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Teamwork, fundamentals dear to Rice

Rice brings old-school mentality

COOPERSTOWN, N. Y. -- It took Jim Rice 15 years to finally get enough votes for election to baseball's Hall of Fame. He squeaked in, just barely receiving the required 75% of votes cast in January by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Rice, 56, along with stolen-base king Rickey Henderson, who breezed in on his first try, will be inducted during Sunday's ceremonies at Cooperstown. The late Joe Gordon, chosen by the Veterans Committee, will also be enshrined.

Casual fans, not to mention die-hard Red Sox Nation members, often ask why Rice was on the bubble so long, why his election was a photo-finish in his last year of eligibility.

It's difficult to ignore his dominance as a slugger. He played his entire 15-year career with Boston, but during a 12-year span (1975-86) was the most dreaded hitter in the American League. He was among the leaders in just about every offensive category.

But making it to Cooperstown was elusive.

I believe his contentious relationship with the media was a factor. From a statistical point of view he didn't hit 500 home runs -- he had 382, didn't collect 3,000 hits (2,452), didn't bat .300 (.298) and his on-base percentage (.352) was questionable.

"Once, my wife heard a voter on TV say he never voted for me because my on-base percentage was down," Rice told me during a recent interview, and it was obvious this is a sore subject.

"Hey, I was the third- or fourth-place hitter. You want me to walk batting third or fourth? I don't think so. Yes, some say my on-base percentage should be better. But if I walked, who was going to drive me in? Yaz (Carl Yastrsemski) was batting third and I was batting fourth, or vice-versa. I couldn't run, he couldn't run, so we would have clogged up the bases for a better on-base percentage.

"You've got apples and oranges. Believe me, I wasn't paid to walk. I was paid to do some damage. That's the respect I got. Look at some of the other Hall of Famers. Wade Boggs walked a lot, but he still did damage. He'd get 200 hits."

To Rice, baseball has changed dramatically and, to him, it's not all good.

"I looked through the archives of other Hall of Famers," he said. "They didn't keep on-base percentage, they didn't keep any pitch count.

"Players today aren't rough enough. You've got to be very gentlemanly with these young guys. They weren't like that with Babe [Ruth], [Ty]Cobb, [Lou]Gehrig and those guys, were they? They went out and wore wool uniforms, played every day, every inning.

"Now, some guys come in and say, 'I don't feel like playing today.' OK, they get two days off. I'm glad I played when I did."

Rice was on a roll now, opinions flowing.

I wholeheartedly agree the "team concept" is going by the wayside.

"It's more for the individual now," he said, bristling. "When I was with the Red Sox -- the teammates I had -- we were considered more of a team. We were not "I" persons. We traveled as a team, fought as a team and played as a team.

"You'd see Yaz give himself up and hit the ball to the right side trying to advance the runner, even a guy like Carlton Fisk, who could hit the ball out of the park. Anything to help the team.

"Now, the agent is involved saying what his guy has accomplished. The team might be 20 games out, but "my kid is having a good year." That means more bucks for the player, more bucks for the agent."

I mentioned in over 50 years reporting Major League Baseball, I've never seen so much bad baseball. It's all about a lack of fundamentals.

"There are no fundamentals at all in baseball today," Rice said. "If you look at teams like Tampa Bay and Minnesota -- a lot of the low-market teams -- they go out and execute fundamentals. Not many teams do now.

"I work for NESN (New England Sports Network) and I've said it on the air that we (Red Sox) are one of the worst teams in the Majors at executing, advancing runners. Players just cannot handle the bat, hit the ball to the right side, bunt.

"When I came up to the Majors, one of the first things Yastrzemski told me, 'Jimmy, to be successful in the American League you've got to learn how to hit breaking balls.' The kids today are taught now to hit just one pitch -- the fastball."

Rice says it's an honor to be joining former teammates such as Yastrzemski in the Hall of Fame. He paid special notice to Yaz's plaque during a recent Cooperstown visit.

"I knew his plaque was here, but my thoughts are more of an understanding of knowing him," Rice said. "I came up in 1975. I'm sitting here and he's sitting there. To watch him play all those years, how he prepared himself to play every day. I never saw him go into the trainer's room. I said to myself, 'Maybe one day I'll be able to do that.'"

As the moment nears when Rice delivers his acceptance speech, he says becoming a Hall of Famer was never a goal when he was young.

"I played 15 years in the big leagues with one team. That was one of my dreams," he says. "As far as being in the Hall of Fame, I didn't know you had to have certain types of numbers or a certain relationship with the media. My job was to go out and help my team any way possible. That's what I did."

If his relationship with the tough Boston media delayed his election, so be it.

"When you ask me certain things, I'll give you the right answer," he said, his voice strong. "I wouldn't go out there and answer questions about why Carlton Fisk wasn't playing, why Yaz wasn't doing certain things. I'd say they're right over there and point to them. I wasn't the spokesperson and that's why I got in trouble.

"I wouldn't give you [media] what you wanted me to say. I wouldn't critique why Yaz wasn't talking or whatever. That was the Boston way -- we learned that from a great organization, the Boston Red Sox."

So, Jim Rice is about to be enshrined into the most coveted, most prestigious sports fraternity on the planet.

Finally.

And as he succinctly puts it, "I'm ahead of the game."

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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