Dan Shaughnessy

Enter smiling

Long wait ends as Sox slugger Rice, never one to court the media, wins writers' votes for Hall of Fame in last time on ballot

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / January 13, 2009
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He crushed baseballs for 16 Boston summers, rarely pausing to take a bow, shake a hand, or play the fool for the 6 o'clock standup. When his career was over, he hung around to teach hitting and, amazingly, wound up behind a television sports desk, offering opinions before and after Red Sox games.

In 20 years of retirement, Jim Rice never acknowledged that he cared about the Hall of Fame. He wasn't going to tell us how much it hurt if he didn't get in.

Rice's vote total was embarrassingly low (29.8 percent) in his first year of eligibility, but momentum grew, and he inched agonizingly close to Cooperstown. Yesterday, in his 15th and final year on the writers' ballot, Jim Ed Rice was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame by a margin of eight votes. He was named on 412 of 539 ballots, pushing him to 76.4 percent, a shade over the required three-quarters.

And so the handoff is complete - Boston's left-field torch of immortality is passed. Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice. Hub Hardball's Tinker to Evers to Chance. Three left fielders. Three Hall of Famers. One half-century.

Rice's reaction in his moment of glory?

"It's a big relief. It is over with, and I feel really good."

Rice's candidacy, in contrast to his career, was highly political in its final years. This player who despised the media became something of a press box lightning rod as his vote total grew.

In the slugger's early years of eligibility, there was a popular notion that scribes were punishing Rice for his lack of cooperation in his playing days. More recently, as he snared more votes, there was a backlash among new-age, basement-dwelling number crunchers who found flaws in Rice's résumé (always borderline by Cooperstown's lofty standards). The stat geeks sniffed at Rice's pedestrian on-base percentage (.352) and charged that his numbers were skewed because half his games were in hitter-friendly Fenway Park.

There was a touch of irony in the emergence of veteran writers as staunch supporters of the Rice candidacy. These were the same people with whom Rice famously clashed in the 1970s and '80s, the ones who supposedly didn't vote for him because he was a nasty interview. But the older writers had the benefit of being eyewitnesses. They watched Rice hit and saw the nightly fear in the visitors dugout at Fenway.

In the end, Rice was able to lurch across the finish line with the help of veteran Sox publicist Dick Bresciani, who carpet-bombed the electorate with data advocating the slugger's election. Rice got additional support from former Yankee closer Goose Gossage, a contemporary who was the only player elected last winter. The recent exposure of modern stars who artificially inflated their stats with steroids also advanced the case for Rice.

Lastly, Jim Ed was buoyed by the dearth of boffo names on the 2008 ballot. Rickey Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, was the only slam-dunk new candidate, which ultimately encouraged a lot of scribes to cast a vote for Rice.

Henderson, who played briefly with the Red Sox in 2002, will be inducted with Rice in Cooperstown July 26. Henderson led all candidates with 94.8 percent of yesterday's vote. Rickey's speech should be a beauty.

"I'm going to let Rickey do all the talking," said a smiling Rice. "I'm going to make it short and quick and that's it. Let Rickey run."

That fits. Rice was always eager to let others do the talking. It started in 1975 when he was overshadowed by fellow rookie Fred Lynn. In that magical season, Rice hit .309 with 22 homers and 102 RBIs in 144 games, while Lynn batted .331 with 21 homers and 105 RBIs in 145 games.

Peter Gammons dubbed them the "Gold Dust Twins," but the glitter was sprinkled on the fair shoulders of the Californian Lynn, who walked away with MVP and Rookie of the Year honors. Rice, meanwhile, had his hand broken by a Vern Ruhle pitch in September and didn't even get to play in the Greatest World Series of All Time.

Typical. Jim Ed was never a spotlight kind of guy.

In 1978, he wrecked the American League with one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time (.315, 46 HRs, 139 RBIs, 406 total bases), but that was the year in which the Sox blew a 14-game lead on the Yankees and lost the Bucky Dent playoff game.

When Rice finally made it to a World Series in 1986, he failed to knock in a run in seven games against the Mets. The drought had much to do with the fact that broken-down Bill Buckner batted in front of Rice and ended a lot of innings, but like Ted Williams, Rice came up wanting in the only World Series of his career.

Managers loved Rice. They put his name in the lineup every day and that was that. Rice played hard and played when he was hurt. He worked overtime to make himself better defensively.

He was no clubhouse lawyer. He came to work, did his job quietly, and went home. He never seemed close to his teammates. In 1987, Rice said, "They're not friends, they're associates."

Explaining his cold war with writers yesterday, he said, "Maybe they thought I was arrogant, and that wasn't true at all. My thing was I was very protective of the players that I played with. I got in a lot of trouble by not giving the writers what they wanted - and that was a story for them to probably talk about another player."

No. It's fair to say that Rice was shy and uncomfortable talking about himself. He never made excuses. He arrived with the city of Boston in a particularly inflammatory racial climate, which must have been difficult for a 21-year-old man from South Carolina. But to say he got in trouble by not talking dirt about his teammates is simply false. Rice was churlish more often than not. Not just with writers. Sometimes with his adoring public.

"The only man in baseball who can make tying his shoes a hostile act," wrote Ross Wetzsteon in Inside Sports.

None of it matters anymore. From now until the end of time, he is going to be Jim Rice, Hall of Famer. And he earned it. He took the baton from Yaz, who took it from Teddy Ballgame, and they are forever united in Cooperstown.

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