“I’m telling you — this guy, nobody scared me, but this guy came the closest,” Goose Gossage said. “He was amazing.”
Gossage spoke early Saturday morning on a golf course in this bucolic town reserved for him and his fellow Hall of Famers. He was speaking about Jim Rice, who will become the 289th member of the Hall on Sunday afternoon.
Rice will be joined by Rickey Henderson and Joe Gordon as the Hall’s newest inductees.
For the most part, Gossage, the former Yankee, got the better of Rice, the former Red Sox, holding him to a .235 (8-for-34) average with just one home run and four RBIs. But that didn’t matter to Gossage.
“This guy was strong,” Gossage said. “I’m telling you he’s one of the strongest guys I've ever met in the game, and if he played today, in these smaller ballparks with that lively ball — I always compare it to Kirby Puckett. I said if he’d have played in the Metrodome, he’d have torn it down.”
Gossage was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008. His only regret was that Rice wasn’t inducted with him.
“Oh, yeah, I was saying if I were to go in, I would hope that we would go in together at some point,” Gossage said. “But it never happened. But when I got in last year and Jimmy didn’t, I was very disappointed. But what a tremendous hitter, a tremendous athlete. He played a nice left field at Fenway. I couldn’t be happier.”
The admiration for Rice among Hall of Famers — the newcomers and the veterans — is obvious.
“I didn’t want to face Jim Rice in a game situation,” said Rollie Fingers, who was inducted in 1992. “[I didn’t strike him out] very often, but when I did, I watched him walk back to the dugout a long time because I enjoyed it.
“I hated to face him in Boston. I’d throw the pitch and look over my shoulder.”
Henderson could sympathize with that.
“When I was with the Oakland A’s and we used to go into Boston, we used to go over scouting reports about players,” Henderson said. “When Jim’s name popped up, it seemed like all the pitchers trembled. Jim used to come up and hit this ball that hit the speakers. You knew he was aiming for the speakers.
"We had a pitcher, Mike Norris, he used to have a screwball. He used to come into Boston and hate pitching to Jim. He said, ‘The one thing I could do to get Jim out … I might as well just drill Jim when he comes up to the plate because it seems like he hit the speakers every time I faced him.’
"He was always teasing Mike, 'Just hit me in the kneecap.' He always felt he could get Jim out and he’d challenge Jim and Jim would hit that speaker again. I think he might have hit him one time. You were always afraid he would hit the Green Monster or those speakers out in the outfield.”
Rice was elected into the Hall in January in his 15th and final year on the writers’ ballot. In 1975, he finished second to teammate Fred Lynn in AL Rookie of the Year voting. In 1978, he was named the AL MVP, hitting .315 with 46 home runs and 121 RBIs, becoming the first American Leaguer to accumulate 400 total bases in a season since Joe DiMaggio in 1937. He finished his 16-season career with a .298 average, .352 slugging percentage, .502 on-base percentage, 382 home runs, and 1,451 RBIs.
“I wonder why it took so long,” said former Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, who was inducted into the Hall in 2000. “His game hasn’t changed much in the last 15 years, so I wonder why it took so long. At the time he played, he and Reggie Jackson [inducted in 1993] were the most feared right-handed hitters in the American League, and rightfully so. You don’t find the combination of Jimmy's talent very often in a player where you can get over 200 hits and over 30 home runs and a bunch of RBIs. So he’s a special talent.”
Henderson was elected in his first year of eligibility. Playing for nine teams in his 25-year career, he was one of the best leadoff hitters in history, transforming the job. He finished his career with a .279 average, 297 home runs, 1,115 RBIs, and 1,406 stolen bases.
“He could run a little bit,” Fisk said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “He was really, really fast. He was one of those guys who, after you play against him a little while, you just got to let him go because he’s going to be gone. You spend too much time paying attention to him then you never get that batter or you never get the next batter.”
Dave Winfield, inducted into the Hall in 2001, was teammates with Henderson with the Padres.
“He’s just a guy who could get on base and make things happen,” Winfield said. “You knew if he was in the lineup, he’s going to create some havoc. I tell people, a typical day for Rickey was two walks, two hits, two runs scored, maybe drive in one, get a home run. And the good part about it is, we would laugh and joke and have good time in the locker room and on the road.
“So there was someone who played the game hard, played it with authority, changed the course of a game. But we’d laugh and have a lot of fun, and there aren’t many people like that.”
Not everyone recognizes Henderson’s abilities, though.
“I beg your pardon,” said Lou Brock when asked about Henderson’s induction into the Hall. “Who? Rickey who?”
Brock, laughing, was simply feigning ignorance of the man who broke his single-season steals record. Henderson swiped 122 bases in 1982, breaking Brock’s record of 118.
For his part, Rice said the butterflies haven’t set in — yet. He’s treating the weekend as something with which he is familiar.
“It’s just like a big All-Star Game,” said the eight-time All-Star, “where you’re not playing a game but you’re sitting there talking baseball. So you’re beating each other up with your thoughts and the time that you played. And the stories that some of the guys are telling — it’s outstanding. You could write a book. You would have a great book if you could sit down and talk to every individual and not only talk about their careers, but talk about guys they played with and played against. Those are stories that I like to hear.”
And of the stories he’d like to tell? Well, he’s promised to keep his acceptance speech between five and eight minutes.
His former teammate has some advice for standing in front of an estimated 20,000 people during that speech.
“Bring a barf bag when you get up there on the podium, because it’s tough, I'm telling you,” Fisk said — only half-joking.