Fifteen years of waiting and listening to debates about whether he was among the most elite players to ever play the game dissipated softly into neverland yesterday when the Baseball Writers Association of America elected Jim Rice to the Hall of Fame, casting 76.4 percent of the vote in his favor, just seven votes over the minimum required for election.
Rice, appearing cool and calm as he stood at a podium in the State Street Pavilion at Fenway Park yesterday, said he received the word at 1:17 p.m. when Jack O'Connell, secretary/treasurer of the BBWAA, called to give the former Red Sox slugger the good news.
"It was a big relief," said Rice, who admitted to being nervous in the moments leading up the call as he sat home watching his favorite soap operas. "I didn't have any weight on my shoulders per se. But when I got the call, it seemed like everything fell back."
Rice will be inducted at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 26 along with Rickey Henderson, who was elected yesterday in his first year of eligibility with 94.8 percent of the vote, and Veterans Committee electee Joe Gordon.
Rice, who likely will have his No. 14 retired by the Red Sox this summer, always has downplayed his close-but-no-cigar finishes in Hall voting.
He thanked a few people for making the moment possible, including his father, as well as longtime Red Sox publicist Dick Bresciani, who distributed an exhaustive statistical analysis of Rice's career to voters, and Johnny Pesky, who hit him endless balls off Fenway's left-field wall and served as his personal hitting coach.
But his first calls were to his family, to close friend Cecil Cooper, a roommate in his early Red Sox years, and to Rich "Goose" Gossage, his longtime Yankee nemesis and the player he thought he was going in with last year, when he finished with 72.2 percent of the vote.
"Jim was excited, as excited as Jim gets," said Cooper. "You could tell it was a relief for him. He just blurted it out to me and that was that. That's Jim.
"I've never quite understood what took so long, but the fact he's in now has made the last 15 years so worth it. I congratulated him. He's been a dear friend."
Cooper said he realized Rice's potential for greatness when they were young, but he realized it more when competing against him.
"When we had our pre-series meetings against the Red Sox when I was in Milwaukee, the one name that always came up was Jim Rice," said Cooper. "He could beat you, and our goal was to make sure he didn't. And that was a pretty tough task. He was a dangerous hitter and everyone who played in that time knew it."
Rice, who was named on 412 of the 539 ballots cast, is a contrast to Henderson, the base-stealing great who in his 25-year career spent one season, 2002, with the Red Sox.
Henderson is baseball's all-time leader in runs (2,295) and stolen bases (1,406) and is considered the game's greatest leadoff man.
From 1975-86, Rice drove in more runs than any other player in baseball, but his production slipped after age 33 as he had issues with his eyes, hip, and knees. Rice could have signed with the Yankees in 1990, but he elected to retire after 16 seasons.
For his career, he batted .298 with 382 home runs and 1,451 RBIs, as he followed two other Hall of Fame left fielders in Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. Rice gave major credit for his success to Yastrzemski and said he still has the only glove Yaz ever used to play left field as a memento of their friendship.
"Most of all, my hat goes off to Carl Yastrzemski because if Yaz had told Zim [manager Don Zimmer] at the time, 'I'm still playing left field, I don't want to play first base,' I would have been sitting on the bench," said Rice. "But Yaz came out in left field and said, 'Jimmy, I'm going to show you how to play left field.'
"My hat goes off to Yaz. He could have played left field, and in 1975 he went back to left field because I had a broken hand."
Why did it take all 15 years of eligibility for Rice to be elected? Some have speculated that his poor relationship with the media had a lot to do with it.
"I have no idea," said Rice, "and I'm not going to bad-mouth the writers or why they waited so long, because the numbers are still the same. I have no idea.
"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. My thing was that if you wanted to talk to me about the game or why I screwed up in the outfield or I didn't get a base hit or hit a home run, I accepted that. But when you wanted to talk about my teammates or the front office, talk about management, that's where I got in trouble a lot."
Another topic among his detractors was an ordinary .352 on-base percentage. But Rice felt his role was to swing the bat and not wait for someone else to drive in the runs.
"If you're talking about on-base percentage when I played at the time, we did not worry about on-base percentage," said Rice. "We were about W's and L's.
"We worried about leaving guys on base. I want someone that can get me a ball in the outfield, get it in the gap. Forget about on-base percentage. Give me 3 for 10, .300. That's all I want. If you're power, you've got to give me 3 for 10 and give me some jacks behind it. That's my on-base percentage right there.
"Can you imagine talking to Yaz and telling Yaz, 'We need your on-base percentage'? I don't think so.
"If you go back and look at me, of the years I hit .300, I hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs, I probably struck out 100 times. And then during that time I still got 200 hits. So you want me to go there and look at on-base percentage.
"Who's going to knock me in? The only thing I'm going to do is slow up the bases. I could run the bases, but I wasn't a guy that would steal you 30 bases.
"And you've got to admit, when I played, it was a different era. We had guys that could thump."
Rice loosened up about the topic, joking, "A mailman walks, a mailman, the milkman, and the guy that delivers papers walk, and I did all those except delivering mail. So I did my share of walking; no, I don't want to walk."
The walking he'll do now will be on the cobbled streets of the quaint little town of Cooperstown.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.