Rice's HOF election ends media tiff

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"Rice is up. Rice, whom Aaron had said was the only one he'd seen with the ability to break his records, Rice the best clutch hitter on the club, with the best slugging percentage in the league. Rice, so quick and strong he once checked his swing halfway through and snapped the bat in two. Rice the Hammer of God sent to scourge the Yankees, the sound was overwhelming, fathers pounded their sons on the back, cars pulled off the road, households froze, New England exulted in its blessedness, and roared its thanks for all good things, for Rice and for a summer stretching halfway through October."
A. Bartlett Giamatti, "The Green Fields of the Mind"

One of Giamatti's successors as baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, was among those who called Jim Rice on Monday afternoon to congratulate him on his election to baseball's Hall of Fame on his 15th and last appearance on the writers' ballot.

"He said, 'You're in,' " Rice said. " 'You can't think about those 14 years. You're there, and they can't take it away from you.' "

Three Hall of Famers have been elected on their last appearance on the writers' ballot. Red Ruffing, the Yankees pitcher elected in 1967, was the first. Ralph Kiner, the Pirates slugger and Mets broadcaster, was the second, in 1975. The third is Rice, who joins Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski in giving the Boston Red Sox nearly 47 unbroken years of Hall of Fame left fielders, and like both of his illustrious predecessors, had a contentious relationship with the very group that is sending him to Cooperstown.

"Be patient," Rice said, describing how he endured the years of coming up short, "and wait for the last out."

It is advice perhaps now best embraced by Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven, strong candidates who fell 44 and 67 votes shy, respectively, of the 405 required for election to the Hall. Rice, who was 16 votes short of election in 2008, received 412 this go-round, seven more than the 75 percent cutoff.

"I don't know why it took me so long," Rice said. "I don't want to think about it. I'm in, and that's what I'm going to cherish the most."

Leave it to Rickey Henderson, the other Hall of Fame inductee Monday, to deliver the day's funniest line, albeit unintentional.

"It's been a long time coming. I was nervous, waiting," said Henderson, who received 94.8 percent of votes cast in his first year of eligibility.

Henderson's election was delayed only by his insistence on playing in the major leagues until the end of 2003, three months shy of his 45th birthday, and he played in independent leagues for two more years, hoping there would be another big-league team willing to prolong his career.

Rice said he never doubted his Hall credentials were bona fide, though should he venture into cyberspace, he would encounter some fierce debate, his critics contending that while he was a dominating hitter from 1975 to 1986, his falloff was dramatic thereafter, leaving his career numbers (.298 batting average, 398 home runs) short of being Hall-worthy.

The counterargument is that in those dozen seasons, few hitters were as feared as Rice, who won the American League MVP in 1978 and finished in the top five in MVP voting five other times. Since the expansion era began, only three hitters have had three seasons of 200 or more hits and 35 home runs: Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero and Rice. Rice did it in consecutive seasons, from 1977 to 1979.

Whitey Herzog, when he managed the Kansas City Royals, once used four outfielders with Rice at the plate.

"What I would really like to do," Herzog said, "is put two guys on the CITGO sign and two guys in the [left-field] net."

It was Rice's great misfortune that in 1975, his rookie season, he fractured his wrist and couldn't play in the postseason, thus missing what many have called the greatest World Series ever, between the Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds. Fellow rookie Fred Lynn, who won the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards that season, did play and became famous, and enjoyed a positive relationship with the media.

Rice, like Williams and Yastrzemski before him, did not. In one celebrated incident, Rice tore the shirt off Red Sox beat writer Steve Fainaru (who later, as a war correspondent for the Washington Post, would win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Iraq).

Rice played for a team that was the last in major league baseball to integrate, and there was a racial component to his clashes with the media. Rice once claimed the reason he was standoffish was that certain members of the media threatened to "break him" during his rookie season. On nights the fans turned on him, they taunted him with chants of "Uncle Ben," after the rice product.

"Ted Williams said the only thing he disliked about his stay in Boston was dealing with the press," former Sox pitcher Bill Lee once said. "Jimmy Rice is having trouble handling it and I can understand why."

Rice's career ended badly in Boston. With his skills declining, manager Joe Morgan lifted him for a pinch-hitter, Spike Owen, in one game. A humiliated Rice blew up, pulled the manager into the dugout runway and wound up suspended for three games. Rice was vilified in the media for his actions. That was in 1988. A year later, he was released.

There are those who believe that had Rice played the PR game, he would not have waited until Monday to receive the call from the Hall. Many voters would tell you that their objections were based solely on performance. But for those voters on the fence, his reputation almost certainly did him no favors.

On Monday, Rice said that no longer mattered.

"As far as what took so long," he said, "I have no idea, but I'm glad it's over with. I'm not going to bad-mouth any writers. I'm looking forward to today and days to come."