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Visiting hours

Rice in awe as he tours Hall of Fame, leading up to his induction in July

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 16, 2009
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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - There are pictures on walls, plaques and statues, and video of some of the greatest players and greatest moments in major league baseball history. So when Jim Rice strolled into the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday and came across a group of children sitting on the floor near an exhibit listening to their teacher, Hall publicist Brad Horn whispered into the teacher's ear, "We have a special guest for you to meet."

The teacher informed the students who was standing before them, and one girl placed her hands on her face in disbelief.

One girl said loudly, "Oh my God, I've got to shake his hand!" Another girl said, "I've got to touch him!" Rice proceeded to shake everyone's hand. It was a neat moment for Rice and his wife of 37 years, Corine, who toured the museum in advance of the former Red Sox star's induction July 26, along with Rickey Henderson and Joe Gordon.

Rice was elected in his 15th and final year on the ballot, and one of the reasons may have been Rice's clean career before this era of performance-enhancing drug use.

Rice got to hold bats used by Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, got to slip on the glove he wore for 15 major league seasons, and got to read the plaques of former teammates Carl Yastrzemski and Wade Boggs, and former Sox owner Tom Yawkey.

Rice stopped to look at the plaque of Lou Gehrig, one of the players that fascinated Rice. He enjoyed the Honus Wagner exhibit, where Rice was amazed by the quality of the wood used for the bats. "With wood like that you don't have to worry about getting jammed and breaking a bat," he said.

Rice saw a pair of early hightop shoes, which he said "reminds me of Billy Buckner." He also got a big kick out of a cap that had screws through it, attaching a pair of sunglasses. Rice noticed Jean Yawkey in the "Women in Baseball" exhibit, and the Colt 45 donated by former Angels owner Gene Autry.

When told that Ruth's induction speech lasted just 30 seconds, Rice said, "My kind of guy."

Rice examined photos of his career. The Hall staff laid out items of sentimental value to Rice. And there was a 1974 Pawtucket program, the year Rice won the Triple A Triple Crown, "and I still had a month to go." And he stood where his plaque will go.

Later, he was asked about steroids, today's players, Yastrzemski, and other topics.

"I knew he was a Hall of Famer because I watched him prepare to play," Rice said of Yastrzemski. "He played 22 years and in the time I was around him I never saw the man in the trainer's room or get wrapped up. How does he do it? He played every day. When you see that, you just keep your mouth shut and watch."

With regard to performance-enhancing drugs, it was obvious the disdain Rice has for players who cheated the game. He said whether any of them get into the Hall was "up to the sportswriters."

Rice offered little on Manny Ramírez and whether the history of great Red Sox left fielders was tainted by his positive drug test, only saying, "Manny wasn't a Red Sox his whole career."

Rice questioned players' motivation for using performance-enhancers.

"Why do you need it?" he said. "These guys [pointing to the plaques behind him], they didn't need it. A guy like Jose Canseco who is 6-5 or 6-6 . . . how far do you want to hit a ball?"

Rice pointed to the other advantages today's players have, such as video, weightlifting programs, and easier travel. He added that he swung a 36-inch, 36-ounce bat, and current major league bats average around 33 ounces. "If they swing a lighter bat, why do they need to be stronger by using steroids?" he said.

Rice said he never lifted a weight in his life, but got stronger as a teenager by lifting crates of fruit at his part-time job. He also defended himself against those who feel he shouldn't be a a Hall of Famer because his career on-base percentage was .352.

"I don't know his name, and not pointing anyone out, but this one man [on television] said he'd never vote for me because my on-base percentage was down," said Rice. "How's it going to be up? You want me to walk, batting [No.] 3 or 4? Who's going to run? Yaz couldn't run. Fred [Lynn] couldn't run. I wasn't paid to walk. I was paid to do some damage."

Rice spoke about his era as compared to the present.

"It was more of a team then. It's individual now," Rice said. "It's more stats of an agent. What my guy has accomplished. My guy had a good year."

He also questioned whether the basics are stressed in today's games.

"There are no fundamentals at all in the game of baseball," Rice said. "Look at Minnesota. Tampa Bay. They are the few examples of teams that will have those guys go out and execute. We [the Red Sox] are one of the worst teams as far as executing, moving runners. I was taught, 'Jimmy, you have to be able to hit breaking balls.' "

Rice, who at one time alienated the press with his gruff exterior, always had a softer side. Corine met Jim in high school in Anderson, S.C.

"We dated all four years," she said. "Jim always wanted to play football, but his father talked him out of it." She said that for the first "seven or eight" years her husband wasn't frustrated at not getting into the Hall of Fame, but she said, "the last few years he was frustrated. Last year he'd say it really didn't matter but that was his way of putting up this facade."

On the day when Rice learned he had been elected to the Hall, he was home because Corine had given him a to-do list, or otherwise he would have been on the golf course. Hall president Jeff Idelson called and Rice asked, "Am I in or out?" Idelson told him he was in.

Rice said he kept watching "The Young and the Restless" for a while, and then tried to call his wife and daughter, but neither answered. "So I called Cecil Cooper," said Rice, who considers Cooper his best friend.

"When he called me this time to tell me he was elected, my cellphone was off," said Corine. "I saved the voice mail because it was so good. It was through tears."

What did he say?

"I can't tell you that. He was overwhelmed and honored."

As he was yesterday.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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