage and ask, 'Do you like this part?'""
Henderson said the class was valuable because it helped him deal with his nerves getting up in front of a group. The class even went outside to a campus quad area, where Rickey simulated giving the speech outdoors to a larger crowd, as he will do Sunday.
"It helped me a lot," Henderson said while delivering a copy of his final draft to Robinson hours before boarding a plane to Cooperstown. "I had a lot of fun with it. I never thought I could come back to class and have fun. But it gave me a chance to do something different and work on some things. I talk so fast and my tongue kind of takes off sometimes; what (Robinson) really tried to get me to do was slow down."
Henderson admitted he is very self-conscious about giving the speech, not only in front of a large live crowd but also a national TV audience. He doesn't want to embarrass himself.
"I'm always going to try to be my best at whatever I do, but I've never really taken the time to go out and do speaking," he said. "I can get a mike and answer your questions all day long. I can get in a group and they think I'm the most talkative one of all of 'em. But if you ask me to get up in front of people and say something ... um, I don't know.
"People ask me, 'Have you ever been nervous out there playing ball?' I say no. I don't feel the nerves. But if you ask me if I have been ever up there to speak and been nervous, yes, I've sweated to death about it and then wondered why. I knew what I was supposed to be doing, but it just wasn't my thing. Shoot, I was scared the first time I got up and read to the class."
Henderson said he first tried his speech in front of Atkins and a few other friends.
"I've always had this problem sounding out my S's," he said. "When I was writing it, and my buddies and I were going over it, they said I wasn't sounding my S's. So Fred brought me down to Earl, and Earl brought me to his class.
"Earl told me a bunch of times, 'Rickey, you get in the habit of talking about something and go off, and you don't know how to come back.' So he taught me how to do that. If you get stuck, just stop for a moment, and you'll think of something."
Robinson said: "He would sit and watch people in the class give their exercises, then he would get up and give his. Then they gave him some constructive criticism, and he'd make changes. He caught on very quickly.''
Leaving nothing to chance, Henderson was even videotaped giving his speech so he could watch himself.
"He's truly is one of the most adaptable individuals I've ever seen in terms of preparation," Robinson said.
Henderson happily signed autographs and chatted with the students.
"A lot of them didn't know who he was," Robinson said. "I have students in here from Bangladesh, Africa, the Aleutian Islands, Taiwan and China. When I explained to them who he was, they just said, 'OK, that's fine, he can come in.' They treated him like another student."
Robinson didn't offer many hints about what's in the speech but said it would be a winner.
"He's going to say what he feels," he said. "How they interpret it, we'll see. When he throws something out there, whatever else you hear in terms of him being critical of this or that, he overpowers you with the sincerity of his words.
"Like I finally said to him, just do the best you can. Let Rickey be Rickey."