LONGSHOTS: Will hall have Rice on the menu come July?
by Dave Long
I’m not usually indecisive when it comes to who gets in to Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Because I know the numbers better than my own phone number, I generally make judgments that aren’t likely to change unless someone makes one heck of an argument for the other side. But in the case of Red Sox slugger Jim Ed Rice, the argument is compelling enough on either side that I haven’t been able to make a firm decision for 15 years.
But with the results on his fate coming out next week in his final time on the ballot, it’s probably time I reached a conclusion.
The “he should be in” side says he was the most feared slugger in the AL from 1975 to ’86 — which I buy. The “no” vote says he was a one-dimensional player helped by playing in Fenway and is not recalled for being a big player in the clutch. As always is the case in baseball, statistics — traditional and new wave — are used over other evaluation techniques, like what the eyes saw, common sense and impact on winning, in a way that doesn’t happen in other sports. I mean what stats do they use to determine if John Hannah is the greatest NFL offensive lineman?
So here’s what I’ve been debating through the years.
Lying With Stats: You can twist numbers to make your case for almost anyone. That’s how computer stat geek Bill James makes the case that Rice ranks below Roy White on the all-time list for left fielders. I can assure you, besides a guy trying to prove his ways of evaluation are better than yours, no one, not even the most ardent Yankees fan tripping on acid, would make the case for White on Rice as the better player if they actually saw them play. And I don’t see the yes side comparing Rice on the road vs. at Fenway. So take what each says as a piece of the process but not gospel.
Fenway Park: I love the place but the evidence is undeniable: numbers go up when you play there. Like for in 2008 when the Sox hit .292 there and .266 on the road. Of course Duke Snyder hit 311 (of 404) homers in nine years at Ebbett’s Field, which was a lefty version of Fenway, and just 88 the next seven playing in the cavernous Coliseum after the Dodgers left Brooklyn for L.A. Still, playing in Fenway helped Rice compile what are still marginal Hall numbers.
He Wasn’t As Good As Dale Murphy: I’ll buy it for Andre Dawson, even though he hit just .279, because he had 56 more homers, while being a much better base stealer, runner and fielder. But not for Murphy, who hit 16 more homers (in a launching pad) and was a better fielder but drove in 100 just five times and hit only .266.
The Raw Numbers: With 382 homers, 1,456 RBI and a .298 average he’s in the same universe as Orlando Cepada, Ralph Kiner and Tony Perez, who are in. But Kiner was more dominant, hitting 50 in one year twice, won seven STRAIGHT home run titles and hit his 369 in just 10 years before retiring with a bad back. Perez on the other hand got his over 23 years. Then there’s jovial Albert Belle with similar numbers in an injury-shortened 12-year career to Rice’s more than 16 — who got less than 20 votes last year thanks to his lovable personality.
He’s In, So Rice Should Be: This one goes along the lines of your mother saying to you, “If everyone jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” So I don’t vote on others’ mistakes. So even if the very good but not great Perez, Don Sutton and Robin Yount are in, I don’t use that as a rationale. But then again, Kirby Puckett, a good fielding, middle-order hitter playing in the homer dome with 175 fewer homers, 400 fewer RBI and just three 100-RBI seasons to Rice’s eight, is in and he’s not? Hmmm....
The Automatic Numbers: There are three — 300 wins, 3,000 hits and 500 homers. Not that they aren’t impressive feats, but I’m not much of an automatic numbers guy. First because there’s no automatic number for runs scored or RBI, which are the two most offensive statistics, even if they are partly a function of who you play with (like wins aren’t?). Second because they can be more a product of longevity than of overall greatness — like with Sutton or Yount (who played in just three All-Star games) or the laudably versatile Craig Biggio. He’ll get elected no questions asked despite hitting “just” .281 lifetime thanks to his 3,060 hits. And then there’s Wade Boggs, who breezed in with 3,010, while Rice struggles, even though at no time when they played together did ANYONE I know consider Boggs more valuable in Boston than Rice.
Who’d They Play With: This does help builds stats. Like playing with Boggs as he got on base an average of 311 times his first seven years in Boston when Rice hit behind him most of the time. But Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Billy Williams and Perez and others had it pretty good too and I didn’t hear folks talking about that much when they went in.
Dominance vs. Longevity: Sandy Koufax got in with just 165 wins. In case you’re interested that’s 197th on the all-time list and two behind local legend Mike Flanagan. He breezed in because — easily the best pitcher I’ve seen — he was so much better than everyone from 1962 to 1966 that when his career was cut short by arthritis – it was a no-brainer. It’ll be the same for Pedro when his time comes despite being 86th on the list as we speak.
The Summary: It’s close, especially since I believe in the fear factor that can’t be quantified. But Rice was an OK good fielder at best, a base-clogger, and was dogged with complaints from the Nation for not hitting in the clutch. Harmon Killebrew overcame his one-dimensional game to get in by being dominant all through the ’60s and into the early ’70s. His eight 40-plus home run seasons, nine 100-RBI seasons and 573 homers made him the most feared slugger all that time as others came and went. Rice only hit 40 once and over 30 three other times as Dwight Evans with 385 and hated Yankee Graig Nettles with 390 hit more homers.
My Answer: To me the Hall is about either 15 years of building and maintaining sustained greatness or total dominance above others at your peak, rather than accumulated numbers over time, which only tell part of the story. That’s why Koufax and Pedro get my vote despite comparatively paltry career numbers and Jim Ed’s close-but-no-cigar numbers don’t.
Of course, if history is a guide, that could change a couple of times between now and next Tuesday.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.