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Sugar, spice and everything Rice

Sugar, spice and everything Rice

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Jim Rice, a towering presence for all those years in the middle of the Boston Red Sox's batting order, stood up on the stage as an official Hall of Famer on Sunday afternoon and showcased none of that fear that led to his eventual landing place among baseball's best.

There were no war stories of Green Monster mashes, or the gaudy numbers he produced for over a decade.

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Instead, what Rice displayed was the gentle side of himself that was always there -- but could have been counterproductive if used on a baseball field.

Rice let his adoring public in during a thoughtful speech of just over 10 minutes. Along with all-time stolen base king Rickey Henderson, a man he played countless games against, and also the late Joe Gordon, Rice entered what he referred to as baseball's pinnacle.

As a boisterous Red Sox fan bellowed out amid the crowd, "U da man, Jim," Rice had a perfect jumping off point for his speech -- the one he had been crafting since January.

"No, I am a husband called 'Rice,'" said the erstwhile right-handed slugger. "I'm a father called 'Dad.' I'm a brother called 'Ed.' I'm an uncle called 'Uncle Ed.' I'm a grandfather called 'Papa.' I'm a friend that doesn't call -- some of my friends know that. Finally, I do mean finally -- I am Jim Rice, called a baseball Hall of Famer."

Yes, finally. It took until Rice's 15th and final year on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot to gain the requisite 75 percent of the votes. But Rice couldn't have been any more enthusiastic if he had been a first-ballot Hall of Famer like the two legendary left fielders who preceded him in Boston -- Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski.

"To me, it doesn't matter that I got called this year vs. my first eligible year," said Rice. "What matters is that I got here."

And what exactly did that feel like? Rice managed to come up with a dead-on baseball analogy.

"What it feels like most is being welcomed at home plate after hitting a walk-off home run," said Rice. "You find yourself incorporating the same phrases over and over. 'We made it, we made it, we made it.' And suddenly you think, 'Where's my wife?' And I really don't think I would have gotten the newsflash while watching my favorite soap opera, the Young and the Restless, at 12:30. And that's what I was doing. [Hall of Fame president] Jeff [Idelson] called and I was watching the Young and the Restless."

But Rice is no longer restless, and neither is his wife of the past 37 years, Corine, or his former teammates who thought the honor was long overdue -- not to mention the typical large throng of Red Sox Nation that came out to see his big day.

Given Cooperstown's reasonably close proximity to Fenway Park -- roughly a four-hour drive -- it was hardly stunning that there were roars of "Let's Go Red Sox" when Rice took the stage.

Then, for several minutes, the left fielder spoke of what it took for him to get to the Red Sox.

He went back to his Anderson, S.C., roots, citing high school coach John Wesley Moore, who taught him fundamentals, and an American Legion coach named Olin Saylors, who urged him to play during the summers.

The Jim Rice story might have moved to Nebraska for a football scholarship instead of a pro baseball career with the Red Sox if not for what those men did for his baseball development.

"My coach John Moore, he played a lot of college ball," said Rice. "He was the type of mentor who told you had to do the fundamentals of baseball and it was only one way, it was the right way. So the things that he taught me as far as being able to inside/out a ball, as far as hitting the cutoff man, throwing to the right bases, doing the small things, how to elevate the ball, how to get a flyball with a man on second or third, that's the way I was taught. If you know anything about me, even when I got to the big leagues, I didn't change."

Instead, he just kept growing into his enormous power, finding more mentors behind the scenes.

"Mace Brown and Sam Mele, I really thank those guys for signing me," Rice said. "Rac Slider took me under his arm when he was my instructional league manager."

"Don Zimmer, he believed in me -- he was my mentor. Zim was more of a manager and a father figure to me. Johnny Pesky was my personal hitting instructor. Don Zimmer, my manager at the time, told Pesky to stay with me day and night. He took me under his wing, kept me grounded, and we could always talk. And he's still with me today. And, of course, a good friend of mine, Cecil Cooper, my roomie, my ace, my buddy, my friend until the end."

Cooper couldn't be on hand. He was managing the Houston Astros on Sunday. But several of Rice's former teammates cheered him on, including Yaz, Dennis Eckersley, Wade Boggs, Carlton Fisk and Dwight Evans.

Rice took it all in and embraced everything about the day. It was a far cry from the player who was known for being terse with the media. As Rice would later point out, now he is a media member himself, serving as a studio analyst for NESN during Red Sox pregame and postgame shows.

"By now, you may be wondering how I got such a notorious reputation with the media," Rice said. "Well, you see, the media often asked me questions about my [teammates]. I refused to be the media's mouthpiece. Of course, my stance didn't win me any media friends. I came to Boston and played professional baseball, and that's what I did. I did it well. So I retired in '89."

And it was a career that left him fulfilled.

"In the Minor Leagues, I went from being Ed Rice to being Jim Rice," said Rice. "I was a quiet leader, not a follower. I played through the pain and I suffered. No regrets. Well, maybe those last few at-bats in 1989 where I saw my .300 [career] average slip to .298 -- that I do regret."

But those two points, as it turned out, would not keep Rice out of Cooperstown.

His plaque, which was read by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, summarized some of his accomplishments, including, "With titanic strength and an innate ability to hit to all fields, hit .298 with 382 homers, 1,451 runs batted in, the only player ever with three straight 35-home run and 200-hit seasons. Hit 20 or more home runs 11 times and totaled eight 100-RBI seasons."

Rice closed out the day with appreciative awe.

"Here we are in 2009 and I'm standing amongst baseball elite in front of my family, friends and fans, proudly accepting baseball's pinnacle achievement," said Rice. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather be than to be right here, right now, with you and you. Thank you."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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