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05/18/11 10:00 AM ET

Bourn peerless as a basestealer

Astros center fielder blessed with speed, knows his craft

ATLANTA -- The stolen base. Remember that ancient concept? From the 1960s through the 1990s, it was the rage throughout much of baseball, and then it was slammed into oblivion by home runs. Lots of them.

When it came to basestealing artists for the ages, we went from Maury Wills to Lou Brock to Rickey Henderson to nobody.

Actually, it just seemed that way, because even with balls flying over walls at a record pace, there always was a Jose Reyes here and a Juan Pierre there.

Reyes and Pierre still are around, by the way. They join a growing number of those during the post-steroid era in helping teams score the old-fashioned way: hit-and-runs, sacrifice flies, advancing runners with bunts and going from first to third on singles.

Oh, yes, and stealing.

The key is to swipe bases efficiently. And, with apologies to Reyes, Pierre and others -- ranging from Jacoby Ellsbury to Coco Crisp, all with wings on their cleats -- nobody does this better than Michael Bourn, the Houston Astros' version of Maury, Lou and Rickey.

"Rickey?" said Bourn, with a bewildered look this week in the visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field before an Astros game with the Atlanta Braves. His reference was to Rickey, as in Henderson, baseball's career stolen-base king with 1,406. After five seasons and counting, Bourn has 187. Which is why the 28-year-old outfielder laughed again, adding, "I'm a long ways from Rickey. So, no. I don't really have a particular goal as to what I'm trying to do when it comes to stealing bases.

"I'm just going to keep going until the wheels fall off. Whenever they take the shoes off me, we'll see where I'll end up at the end of the day."

Here's a guess: He'll end up well.

Just last Sunday, he was caught stealing. I mention as much, because he was perfect before that at 14-for-14.

So what else is new regarding Bourn and perfection -- or at least something in the vicinity? Not only did he lead the National League in stolen bases with 61 in 2009 and 52 last season, he was caught just 24 times during that stretch.

Bourn stole 41 times out of 51 attempts in 2008. He also spent his first full season in the Majors the previous year getting caught once in 19 tries for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Still not convinced that Bourn is nearly peerless these days? Well, look at it another way: Pierre is the Major Leagues' active leader in career stolen bases, and Carl Crawford is second. While Pierre has been successful 75 percent of the time, Crawford is at 82 percent.

Bourn is at 83 percent. The man is fast, but how fast?

"I don't know," Bourn said, shrugging and chuckling. Unlike football, baseball isn't into testing guys in the 40-yard dash, but that doesn't mean Bourn never has been timed.

"I had it done in high school and college and stuff, and since then, I know I've gotten even faster," Bourn said. "That's because your muscles get stronger through the years.

"The thing is, I didn't start stealing bases until I was in high school. And in college, I could steal, but it was just off of speed."

Translation: Bourn really is fast, because as that clueless runner at the University of Houston, he stole 90 times out of 119 attempts. And, just so you know, he is as "Houston" as it gets. He was born and raised in the city, and now he is a multiple Gold Glove-winning center fielder who steals bases with the greatest of ease for the hometown Astros, a team that he rarely watched as a youth.

That's because Bourn watched little baseball.

"I went to some games when the Astros played over in the dome, but I was more into just playing baseball, because it was fun," Bourn said, adding that he never had a favorite player. Since he was born in 1982, he was 11 when Henderson retired, and the careers of Brock and Wills were over by then.

But Bourn doesn't want anyone to get the wrong idea.

"Oh, I was familiar with those guys, and I knew who they were," Bourn said, adding that he chatted with Brock for the first time during Spring Training in Florida when Bourn was with the Phillies.

Said Bourn: "I just wanted to talk to him and to tell him that it was just an honor to meet him. I didn't ask for any advice. It was just a casual conversation, because I didn't want to bug him. I didn't want to infringe on his privacy since he's the second-best ever to [steal bases, with 938 for his career] next to Rickey."

Then Bourn laughed. "We talked, and after a while, Lou said, 'Don't forget now, I could hit, too.'"

In contrast, Bourn is mediocre with a bat. His lifetime batting average is in the low .260s, and while Henderson was a leadoff hitter with a career on-base percentage of .401, Bourn's was .331 heading into Wednesday's game.

Like Henderson, though, Bourn is obsessed with his craft. He knows the pickoff move of every pitcher in the Major Leagues, and he can tell you the arm strength (or lack thereof) of all the catchers. He also quizzes others on what they know about those pitchers and catchers along the way to dissecting with scouting reports.

Bourn attributes his love affair with basestealing details to his days in Philadelphia, where he was tutored by Davey Lopes, the former basestealing great for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"Even though I didn't play a lot that first year in Philadelphia [eight at-bats in 2006], Davey helped me out in a whole lot of different ways," Bourn said. "He was able to break it down to me as to where I really understood how to do it. Whether [the lecture] was on how to get a pretty good jump or when to push the issue or when not to push the issue, he was able to get the message across.

"He kept telling me not to stop working on the basestealing part of the game, and that's what made me what I am now."

What Bourn is now is a blur.

An efficient one.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.