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Getting into Rice numbers

By Nick Cafardo
January 12, 2009
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Today 15 years of frustration and waiting and debate finally will end.

Jim Rice either will be named a baseball Hall of Famer, or his case will be passed on to the Veterans Committee.

Many of us who covered the Red Sox slugger and were around him when he was a coach and now a NESN analyst think he's worthy and wonder what's taking so long.

Oh sure, he's not the slam dunk Rickey Henderson will be in voting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, but here's a case in which your eyes had to overshadow the borderline numbers. If you watched Rice, you realized he was the best of the era in which he played.

It's taken a while, but slowly and surely Rice's vote totals have risen, to his being named on 72.2 percent of the ballots last January, 16 votes shy of the 75 percent needed.

Whether he will benefit from the steroid fallout of so many players who came after him, who knows? Rice hit .298 in his career, with 382 homers, 1,451 runs batted in, and a .502 slugging percentage.

For so many years it has been thought that maybe this private and sometimes grumpy guy was kept out because the writers didn't like him. It was a silly thing to write 10 years ago and is a silly thing to write now.

Oh, he had his battles with writers. I saw him rip the shirt off my gifted former colleague Steve Fainaru (then with the Hartford Courant) in the middle of the visiting clubhouse in Oakland in the late 1980s. Catcher Rich Gedman and I stepped between them to prevent an escalation. I remember the stories of his run-ins with Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, Rice once threatening to throw him into a trash barrel because he didn't like his questioning.

But while Boswell and Rice had their issues, the writer also thought the player was exceptional.

"In the 'Hank Greenberg Story,' Hank talks intelligently (as always) about the supremacy of driving in runs as the competitive core of the game," Boswell wrote in an e-mail. "He said that key RBI hits (not just home runs) were what changed games, decided games, defined players."

If that is indeed the key measure, from 1975-1986 Rice knocked in more runs than anyone - 1,276 to 1,221 for Mike Schmidt and 1,147 for Dave Winfield.

We know some in the Sabermetric community will rip Hall voters if Rice should receive 75 percent of the vote. Even Bill James, a Red Sox consultant and a huge detractor of the Rice candidacy, won't be totally on board, nor will James's followers, which include some of his colleagues in the Boston front office.

While Washington Post writers haven't been allowed to cast Hall of Fame votes for several years now, when they were, Rice received Boswell's vote.

"When we could [vote], I voted for Rice several times," Boswell wrote. "Don't remember how many years I waited. I certainly didn't vote for him in the first, second, or third years. Obviously, he's the definition of a close call.

"I joked with him a couple of times that I was voting for him, even when it didn't look like he had much chance. I made the case for him with other writers at times: He was a mortal lock Hall of Famer for 11 years until, suddenly, he was finished."

If you only consider some of the most traditional statistics, batting average, homers, RBIs, slugging, and total bases, Boswell points out that Rice had 11 titles in those five categories, one more than Hall of Fame ex-teammate Carl Yastrzemski.

Rice obviously is not in the top echelon there: Babe Ruth had 38 wins in those categories, Ted Williams 29, Hank Aaron 22, and Stan Musial 20.

But among the other names in Rice's vicinity are Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays with 13, Ralph Kiner with 12, and Harmon Killebrew with 10.

And Rice has more wins in those categories than Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson, and Willie McCovey (8), George Brett and Duke Snider (7), Ernie Banks (6), Billy Williams (5), Roberto Clemente, Kirby Puckett, and Willie Stargell (4), Orlando Cepeda and Al Kaline (3), Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield (2), Cal Ripken (1), and Tony Perez (0).

Of course some of those players had other plus attributes, including defense.

"In the years I was around him and watched him up close, he was the most feared hitter in the league," said Red Sox consultant and former Sox player Tommy Harper.

Many of Rice's teammates would echo that, but detractors would say they are too close to him to give an objective opinion.

There's also the belief that older voters were more likely to vote for Rice, while younger ones, more slanted toward stats such as on base percentage, might not have.

Rice finished with an ordinary .352 OBP.

After today, he'll either be in or not, although he still could get in via the Veterans Committee.

"I know that Jimmy downplays it," said Harper, "but to be honored at the end of your career in this manner would be an honor that anyone would cherish.

"If you're that close to [being considered one of] the best who ever played the game, you have to want this."

"If Rice doesn't make it, it won't be a huge injustice," wrote Boswell. "Length-of-productive-career matters. And he did almost nothing after age 33. But I covered his whole career and when you say 'Rice,' I think 'Hall of Famer.' "

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

related content

Sock the vote
A look at how Rice fared on the previous 14 Hall of Fame ballots
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