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Even in triumph, Rice keeps it close to the vest

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 12, 2009 06:41 PM

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Outside of the batter’s box as well as in it, Jim Rice generally was unyielding. The embodiment of stubbornness, Rice set his feet and stood his ground. He was the kind of man who dared you to pitch inside, then made you pay if you did.

Now Rice is in the Hall of Fame, after 16 years of playing, five years of waiting, and 15 years of voting. During that time, only Ralph Nader may have run a longer campaign. Rice finally will walk into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown Sunday, July 26, and maybe it is only fitting that he will do so offering nary a glimpse into a soul that has been tortured for more than a decade.

He simply knows no other way.

"It was a big relief," Rice said Monday in what amounted to his most reflective offering upon learning that he will join Rickey Henderson as the only members of the Cooperstown Class of 2009. "I didn’t have any weight on my shoulders before that, but when I got the call it just seemed like everything kind of fell [into place]."

And so, finally, there is no longer an issue to debate. Rice is a Hall of Famer, no questions asked. He’s in for life. Rice’s 412 votes (76.4 percent) are every bit as good as Henderson’s 511 (94.8 percent) in the ultimate individual question for any player ever to wear a major league uniform.

Was he a Hall of Famer?

Yes, he was.

End of discussion.

Never one to publicize his wants, Rice predictably took Monday's news in his relatively stoic manner. There was gushing, no crying, no unrestrained joy for anyone else to share. If Rice ever was emotional about baseball or anything relating to it -- right down to his Hall of Fame induction -- he has never cared to put it on display. Rice treated baseball like a job -- hence his famous reference to teammates as "associates"-- and he prided himself on maintaining a workmanlike approach.

From 1975-86, when he led the majors in runs batted in, Rice was not merely the most productive hitter in baseball; he was also one of the most versatile. Rice today spoke of his ability to hit the ball to the opposite field and move runners over, which was only part of the story. During that same 12-year span from 1975-86, Rice also hit 73 triples -- can you imagine Manny Ramirez ever running that hard? -- roughly the same number as Robin Yount (77).

On top of it all, Rice was the most durable player in the American League, appearing in more games (an average of slightly more than 147, including one strike year) than any other AL player. Rice played hard and he played hurt, even if he never really bothered to play a game he still refrains from playing now.

"Some of the writers probably said I was arrogant. You know, that wasn’t true," Rice told the MLB Network today in an interview just moments after the voting results were announced. "You want to talk about baseball, I talk about baseball, but I never talked about my teammates. I protected my teammates. I don’t think you should make any excuses when I felt like [as] captain of the ball club, I took a lot of pressure off the guys because some guys could handle pressure, some guys couldn’t handle pressure. I was the type of guy that I got paid to play baseball."

So just who is the real Jim Rice? That is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, Rice was a longtime terror in the batter’s box; on the other, his career ended too early and abruptly. He was the kind of man who literally would rip the shirt off a reporter’s back and then buy him a new one -- he did this to onetime Globe beat reporter Steve Fainaru -- and he was the kind who would carry a fallen teammate (Jerry Remy) off the field following a serious injury. Once, when a small child was hit by a line drive behind the Red Sox dugout, Rice hoisted the boy out of the seats and carried him down the dugout runway, where the child could most quickly receive medical assistance.

Even as a coach, during a subway ride from Manhattan to the Bronx for a game against the New York Yankees, Rice was much more likely to engage a 12-year-old carrying a skateboard than he was a reporter toting a notepad. The reason? The boy wasn’t a threat. The reporter was.

Whether this all hurt Rice’s candidacy over the years is open to debate, though this much is certain: It did not help. Rice ultimately wanted the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association to judge him as a ball player, which, ultimately, is precisely what they did.

"I think a lot of the writers that were voting, they never put a uniform on and went out there and played the game and saw how tough it was to accomplish some of the numbers that some of the players [accomplished]," Rice said. "You just take it with a grain of salt because there’s nothing you can do."

Lest this all come off as some suggestion that the Hall of Fame means nothing to Rice, think again. This means everything to him, as it would to any ballplayer who ever has worn a major league uniform. He just isn’t necessarily going to show it as much. Rice mused today that his induction speech would be short and sweet, that he would leave all of the talking to Henderson. As many laughs as the comment drew, it also happened to be true.

In the end, for all of the posturing and politicking that takes place in this day and age, know that Rice did none of it. The man who wanted to get into the Hall of Fame on the merit of his skills of a ballplayer did just that. Rice didn’t lobby for votes, win any popularity contests, or plead his case to the public. He just stood there and waited, as he so often did at the plate, and he ultimately accomplished precisely what he did in the batter’s box.

He didn’t miss.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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