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Bob Ryan

Hall chapter closed, Rice opens up

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 27, 2009

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - The overriding message we take away from Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame induction weekend is this:

He cares. Boy, does he care.

During those long years of what would have to be called rejection, he always offered the stiff upper lip, never acknowledging the disappointment or indicating that getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame would change his life. He had put up the numbers, he would tell us, and if they weren’t good enough, tough whatever.

But now we know the truth. Rice yearned to be in the club, and now he is.

After identifying all the ways in which he is known to family and friends (e.g. “Ed’’ to his brothers), he arrived at this designation. “Finally,’’ he said, “and I do mean finally, I am called Jim Rice, a Hall of Famer.’’

In case someone didn’t get the point, he quickly referred to getting into the Hall as something that “means so much more than you ever thought it could mean.’’

It wasn’t a knock-your-socks-off speech, but none of them were. Rickey Henderson disappointed those of us who eagerly had been anticipating his acceptance address for at least the last 10 years by taking a very high road, presenting himself as Mr. Humble from start to finish, consistently and forcefully enough to make us believe he actually meant it. It was heavy on the appropriate thank-yous and light on the braggadocio. And nope, no third person, either.

About the only flash from Rickey was his suit, a garment enabling him to channel his inner Tom Wolfe. He was white on white on white, with the exception of a brown shirt. Custom-made, of course.

As for our guy Jim, he, too, was heavy on the requisite thank-yous, with particular gratitude shown to seventh- through 11th-grade coach John Moore (“There was one way, and that was the correct way’’); American Legion Post No. 14 coach Olin Saylor, who practically coerced him into playing when the young Ed Rice would rather have taken his summer off to make some money; Don Zimmer, “who believed in me and was my mentor’’; Johnny Pesky, “my personal hitting instructor, who kept me grounded, and who I could always talk to’’; and teammate Cecil Cooper, “my ace, my buddy, my friend to the end.’’

He spoke of the dramatic upheaval in his life when integration hit Anderson, S.C., between his junior and senior years, resulting in him having to leave Westside High, where he had gone from seventh through 11th grades, for T.L. Hanna High. He said, however, he was received with “open arms,’’ and why not? He was, after all, the best athlete in town, a two-way football standout (WR/DB) and a terrifying basher of baseballs.

He liked football, make no mistake. Nebraska, then in full Bob Devaney glory, wanted him. He would have to make a decision. But when his father advised him that he would have a better chance of becoming a successful professional baseball player than professional football player, that was that. He signed with the Red Sox in 1971, and the rest is your basic history, culminating in his acceptance yesterday of baseball’s highest honor before 50 living Hall of Famers (one of whom meant more to Rice than the others put together, at least on this occasion) and a gathering estimated at 21,000.

If admitting how much this honor means to him was the weekend’s biggest revelation, the second biggest was the enormous pride he takes in being part of a stand-alone circumstance in baseball history. It’s a given that Rice is proud of being that modern rarity, a Hall of Famer who spent his entire career with one team (Rickey, by contrast, played with nine, and that’s before we get into that business of being an Oakland Athletic on four different occasions).

But beyond that, Rice said he is even prouder of being part of that astonishing Fenway Park left-field progression that began when Ted Williams switched from right to left in 1940, continued with Carl Yastrzemski in 1961, and kept going when Rice assumed the spot in 1975. It is now Hall of Famer to Hall of Famer to Hall of Famer, extending to 50 seasons, and that is a source of enormous satisfaction for Jim Rice.

Understand this about Yastrzemski. He’s not particularly social, and he doesn’t put Hall of Fame induction weekend on his annual appearance calendar. The last time he showed up, in fact, was in 2000, when Carlton Fisk went in. But he roused himself to show up for this one, and that meant a lot to Rice.

Rice was earnest and sincere, and pretty serious throughout. He did get off a good one in reference to his occasional rocky encounters with the media (overblown, by the way). Alluding to his ongoing role as a TV analyst, he said, “Now I’m sitting across the desk from Tom Caron, allowing all you to see my winning smile.’’

That smile was on full display this weekend, whether he was marveling at Rickey’s truthful tale of slapping a million-dollar check on the wall for a year before the bank called to ask what was what, or just accepting the many compliments that were strewn his way (Ford C. Frick Award recipient Tony Kubek even gave him a shout-out for the way he played The Wall).

This is Jim Rice’s time, and he is enjoying every second of it. He did it his way, and if it took 15 years to be recognized, he said that was OK, too.

“I came to Boston to play baseball,’’ he said. “That’s what I did, and I did it well.’’

So now he’s in the club, one of 65 living ex-players who can put that cherished “HOF’’ underneath that autograph.

Forget the stoicism. Forget the macho stuff. This was as happy a Jim Rice as we’ve ever encountered.

“I cannot think of any place I’d rather be than right here, right now, with you and you and you,’’ he concluded.

The old Jim Rice never talked like that. But he was never a certified Hall of Famer before, either.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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