- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dramatic differences characterize the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, except for one thing.

Both Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice belong. Surely. Definitely. Inarguably.

For that reason, all those who cherish the game and its diminished integrity should be cheering on the lawn in Cooperstown or from afar when the two are inducted July 26. But rarely have fellow entrants been so dissimilar.

To match this study in contrasts, Mark McGwire and Wee Willie Keeler would have to have entered the same year - a nice trick considering they played a century or so apart. Besides, Wee Willie made it in 1939, and Big Mac probably never will unless body-enhancing drugs are sanctioned retroactively.

When it comes to the disparity in the Class of 2009, let us count the ways.

Henderson, 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, was a classic “here he is, there he goes” speedster and the best leadoff man in 137 seasons of major league combat.

Rice, 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, was your quintessential hairy-chested power hitter.

Rickey was famously flamboyant, at least in public. Well remembered is the day in May 1991 when he broke Lou Brock’s record for career steals, lifted second base high above his head and proclaimed, “I am the greatest!” (Not for long, as it turned out, because that night Nolan Ryan pitched his record seventh no-hitter.)

Jim was terribly taciturn, at least when it came to the media. Asked about his “difficulties with the press” during a teleconference Monday, he insisted, “I didn’t have difficulties with the press. The press had difficulties with me.” Two famously reticent Hall of Famers, Eddie Murray and Steve Carlton, couldn’t have said it better. If they had said it at all, that is.

Henderson played for nine clubs in 25 seasons, including three tours with the undoubtedly appreciative Oakland Athletics. Rice spent all 16 of his years in the bigs with the Boston Red Sox, for better or worse.

Rickey was elected in his first year on the ballot. Jim made it on his 15th and final year before his application would be shuffled off to the quixotic veterans committee.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

In what should have been no surprise, Henderson sped off to catch a plane before his teleconference was over. That left it to the supposedly reticent Rice to produce the day’s best one-liner. Asked the best way to stop longtime foe Henderson, Jimbo suggested, “Hit him in the knee.”

Or maybe the ego.

Rice was more serious - and less responsive - when somebody requested his opinion of performance-enhancing substances in the game nowadays.

“I’ve got nothing to say about that,” Rice said. “I’m not bad-mouthing anybody.”

Now that’s the Jim Rice we all used to know and not love, outside of Beantown anyway.

Henderson, however, gave former teammate McGwire a plug, saying, “He’s one of the best people I know. … He deserves [to be in Cooperstown] because of what he did for the game.”

Right, Rickey. By the way, how do feel about Pete Rose? And Shoeless Joe Jackson?

True to character, Henderson seemed to act as if his election the first time out was a given, commenting inexplicably, “It was a long time coming.” Maybe Rickey thought they should have handed him his plaque immediately after his final game Sept. 19, 2003, with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Or was that his final game? When somebody asked whether he was really retired at the untender baseball age of 50, Henderson muttered wistfully that maybe he could return for a farewell appearance at some point despite the Hall of Fame’s requirement that a candidate be in pipe and slippers for five years before getting on the ballot. How long do you think Bud Selig would need to ponder that one before nixing the idea?

Rice, moderately mellow at 55, claimed he had no idea why it took him so long to get into Cooperstown without buying a ticket, though one factor would seem to be his frosty relationship with members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, who do the voting.

“I don’t have any idea,” he proclaimed. “During those 14 years [of waiting], I learned to be patient and not get my hopes up too much. The bottom line is that it’s over.”

And rightfully so. Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson will be on the platform next summer alongside Cal, Yogi, Stan the Man and other surviving legends of the best sporting pursuit ever invented.

The two newcomers are indeed very different, but their accomplishments are the same.

Magnificent - and worthy of a standing O.

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