The big picture is that Rice earned his plaque
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - By midday today, and not a second before, Jim Rice will be a baseball Hall of Famer.
It turns out there’s a serious pecking order in this club. “They let you know you’re welcomed to their surroundings,’’ Rice explained, “but they’re the type of guys who let you know you are a rookie.’’
And don’t even think about running through the verbal stop sign when making your acceptance speech, which is delivered with all the existing Hall of Famers in attendance seated behind the new inductees. Frank Robinson already has told him what to expect.
“Frank said, ‘You go too long, and we’ll let you know.’ ’’
None of this poses a problem for Jim Rice, a disciplined man who always has played by the rules. After enduring 14 setbacks, 14 years of stone-faced disappointment before joining Dazzy Vance and Red Ruffing as the only men elected to the Hall on the final year of BBWAA eligibility, Rice can handle anything that comes his way during this induction weekend.
There are many ways to describe Jim Rice, but how about this?
He comes with no frills, no BS, no subterfuge, no hidden agendas, and absolutely no con. Rice presented himself to us 34 years ago in this manner, and he never has deviated. You took him as he was. He never asked to be liked, or even to be admired. About the only thing he ever asked for was to be in the lineup, and not just frequently, but every day. He saw himself as a man who had a job to do, and he did it to the best of his ability. Period. All the peripheral stuff, all the honors and accolades, he could take or leave, mostly leave.
Someone asked the inevitable question yesterday. Why did it take so long to be chosen for this fraternity? Did Rice think it was a valid theory that voters have reevaluated his career in light of the obvious steroid era that followed his time in the game? The inquisitor might just as easily have asked Rice if he had any thoughts on the political situation in Nepal.
“I have no idea,’’ Rice replied. “I don’t look at it. I never think about it. It’s all been done and said. My numbers never changed. I don’t know that steroids had anything to do with it.’’
Well, I do. There has to be a reason why a man who started out with 29.8 percent of the vote in 1995, and who averaged between 51.5 percent and 59.8 percent for a six-year period beginning with his sixth year of eligibility, jumped to 72.2 percent by year 14 and found 20 new voters in year 15. As he says, his numbers didn’t change.
But the evaluation and framing of them apparently did, and what other reason for this late change of heart could there have been, other than the thought that more voters began to look sympathetically on the career of a player who, beyond doubt, accomplished what he did with the unenhanced body bestowed upon him by The Big Guy Upstairs, and nothing else?
Even in the day, Rice, when pressed, would refer to “putting up the numbers’’ as a validation of his success. But for an elite power hitter the final numbers were impressive, but not quite dazzling. With people being as hung up on baseball numbers as they often are, would it have enhanced his candidacy had he had, say, 407 career homers, as opposed to 382? What if he had finished with a lifetime career batting average of, oh, let’s just say .304, as opposed to .298? Would that have made a difference? What about 2,708 hits, as opposed to 2,452? We could go on and on, and we’d never know, anyway. It’s all conjecture.
The truth is that, while Jim Rice realizes baseball’s infatuation with numbers, he would really rather be judged in a wholly different light. It’s not really about the numbers. It’s about winning games. To Jim Rice, it should start there and end there. What did you do to help your team win games?
If someone plays the game correctly, numbers could suffer. It’s about playing the game correctly, not selfishly. It’s about advancing the runner, or getting the man in from third with fewer than two men out. Rice drove in 100 runs eight times, and in four of those seasons he did so with fewer than 30 home runs. In other words, he wasn’t up there trying to hit the Citgo sign every time. He was trying to get the runner in.
Jim Rice is proudly and defiantly Old School.
“I did things I learned in high school, or even in seventh grade,’’ he pointed out. “Inside-out swing to hit the ball to the right side and advance the runner. I was all about executing the fundamentals, not worrying about [cover your ears, Theo] on-base percentage.’’
“We were taught to hit line drives,’’ he continued. “The other night I’m watching the Red Sox against Texas, and guys are hitting fly balls who can’t hit the ball out of the ballpark.’’
And playing hurt. That, too, is part of the Jim Rice legacy. I wish my friend Peter Gammons were here to enlighten us all on that aspect of Rice’s Red Sox career, but suffice it to say that he stoically soldiered on with far more hand injuries and leg injuries than we ever knew, and who knows how many hits, homers, and ribbies that cost him? It was not remotely conceivable that Jim Rice would ask out of the lineup.
The SABR people are resolutely anti-Rice. They’ve got numbers parsed by the truckload to downplay his impact, and to this I say, “Phooey,’’ or maybe even something stronger. For SABR people refuse to acknowledge the concept of anecdotal evidence when evaluating a ballplayer (no, not you, Bill James). So when I speak of the time Milwaukee manager Alex Grammas confirmed for me that, yes, indeed, he had ordered a sizzling Jim Rice pitched around (like, four straight unhittable balls out of the strike zone) in a sixth-inning, bases-loaded situation, or when fellow inductee Rickey Henderson says, as he did yesterday, that when the A’s had pitchers meetings prior to Red Sox series in the Rice era guys “trembled,’’ they say that’s nice, but irrelevant.
Sorry, it matters.
There was a three-year period from 1977-79 when Rice was The Man in the American League, averaging 41 homers, 127 RBIs, and 206 hits a year. And did you know he had back-to-back seasons (’77-78) of 15 triples? He was a feared - yeah, SABR people, feared - hitter, because he was very content to get a base hit in a key situation. He was, after all, just trying to win the game.
In today’s speech he just wants to touch all the appropriate bases. “Thank my wife, my high school coaches, my mom and dad, and anyone else who helped me get here,’’ he says. “Speak from the heart. Short. Direct. Not a problem. Stick to the script and get it over with. They tell you five to eight minutes. The Hall of Famers will let you know. They’ll pull your coat. ‘Time to go.’ That’s the way I like it.’’
I see a man on second, a compact, controlled swing, and a line-drive single to left. Short. Direct. No problem. Pure Jim Rice.