Right to the end of his storied baseball career, Jim Rice never changed.
He never softened his combative stance on an intrusive media, never got swept away by free agency and never backed down from a battle in the batter’s box.
Some people say such stubbornness hurt him.
He didn’t gain many friends among writers, didn’t get any World Series titles in Boston and didn’t add a .300 batting average to his impressive career numbers.
Rice also didn’t have to second-guess himself.
“No regrets,” Rice said Sunday during a Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech he had to wait 15 years to make. “Well, wait a minute. Maybe those last few at-bats in 1989 (where) I saw my .300 average drop to .298. That I do regret.”
The rest allowed him to rest well at night, because Rice never needed an extra boost to become one of the best.
He never bolted from a Boston team cursed in its quest for a World Series title during the time he was there.
He never craved more credit or glory as he played his way into the hearts of Red Sox fans.
He never needed any artificial means to enhance his performance.
How many of today’s slugging stars can make the same claim?
Back in spring training, Alex Rodriguez admitted his steroid use. Manny Ramirez was just suspended for it. And bulked-up ex-bashers Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds had their careers stained by allegations of it.
Which is why former all-time home run champion Hank Aaron, who’s still considered the real home run record holder by baseball purists, received such a loud and long ovation in Cooperstown, he had to acknowledge it twice during Sunday’s Hall of Fame roll call.
Rice also received a standing ovation, but didn’t need one to feel special on his induction day.
“What it feels like most,” said Rice, one of the famed left fielders in Boston’s illustrious history, “is being welcomed at home plate after hitting a walk-off home run.”
Rice walks among baseball legends now with admiration and respect.
Because he never changed who he was.
He never tried to smooth his reputation for being surly with the media, even when he knew it would cost him Hall of Fame votes.
“Well, you see, the media often asked me questions about my players,” Rice said. “I refused to be the media’s mouthpiece.”
He also refused to give in at the plate.
That hard-nosed approach led Rice to 382 career homers, 1,451 RBI and 834 extra-base hits during a career that lasted from 1974 through 1989. It made Rice an American League MVP, a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner, an eight-time All-Star and one of the premier power hitters of his time. It also cost Rice a lifetime .300 average.
That was a small price to pay for doing it the right way.
“I came to Boston to play professional baseball. And that’s what I did,” Rice said. “And I did it well.”
Rice did it so well, he didn’t need alternative methods to accumulate a lifetime of incredible baseball numbers that finally put him in the Hall of Fame during his 15th and final year of eligibility on baseball writers’ ballots.
He had his integrity.
And keeping it made Rice legendary long before he walked through the doors of the Hall of Fame. Those who lost it just may get locked out.