When talking about sports, the most interesting debates tend to be those that rest on idiosyncrasies and complete subjectivity. Not “who was the best player ever?” but “who was the most infuriating player?” or “which manager do you most dislike?” When we can’t objectively point to a number that at least pretends to settle the argument, it opens up the argument in all kinds of ways, and creates opportunities to be surprised. This question is one of those very subjective and open-ended debates: Who is the most exciting baseball player you’ve ever seen?
My impulse is to say Rickey Henderson. There’s his speed, his power, that batting crouch; but more than that, his personality, and the way he acted. He was a bit like Dennis Rodman in the 1990s, but Rodman was clearly looking for attention and not really a fully formed personality; Rickey managed to be very self-contained and assured, but also, in his own odd way, highly engaged with the media and fans. Compare him to some great players in other leagues during Rickey’s time: Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky, John Elway, Barry Sanders, Magic Johnson, Mario Lemieux, Larry Bird. I don’t think any of them combined greatness, charisma, and inscrutability, along with unpredictability, to near the extent that Rickey Henderson did. It seems to be quite rare for great athletes to really embrace their fame, as Babe Ruth and Magic Johnson did; Rickey didn’t quite embrace his fame, but he was, apparently, comfortable with his status.