The call came about 1:30 Monday afternoon after a long night of fidgety sleep brought on by the anticipation. After Jim Rice picked up the phone -- Jack O’Connell of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on the other end -- he knew he was either going to be named one of baseball’s immortals or not.


 


“I don’t know why it took me so long. I don’t even want to think about it.” -- Hall of Famer Jim Rice

The call came about 1:30 Monday afternoon after a long night of fidgety sleep brought on by the anticipation. After Jim Rice picked up the phone -- Jack O’Connell of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on the other end -- he knew he was either going to be named one of baseball’s immortals or not.

Either way, The Big Tease would be over. The former Red Sox muscleman needed 75 percent of the writers’ votes to get in -- a year after getting 72.2 percent.

He received 76.4 percent this time.

“All the weight came off when Jack called and said, ‘You’re in the Hall of Fame,’” Rice said.

He’d waited 15 years for the call. The question why it took so long wouldn’t go away. Each time it was brought up, Rice revealed a little more. His first response was, “I’m glad it’s over. I’m not going to badmouth anybody.”

Badmouth on such a celebratory day?

It was no secret that Rice had issues with the writers. He defended himself by saying he refused to say anything about his teammates or management when writers asked. If they wanted to talk to him about the kind of day he had on the field, whether he had the game-winning hit or screwed up, then he’d talk.

No doubt Rice was hard to reach. His circle was small. He could lay a surly countenance on you that warned BACK OFF. This didn’t take well with some of the writers. Only problem was, they did the voting, and after five years upon his retirement, making him Hall of Fame-eligible, there was always talk that, as the years went by and another Hall of Fame ballot came into the hands of the writers with Rice’s name on it, not enough checkmarks went next to it.

It was personal with the writers, the thought went. Rice wasn’t a likable guy, so the hell with him, come votin’ time, some writers might have felt. But they weren’t voting for some Humanitarian of the Year honor. It was supposed to be, did the guy hit himself into the Hall of Fame or not? The separation should have been understood.

“Jim never lobbied for himself,” said NESN’s Tom Caron, who works with Rice on Red Sox telecasts. “He always believed his numbers stood for themselves.” Wait a minute, Jim Rice in a TV studio? “It still kills Jim when I remind him he’s in the media now,” Caron said.

Rice made it seem like this Hall business wasn’t a big deal to him. But that couldn’t be true.

“He’s a very proud man,” said Peter Gammons.

Rice admitted that all this time, “I tried not to get my hopes too high.” Then, after the phone call of a lifetime: “I’m in the company with an elite bunch of guys.”

If it didn’t happen Monday, his name would’ve been shuffled off to the Hall’s veterans’ committee, the back door to Cooperstown. Rice was asked what he learned from the years of waiting, right down to the clock-striking-midnight hour. “Be patient, and wait for the last out.”

His lifetime average was .298. He belted 382 home runs. Sure, .300 and 400 would have looked better, maybe gotten him in before this. In his last three seasons, he hit .277, .264 and .234 (in just 56 games) and hit just 31 homers. That might have influenced some of the non-voters. But was supposed to be about a body of work.

The summer of ’78 was Rice’s apex. He hit .315 (with a Boggs/Ichiro-like 213 hits), slugged 46 homers and drove in 139. He even had 15 triples. FIFTEEN! Got that, Manny? It was Rice’s MVP season.

He played his entire career with the Red Sox. “That’s a big accomplishment,” he said. Yaz and Williams had done that to. Rice wasn’t a steroids guy, and that might have swayed some writers to finally vote for him. Rice gave a shout-out to his father, a strong man who filled a room like Paul Bunyan, he said.  His high school coach was a big influence. When he got to the big leagues, so were Johnny Pesky, Don Zimmer and Tommy Harper.

Rice figures his life will change now. “How much, I don’t know.”

Here’s what he’s sure of: his induction speech. “It’s going to be short and quick. … I don’t want to bore people.”

A short speech after an eternal wait. Hey, it’s Jim Rice. It makes sense.

Lenny Megliola is a Daily News columnist. His e-mail is lennymegs@aol.com.