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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Rice's chances were never better

The planets are in line. This is Jim Rice's best chance to be elected to the Hall of Fame. More than 500 ballots are in the hands of the baseball scribes and must be mailed before the end of the month. The election announcement will be made Jan. 10.

Rice has been on the ballot 11 times and never gained the 75 percent of votes cast required for admission to Cooperstown. This is his best shot because it's not a strong ballot, the Red Sox are formally making a strong case for him with a mass e-mailing to voters, and Rice's power numbers look better in the wake of the recent steroid scandal.

Still, he's hardly a lock. Rice received 59.5 percent of the vote last year. He got 307 out of 516 votes which means he was 80 votes shy. That's a lot to make up in a single year, but there's reason to believe it might happen.

There are 29 names on this year's ballot. Writers are allowed to vote for no more than 10 candidates. Among those not elected last year (when Wade Boggs and Ryan Sandberg were enshrined), Rice had the second-highest vote total. Among the also-rans, only Bruce Sutter received more votes.

Happily for Rice, there are no strong new candidates on this year's ballot. The best new players are Albert Belle, Will Clark, and Orel Hershiser. It would be hard to justify a vote for any of them ahead of Rice. Next year's ballot will introduce Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, and Mark McGwire (there's a whole new problem), which means Rice may fade into the background again if he doesn't make it this time. He has only three years left on the ballot after this, then his candidacy would be turned over to the Veterans Committee, which has not elected a candidate under its new system.

Players become eligible five years after they retire, so Rice debuted on the ballot in 1995, when he got 30 percent of the votes. It has been a slow, steady climb since then, peaking with last year's 59.5 percent.

Do not underestimate the steroids backlash. Voters dread the day they'll be asked to pass judgment on the Hall worthiness of artificially inflated sluggers who hit 500 home runs with help from illegal substances. Rafael Palmeiro's 500 homers were reduced to fool's gold once it was revealed that he tested positive for steroids. McGwire's unfortunate day on Capitol Hill is difficult to forget, and the same goes for Sammy Sosa. Let's not even go near the combustible Barry Bonds issue.

All of which means that voters are going to look at Rice's combination of power and average and see him in a new light. He hit 46 home runs at a time when few were doing that. In 1978, his MVP year, he became the first American League player to compile 400 total bases since Joe DiMaggio. Rice was a man who could provoke an intentional walk even if the bases were loaded. And he did it the old-fashioned way: with brute strength, bat speed, and hand-eye coordination.

Red Sox vice president/historian Dick Bresciani has put together a dossier that makes a compelling argument for the Sox slugger. The numbers show what our eyes told us: Rice was the dominant slugger of his time.

Other than Rice, the only retired players with at least 382 homers and a career average of .298 are Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams. Of the 17 players (who've been on the ballot) boasting at least 350 homers and a .290 average, all are in Cooperstown -- except for Rice and Dick Allen. He is the only player in major league history with three consecutive seasons of 35 homers and 200 hits. In the 12 seasons spanning 1975-86, Rice led the American League in games, at-bats, runs, hits, homers, RBIs, slugging, total bases, extra-base hits, multihit games, and outfield assists. Pretty good, folks.

Nice work, Mr. Bresciani. Rice should send him some new golf clubs if he makes it.

On the minus side, it can be noted that Rice hit more than 40 points higher at Fenway than on the road. He was a liability on the basepaths, average (at best) in the outfield (though he did work the Wall tirelessly in practice), and did not do much in the postseason. He hit .159 in the ALCS and failed to drive home a run in his only World Series (1986). He also lost his skills overnight in 1988 when his eyes, right elbow, and right knee gave out simultaneously. He was all done by the time he was 36.

Managers loved the guy. He played hard and he played when he was hurt. You could pencil his name in the lineup every day, and he never said much, until the end when he grappled with Joe Morgan after Tollway Joe sent up a pinch hitter for him. But a lot of players have a difficult time facing the truth when their skills diminish.

Lastly, there is the unfortunate churl factor. Rice was not a friend of the baseball writers. He was nasty. He was at his best when asked to explain one of his own mistakes or failings, but had little use for discussion of his magnificent achievements. And he had no time for chitchat. He went out of his way to be difficult when it would have been easy to recite clichés and get it over with. He seemed to enjoy busting chops, making people wait and wait, then bailing altogether.

Ten years ago, when he got the paltry 30 percent of votes the first year he was on the ballot, I asked him if he felt his poor relationship with writers cost him votes. ''It probably did," he answered. ''But are you basing a guy on being your boyfriend or are you basing it on his ability to play baseball? If you want someone to kiss you, that's fine, but if you want someone to go put some numbers on the board, that's a different thing."

In retrospect, does he wish he'd been nicer to the media?

''No," he said. ''I didn't say that. If you want to talk baseball, I talked baseball. That's what hurt me a lot. I think a lot of writers came to me because of the leadership that I had, they wanted to say certain things. They wanted to use my name and I didn't let them get that way. That's where I was lost in the confusion. They tried to put words in my mouth and I didn't go for that."

It's too easy to say Rice isn't in the Hall because he was nasty to the writers. Eddie Murray made Rice look like a combination of Winston Churchill and Kevin Millar, but Murray sailed in on the first ballot -- on the strength of 500 homers and 3,000 hits.

Still, there may be voters who do not give Rice a vote because he was nasty. That's just plain wrong. That's not what this is supposed to be about. I never liked the guy back in the day when he played, but I still vote for him. It's not their job to help us do our job. Rice's demeanor doesn't make him any less Hall-worthy.

He's by no means a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, but he's looking pretty good at this hour. Imagine Jim Ed Rice -- the first real winner of the steroid scandal.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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