Rice hopes final try equals immortality
Will Sox slugger be worthy of Hall in last regular attempt?
Down to his 15th and final at-bat for election into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Jim Rice hopes the vote will at last swing him right into Cooperstown, N.Y.
A year ago, Rice, the slugger who played his entire career (1974-89) with the Boston Red Sox, came agonizingly close to gaining enshrinement. A player needs to be named on 75 percent of the ballots by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
By being named on 392 ballots, Rice finished at 72.2 percent, leaving him 16 votes shy.
If history is any indication, Rice could well make up the difference this time. No player has ever received as high a percentage as Rice did last year without eventually becoming a Hall of Famer.
The wrinkle with Rice, however, is that this is the last year that he is eligible to make it to the Hall of Fame by traditional means.
Should the right-handed-hitting masher fall short again, Rice's only possible entry going forward would be the Veterans Committee ballot.
"I believe my accomplishments speak for themselves, and a majority of the voters seem to agree," Rice said after falling short last January. "It is tough to come this close, but I remain hopeful for the 2009 results."
The top new candidate on this year's ballot is Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, including the Red Sox in 2002. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in 2003. The 1990 AL MVP is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295), stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190).
Live coverage of the Hall of Fame's announcement on Jan. 12 can be seen on MLB Network.
In addition to Rice, the strongest incumbent candidates are Andrew Dawson (65.9 percent last year) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9 percent). Though Dawson is best known for his production with the Expos and Cubs, he played for the Red Sox in 1993-94.
The Red Sox of the 1970s and '80s were loaded with star hitters. If it wasn't Carl Yastrzemski, it was Carlton Fisk. If it wasn't Dwight Evans, it was Fred Lynn. If it wasn't Wade Boggs, it was Tony Armas. But during that time period, no Red Sox hitter gave opposing pitchers a more sickening feeling than Rice.
Dick Bresciani, who is the de facto historian for the Red Sox among his other duties with the club, releases an annual report to Hall of Fame voters on why Rice is worthy of Cooperstown.
As Bresciani notes, Rice's 382 homers and 1,451 RBIs were tops among all American League hitters during his 16 years. Furthermore, Rice topped 20 homers 11 times, 100 RBIs eight times, was an All-Star eight times, hit .300 in seven seasons and he finished in the top five in the AL MVP voting six times. Also, Rice hit 39-plus homers four times, the most of anyone who played during his time period.
Rice, who hit for average and power, and to all fields, was a dominant slugger. Clearly, the thing that has held Rice back thus far in his quest for Cooperstown is the longevity stats. The home runs are just shy of 400. The hits (2,452) are a few seasons short of 3,000. And, oh, the batting average. If only Rice hadn't taken a free fall in his final three seasons, that .298 career average would have been well over .300.
But what means more? Longevity or dominance?
When Rice was at his best -- from 1975-86 -- he mashed the opposition with pure strength and hitting technique.
During those golden years, Rice led all AL players in games, at-bats, runs, hits, homers, RBIs, slugging percentage, total bases, extra-base hits, go-ahead RBIs, multihit games and outfield assists.
"I know what Jimmy meant to our team, and I know the kind of player that he was," said former Red Sox left-hander Bruce Hurst. "Jimmy was a great threat, an incredible hitter. He made a lot of people around him better because a lot of people didn't want to pitch to Jimmy. A lot of guys didn't pitch to Jimmy. I just think that Jimmy's a Hall of Famer."
Check out some of Rice's other appearances on the top 10 list: hits (eight times), total bases (nine times, including four firsts), home runs (seven, including three home run titles), RBIs (nine times, two firsts) and extra-base hits (six).
In other words, during his peak years, Rice was a consistent force to be reckoned with. Consider some of the players that baseballreference.com compares to Rice from a statistical standpoint: Orlando Cepeda, Duke Snider, Billy Williams and Willie Stargell. Those four men are all Hall of Famers.
"Look at the numbers: he was awesome," said Bob Stanley, the all-time saves leader for the Red Sox. "And it wasn't just the Green Monster. He hit a lot of his home runs to center field and right field."
Anyone who wants to know just what Rice was when he was at his absolute best need look no further than 1978, the year he played in all 163 games (including a one-game playoff) and won his lone AL MVP Award. During that season, he became the only man to lead either league in triples (15), homers (46) and RBIs (139) in the same season. His 406 total bases were the most by an AL player since Joe DiMaggio in 1937.
"Jimmy is a very, very talented player, probably one of the most special offensive players we had in Boston for a long time," said former Sox catcher Rich Gedman, who called Rice a teammate for a decade. "Hopefully, in time, he can persevere and get there. The problem is, he just needed a little bit more longevity, I would think. In terms of being a special player, he was very, very good and certainly Hall of Fame caliber. The thing with Jim Rice, for the time he played, he played as well as anybody."
Red Sox Nation hopes that Rice's dominance during his era will finally land him with the highest honor a baseball player can receive.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.