The gates to Cooperstown will swing open on July 26 for Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice. The left fielders were elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in January. They will be inducted along with the late Joe Gordon, a Veterans Committee electee, on the stage behind the Clark Sports Center, weather permitting. With the annual ceremony only 10 days away, the Hall made both players available via conference call Friday. In these last days, speeches are polished, family members are gathered and tensions begin to build.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't think I'm a doctor or a professor," said Henderson, the all-time leader with 1,406 steals and 2,295 runs scored. "I wrote a speech. I don't know if I'm going to read it. I wrote it one way, you know, this and that. When the time comes, I'm going to do whatever feels right. There's no special way to do it. I'm going to be creative. But it's been fun. It's getting exciting." Widely considered to be the greatest leadoff hitter ever, Henderson was elected in his first time on the ballot with 94.8 percent of the vote. Rice, a career-long member of the Red Sox in his 15th and final year of eligibility, snuck seven votes over the 75 percent threshold and garnered 76.4 percent, earning 412 votes on the 539 completed ballots cast. Two ballots were sent in blank. This year, 405 votes were needed. Last year, Rice fell 16 votes short. Rice was asked what the difference would've been had he been selected sooner. "My speech would've been over with by now. I wouldn't have to be worrying about it," Rice said with a chuckle. "You go back and look at it, [over the years] my numbers didn't change or anything like that. You let bygones be bygones. Yeah, I wish I could've gone in on the first ballot or the second ballot, not the last ballot. But the key thing is I'm in and other guys are still out there. It's one thing you have to look at. You've got to be proud that you are in." Henderson and Rice are the first left fielders elected to the Hall of Fame in 20 years. They are also the 20th and 21st left fielders elected. Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski, once a teammate of Rice's in Boston, was the last left fielder inducted into the Hall, entering in 1989. A crowd in excess of last year's 14,000, when Rich "Goose" Gossage and Dick Williams were inducted, is anticipated. And even with numerous fans bussing in from Boston to honor Rice and line the rolling pastures behind the Clark Sports Center, the attendance won't remotely reach 2007's once-in-a-generation turnout of 75,000 for Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. Henderson, who holds the single-season record with 130 bases stolen during the 1982 season, said he's proud of his numerous accomplishments. Henderson stole 100 bases or more three times from '80 to '83 and led the American League 12 times in that category, including seven seasons in a row from '80-86. In the National League, Vince Coleman of the Cardinals stole in excess of 100 bases three years running from 1985-87. To illustrate how much the running game has changed since then, no player has led either league with 90 stolen bases since Henderson did it for the last time when he swiped 93 in '88. "To me, [stealing all those bases] was a challenge," Henderson said. "Vince and I used to talk about it all the time. We weren't worried about who was going to lead our respective leagues. We wanted to lead the Major Leagues. If he jumped off to a big lead, I'd have to go after him. I competed against myself. I wanted to shine. I'm proud of what I achieved in the game." Henderson established himself as baseball's supreme leadoff hitter by banging out 3,055 hits in a 25-season career spanning four decades (1979-2003). He played for the Athletics, Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres, Angels, Mets, Mariners, Red Sox and Dodgers, but, like Williams last year, Henderson will go in wearing a green and gold Oakland cap. Henderson had three tours with the A's and two with the Padres, playing first on the 1996 San Diego team that won the NL West and then again in 2001, when he surpassed the runs-scored record before collecting his 3,000th hit on the last day of that season, during the final game of Gwynn's career. A .279 lifetime hitter with a .401 on-base percentage and 297 home runs, Henderson won World Series rings with the 1989 A's and '93 Jays, and he was the AL MVP in '90. His 81 home runs leading off games are the most in Major League history. Henderson was the 44th player elected in his first time on the ballot, including the inaugural class of 1936 that honored Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. He's also the 10th since 2001. Rice was the third player elected in his final year of eligibility, following Red Ruffing (1967) and Ralph Kiner ('75). While Henderson's election was a foregone conclusion, Rice was a question mark. He clearly had the best chance of going in. Last year, Rice earned 392 votes among the 543 ballots cast. Rice's percentage last year was the highest for any player not elected, and no player who has reached the 70-percent plateau with eligibility remaining has been unable to be elected the following year. That pattern continued to repeat itself, as Rice is the 21st player to fulfill that prophecy. A .298 career hitter with 382 home runs, 2,452 hits and 1,451 RBIs in 16 seasons, Rice had four seasons of more than 200 hits, led the AL in home runs three times, RBIs twice, once in hits, twice in slugging percentage, was the AL MVP in 1978 and was an eight-time All-Star. "As a player you had to use your talents," Rice said. "What was Rickey's talent? Stealing bases. What was my talent? Playing every day and producing runs. Rickey was the kind of guy who liked to make things happen and put himself in position where other guys would drive him in. My job was to hit home runs and drive people in. That's what I did. [Either way] as long as you could produce big numbers, you were OK."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.