A well-deserved honor for Rice
Rice was elected to the Hall of Fame in his final year of writers-ballot eligibility
He was regarded as one of the most dominant hitters in the AL for a decade
Rickey Henderson became the 44th player to be voted in on the first ballot
The doors to the Baseball Hall of Fame finally opened for Jim Rice on Monday, and with it comes full privileges and honors. The Hall doesn't do partial memberships, doesn't distinguish between the 44 former players who entered on the first ballot (including the uniquely entertaining Rickey Henderson, who did so today), the other 64 voted in by the baseball writers and the 94 enshrined after the writers turned them down. Today it doesn't matter that it took the 15th and final try on the writers' ballot to pass muster, and doesn't matter that the sabermetric jihad reduced Rice to the company of Roy White and Brian Downing. Rice is a Hall of Famer, and deservedly so.
I have voted for Rice annually on my Hall of Fame ballot. I always understood that he was a borderline candidate. Believe me, I understand the demerits people want to give him about his home/road splits, the times grounding into double plays, the shortcomings as a baserunner and a fielder, and the fact that he essentially was finished as an impact player at age 34. To overcome those negatives, Rice would have to be universally regarded as one of the most dominant hitters in his league for a decade or more -- an extended peak that kept him not just among the best hitters, but among the elite of the elite hitters -- and that's exactly how he carved his reputation.
In 1978 Brewers general manager Harry Dalton was asked who he would want if every player in the AL were made a free agent. "Rice," he said, without hesitation.
In 1979 Rice was the highest paid player in baseball. And in 1986 and '87 he was still the highest paid player in baseball. His value and respect as a player in the days when he played, not in the sabermetric autopsy, was off the charts.
He once hit a ball completely out of Fenway Park by clearing the back wall of the centerfield bleachers, a shot the late Tom Yawkey described as the longest ball he ever witnessed in seven decades of watching games at Fenway.
Rice wasn't great just for a small period of time. In the 12 years starting with 1975, Rice finished first, third, third, fourth, fourth and fifth in MVP balloting, was named to eight All-Star teams, and ranked among the top five in RBIs seven times, home runs five times, total bases five times and batting average four times. His reliability at an elite level was extraordinary. Rice qualified for the batting title in every one of those 12 seasons and never had a truly bad year -- his worst OPS+ in that run was 112, and that was a season in which he drove in 122 runs. He took 76 percent of his career plate appearances in either the third or fourth spot in the lineup, and batted .308 with runners in scoring position.
The case against Rice has long centered on what he did not do (such as walk much, run well or play great defense) rather than what he actually did accomplish. It reminds me of what happened once when agent Tom Reich brought Tim Raines to an arbitration case against the Expos. Montreal argued that Raines did not have hitting rates that matched those of Wade Boggs. The club conveniently did not mention that Raines stole bases at the greatest success rate of all time.
"I represent a player with unique values," Reich said. "It seems to be my fate that when I represent a power player, the other side wants to talk about how many bases he steals. When I have a player who scores runs, they want to talk about slugging percentage. If you want to cut off Mr. Raines' legs, you should take away Ozzie Smith's glove or Tony Pena's glove. If you look at their batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, these players would not get the money they will receive. We say when you judge a player, judge on what he is paid to do. The other side says, 'Let's ignore what he is paid to do.'"
Rice was paid not to steal bases or walk or play centerfield. He was paid to be a consummate middle-of-the-order hitter, and in his day he was paid more money to do that than anybody else and was regarded by the people in the game, especially those who played it, as among the best of the best. Had anybody proposed trading White or Downing for Rice straight up in their primes, he would have been laughed out of the room. Think the Phillies would trade Ryan Howard straight up for J.D. Drew?
Filling out a Hall of Fame ballot is easy when it comes to players such as Henderson. Those guys make up 41 percent of the players enshrined by the baseball writers. Those are the guys who give the Hall its cache. It's the other 59 percent (and those on its cusp) that give the Hall its place in society as one of the great forums of public debate. Rice, a borderline candidate all these years, has been part of that great debate. But no more. He belongs.
Thoughts on some others on the ballot:
Tommy John: This was his 15th and final shot on the writers' ballot, so at least an appreciation of his career is in order. John finished in the top five in ERA five times, started 700 games and won 288 -- the 1981 strike and elbow surgery costing him the magic number of 300 wins. It was a prolific career, just not a Hall of Fame career. Doing something fairly well for a very long time doesn't get you in. (He was 74-80 over the last nine years of his career, with nothing approaching Hall of Fame caliber. That he extended his career is admirable, but not impressive in the sense of greatness.) And one of the more ridiculous arguments in his favor has been that he has a surgery named after him. OK, so induct Dr. Frank Jobe.
Tim Raines: I am really surprised that he doesn't get more support. His ability to get on base (and not just with singles) and steal bases virtually at will made him the best run-producing weapon in the NL for an extended period. (A leadoff parallel to the Jim Rice argument.) In 1983, when he scored 133 runs, Raines scored 19.6 percent of his team's runs, an NL record. He was only a slightly lesser version of Rickey, as the stats from their 1981-93 primes suggest (they ranked 1-2 in runs and steals in that time):
Rickey: It seemed to me when I covered the 1985 Yankees that the Yankees would always take a 1-0 lead because Rickey walked, stole second, moved to third on an out and scored when Don Mattingly put the ball in play for an easy RBI. Turns out that Mattingly drove in Henderson 16 times in the first inning that year, including 10 times without the benefit of a hit. Mattingly drove in 145 runs that year. Rickey scored 146 runs in 143 games.
Bert Blyleven and Andre Dawson: Don't worry. The magic number for enshrinement is not 75 percent. It is 60 percent. Every candidate who has hit that mark was eventually enshrined -- with one cruel exception: Gil Hodges. The next three ballots might not have a single first-ballot Hall of Famer. The best of the bunch are Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez and Fred McGriff (2010), Jeff Bagwell (2011) and Bernie Williams (2012). Dawson (67 percent this year) and Blyleven (62.7) are likely to sneak in during that three-year window.