07/25/09 7:10 PM ET
Status as baseball immortal awaits Rice
Laboring over speech among activities on eve of induction
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
This time, it is for a team known as the Baseball Hall of Fame. And the hazing process is one that Rice would not trade for anything.
For now, Rice is enjoying every last second of the good-natured barbs from Frank Robinson, Dave Winfield and everyone else. By next year at this time, Rice and Rickey Henderson will be Cooperstown veterans, welcoming the newest Hall of Famers to the club.
So on Saturday, the last day of Rice's life in which he was a non-Hall of Famer, he had a blast.
"I think it's more a case of them letting you know that you're welcome to their surroundings and they are the type of guys that will let you know that you are a rookie," said Rice. "When you go into the one percent of baseball players [in the Hall of Fame] that you're talking about right now -- they are the type of guys -- they love you, but they're going to keep you [humble]. It's like, 'Look, just because you are here, you're not one of us yet. You'll be one of us on Sunday.' So they let you know that."
It started with the morning round of golf.
"Frank Robinson and Dave Winfield were getting on me -- Frank wanted me to deliver a message to Rickey also," said Rice. "I asked him a couple of things and he wanted me to do certain things, like, 'Hey, you get up there and respect us, and you tell Rickey that you guys are not in yet. We'll have the last say-so tomorrow because if you guys go too long [on the speeches], we will let you know.'"
Rice had talked for weeks about having a short and direct speech, and the advice he got from the Hall of Famers only reinforced that decision.
"Like Rickey said, you think about the people that got you here, the people that worked with you to get you where you are, and you let it go," said Rice. "You talk about your wife and your high school coach, your mom and your dad, and you think about other people that you played with. But the only thing you can do right now is just have fun and let it go."
Of course, Rice has always been a straight shooter and a subscriber to the "more is less" theory when it comes to words.
"You speak from the heart, which I think helps you get focused on the things you want to talk about, and you make it short and quick and be direct -- you let it go," said Rice. "I don't think you want to be a politician. We're baseball players. We just stick to the script. We had a meeting yesterday and they said five to eight minutes. Like I said, the Hall of Famers will let you know. They'll come back and pull your coattails and say, 'Rookie, you've got to go.' I like that. Just stick to the script."
Of course, as the script played out, Rice was on his 15th and final at-bat on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot when he at last cracked entry into the Hall of Fame.
Rice remains positively disinterested in why it took so long but simply grateful that he is now considered, as he says, in the top one percent of baseball players.
"I don't look at it -- I don't think about it," said Rice. "It's all said and done. My numbers didn't change. It basically depended on who was voting at the time. As of right now, I can't change anything. The only thing I can say is that I'm happy with where I'm at right now. I could be somewhere in South Carolina playing golf right now. Instead, I'm sitting here talking to you."
During his years of slugging opposing pitchers into submission, Rice took pride in the fact he never padded his numbers. His job was to get runs in, and he would do it any way possible.
"Rickey and I, we were from the old school," said Rice. "We were the types of players where we gave ourselves up to help the ballclub win. You don't see that right now. I don't think you have, I guess, the expertise or the teachers to teach you how to inside-out a ball, how to hit a ball to the right side. We were taught to hit line drives."
Of course, when Henderson thinks back to his many matchups against Rice, he wished there were more line drives or grounders to the right side. What Henderson remembers most is the way Rice would continually hit missiles that rattled against the speakers and cameras atop the wall in straightaway center field at Fenway.
"When I was with the Oakland A's and we used to go into Boston and we used to go over scouting reports about players -- when Jim's name popped up, it seemed like all the pitchers trembled," said Henderson. "Jim used to come up and hit the speakers. You knew he was aiming for the speakers. You were always afraid he would hit the Green Monster or those speakers out in the outfield."
Pitchers didn't have to do much more than look at Rice to have fear. He was the Boston strongman, full of muscle and lightning-quick wrists. Growing up in Anderson, S.C., Rice also starred in football and basketball.
"When you play more than one sport, you can't put your finger on which sport you want to play," said Rice. "But by being drafted, I had to select one. I had to select baseball or go to college and play football. I was offered a scholarship to play [football] at Nebraska. Being smart about the situation, coming out of high school at 180 pounds, I didn't think I would make it, so I chose baseball."
And ultimately, that led to an entire career spent with one team -- something that is becoming rarer each year for incoming Hall of Famers.
"I was very fortunate to play for one ballclub and to play for an owner who was outstanding and also from South Carolina, Thomas Yawkey," said Rice. "And once I was told in '75 I couldn't play in the World Series [because of a fractured wrist] and we were going back to the Hyatt hotel and he stopped me and my wife and said, 'I know you're not going to be able to play in the World Series,' and he gave me a bonus and said, 'As long as you play for the Boston Red Sox, you'll have nothing to worry about.'
"After he passed away, his wife [Jean] said the same thing. 'You have nothing to worry about. Play here as long as you want to.' And they didn't really give me the opportunity to go anyplace else. I never wanted to be the highest-played ballplayer, but just put me in that category. So at that time, he put me in that category when all the guys were signing big contracts, and I was very happy."
Now, Rice is a happy Hall of Famer, once more following in the footsteps of two left fielders (Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski) who also played their whole careers in Boston.
"When you think about the guys that played before me who are in the Hall of Fame, you're talking about Yaz, you're talking about Williams and then myself," said Rice. "You're talking about three guys that are in the Hall of Fame -- three left fielders -- which you will probably very seldom see, as far as playing for one team. I think before the Hall of Fame, it was more gratifying for me to be able to play for 15 years, to play all my career here with the Boston Red Sox and to follow in the footsteps or even be categorized with Williams and Yaz.
"Now to be in the Hall of Fame, it's even better. I was very fortunate to be able to establish myself in Boston, where I didn't have to take any of my equipment home. I just had one uniform and one number."
Now, Rice will have one more uniform on display -- the one that says Hall of Fame on it.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.