Sunday, July 26, 2009

In which I state one more time that I don't think Jim Rice is a HOFer

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—What I’m about to write destroy whatever street cred I may have with Red Sox fans (as should the fact I just wrote the words “street cred” at the age of 35), but here goes: I don’t think Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer.

Of course, what I think on most topics matters little, and even less when it comes to who does and does not make the Hall of Fame, since despite my willingness to offer up various useless appendages in exchange for membership, I’m not even a one-year veteran of the Baseball Writers Association of America, never mind a veteran of 10 years or more who has earned the right to cast a ballot every December.

And it REALLY doesn’t matter what I think today, when Rice is inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Rickey Henderson. He’s in, he’s in forever, and after today, nobody’s going to remember he came closer to not getting in than anyone else in the Hall (in his final year on the ballot, Rice received 412 votes in January’s election, seven more votes than required for election).

Still, I’ve never gotten the debate over Rice’s candidacy. Maybe it’s because as a child growing up in Connecticut, the TV in my house was usually tuned to WPIX for the Yankees or WWOR for the Mets, not WSBK for the Red Sox. Maybe it’s because by the time I really came of age as a baseball fan, Rice was already beginning to decline. Maybe it’s a matter of Rice lacking the big round numbers one correlates with a Hall of Famer because he played one year too many, in which his career average fell from .300 to .298, or because he retired one year too soon and finished at 382 homers instead of 400.

My evaluation skills eventually moved past the “I know it when I see it” level, but my overlooked candidates were/are Goose Gossage, Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines (seriously, it’s a crime this guy is going to end up waiting close to 15 years, if he ever gets in), not Rice. I slowly came around on the likes of Bruce Sutter and Gary Carter, though I blame the latter on growing up a Mets fan and covering the Mets when Carter would annually squawk about not getting in.

It’s not even that Rice needed all 15 years on the ballot to gain enshrinement. Those candidacies are more compelling to me anyway: Players who are better than 99 percent of the people who played the game, but maybe not 99.5 percent. I like that those players have 20 years (counting the five-year waiting period following retirement) for their cases to develop and for the electorate to chew countless pen caps in carefully analyzing how the player measures up against not only his peers but also those who came before and after him.

There seems little doubt Rice benefited from the hand-wringing over the Steroid Era and the belief that his statistics were more pure and impressive than the video game numbers racked up over the last 15 years. But Rice, as uncomplicated as ever, shrugged off the idea that the scandals involving many of the game’s top recent power hitters forced voters to take a closer look at him.

“My numbers did not change at all,” Rice said during a press conference Saturday. “I think it basically depends on who voted at the time. I don’t know if the Steroid Era had anything to do with it. I don’t think it should have anything to do with it. I can’t change anything. All I can say is I’m happy where I am right now. I could be in South Carolina right now paying golf, but I’m here talking to you.”

But every time I look at Rice’s page on and crunch the numbers, I come to the same conclusion: First-ballot for the oft-cited but yet-to-be-constructed Hall of Very Good. I see a player who had an incredible three-season run from 1977 through 1979, recorded one of the greatest seasons ever in 1978 and was remarkably durable—he played in 1,776 out of a possible 1,883 games from 1975 through 1986—but not, to me anyway, the dominant-for-a-decade Cooperstown type.

I see a player who put up impressive numbers in the Triple Crown categories, but as Kirk Minihane of pointed out in this excellent piece earlier this week, did not get on base nearly as often as his teammate Dwight Evans, who fell off the ballot after just three years in the ‘90s.

I see a player whose top 10 most similar players on include six non-Hall of Famers, including Joe Carter and Dave Parker. Carter finished with six 30-homer seasons and 10 100-RBI seasons, two more apiece than Rice, yet he fell off the Hall ballot after one year. Parker finished with three 30-homer seasons, six .300 seasons and played in seven All-Star Games, one fewer apiece than Rice, and finished in the top three in the MVP balloting four times, one more than Rice, yet he has failed to even record 25 percent of the vote in 13 years on the ballot.

I don’t get it, but I will say this: The passion with which Sox fans and Rice’s big league opponents touted his Cooperstown worthiness was—and is—impressive, and makes me wonder what I was missing over the years. I got into a hilariously heated debate on Facebook in January with a friend who was elated over Rice’s election, one that ended with the friend writing “I’m just ecstatic for him. Now stop bashing him!”

Every year in Cooperstown, the incoming inductees are asked to identify a player whom they believe is overlooked by the voters, and every year prior to this year, Jim Rice was by far the most popular pick. Henderson recalled Saturday how Rice used to terrorize the Athletics and their early ‘80s ace, Mike Norris, in particular.

“We used to go over the scouting report about players, and when Jim’s name popped up, [the pitchers] were scared,” Henderson said. “We had a pitcher Mike Norris…he’d come into Boston and he used to hate facing Jim. ‘What can I do to get Jim out?’And then he said ‘I’m going to just drill Jim every time he comes up to the plate because it seems like he hits the speaker [in the outfield[. Every time he pitches, just hit him in the kneecap, hit him anywhere you want. But it seemed like Mike always [liked] that challenge, he felt he could get Jim out. So after he challenged Jim, Jim hit that speaker again and everybody on the bench said ‘Why did you pitch to Jim?’

“I bet he hit him one time. [Norris said] ‘Did you see me hit him?’ That was the greatest feeling of all. He didn’t hit a home run, he got to first base.”

Today, after 15 tries, he gets to Cooperstown, leaving skeptics like me searching for another first ballot inductee into the Hall of the Very Good and another city in which to lose my street cred. I’m looking in your general direction, Jeff Bagwell and Houston!

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