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From age 5 on, fan can tell you firsthand that new Hall of Famer Jim Rice is nice

Of all the people celebrating Jim Rice’s overdue election to the Baseball Hall of Fame today, a young man named Tim Wood had to be one of the happiest.

Of all the people celebrating Jim Rice’s overdue election to the Baseball Hall of Fame today, a young man named Tim Wood had to be one of the happiest.

Wood is an old friend of mine and a fellow Fordham University grad who writes a column for Bluffton Today, a small newspaper in Bluffton, S.C. Wood tells a wonderful story about how the notoriously gruff Rice became his boyhood hero, and why Wood’s so-called “man room” in his house includes several autographed Rice artifacts, including an oversized license plate with “Rice 14” that Rice signed, “Jim Rice 1978 M.V.P.”

In 1978, Wood, then 5 years old, and his family drove down from South Portland, Maine, to Fenway Park for a game. As Wood tells it, he was near the railing trying for autographs like everybody else when manager Don Zimmer yelled for the players to get in the dugout. Wood reacted like, well, a 5-year-old.

Tears at age 5
“I started crying,” he said.

But then, something remarkable happened.

“Rice looked at me and picked me up,” Wood said. “He brought me into the dugout and the clubhouse and introduced me to everybody.

“That’s how I became a baseball fan. I’ve been a Jim Rice fan ever since.”

There’s more. In 1996, Wood — all grown up and a college graduate — had gone to work for the Yankees in their publications department. The Red Sox came to town, and Rice, by then long retired, had become Boston’s hitting instructor. Wood wanted to introduce himself and remind Rice of that moment of kindness to a little boy, but was so scared that all he could do was stare at Rice every day during batting practice.

Later in the season, the Red Sox returned, but Wood still couldn’t summon the courage to talk to Rice. Zimmer, then the Yankees’ bench coach, noticed Wood hanging around the field and asked what was going on. Wood told him the story. Zimmer said, “Don’t be a wuss,” and called Rice over.

Turned out Rice remembered the incident. “He was like, ‘You know, I’m not such a jerk, am I?’ ” Wood recalled him saying. Rice then took Wood into the Red Sox clubhouse and made him tell the story to first base coach Frank White and DH Jose Canseco, beaming as if he called a surprise character witness at a trial. Wood remembers an amused Canseco pretending to be moved and wiping away fake tears.

Rice’s reputation as a difficult interview subject undoubtedly contributed to his long wait for enshrinement. It took Rice the full 15 years of eligibility to be elected, even though he spent more than a decade as one of the most feared sluggers in the American League.

In the batter’s box, Rice faced the mound with an unblinking, fearless look that scared the bejesus out of pitchers and intimidated almost everybody else. An eight-time All-Star, the stoic Rice led the A.L. in homers three times and RBIs twice before an elbow injury ended his career at age 36. With 382 homers and 2,452 hits, he fell short of the career milestones of 500 homers and 3,000 hits that usually lead to swift induction.

I covered Rice in his final two seasons with the Red Sox, 1988 and ’89. As a Hall of Fame voter myself, I’ve never made it a factor how a player interacts with the media, and I’ve voted for Rice in every Hall election since my first in 1999.

Rice kept most reporters at a distance because he didn’t trust them. (Joe Giliotti of the Boston Herald, now retired, was one notable exception.) Understanding this, I introduced myself to Rice at his locker my first day on the beat, as a show of courtesy to the team’s captain. Rice sat with his arms folded and never looked me in the eye, but he seemed to appreciate the gesture, saying “Thank you” several times. He was never rude or snotty with me, and over time he answered my questions with thought and insight.

In a conference call on Monday, Rice — who, after a restless night, felt relieved that he finally got in — said several times, “I’m not going to bad-mouth the writers.” His advice to contemporaries like Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven, who are still waiting: “Be patient, and wait for the last out.”

(By the way, Rice thinks both Blyleven and Jack Morris deserve to be in. Blyleven appeared on 62.7 percent of ballots and Morris 44 percent, both an increase over last year, to finish fourth and sixth, respectively. I voted for both, and I’m baffled why Morris — who won more games in the 1980s than anybody else — isn’t getting more support.)

This is the first year since I began voting that two players I covered got in. First-ballot choice Rickey Henderson played for the Mets in 1999, my one full year on that beat.

What a character. Unlike Rice, Henderson’s mouth ran almost as fast as his legs, and his inability to remember anyone’s name proved the punch line to a million stories.

When George Will, who wrote about the Oakland A’s in his book “Men at Work,” visited Henderson at the Mets’ spring camp in Port St. Lucie, Henderson called him, “That politics guy.” While arguing with a columnist one day, Henderson blanked on general manager Steve Phillips’ name while Phillips stood nearby. Unfortunately for “Rickey,” as Henderson loved to call himself, Phillips had no such forgetful moment when he unloaded Henderson the following season.

More tears today
Rice, unlike Henderson, spent his entire 16-year career with one team. Rice, and Wood, waited almost as many years for one magical day. Thirty-one years after Rice soothed Wood’s tears, Wood said he cried again Monday as he watched the MLB Network coverage with his wife, Debbie, and saw Rice’s election noted again and again in the TV crawl.

“I just erupted,” Wood said. “I’m beyond happy. I’m Googling a trip to Cooperstown right now.”