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Finally...Rice


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This may come as a shock to Jim Ed Rice and not having taken a plebiscite on the issue, I don’t know it for a fact. But my strong sense is that a lot of the lads Jim considered adversaries during his playing years are quite pleased that the Hall of Fame distinction he has so long craved has finally come his way.

To be sure it is true that Jim did not like the media and having been there for the best years of his Red Sox romp I can testify to that fact with authority. He didn’t understand our job nor make much of an effort to do so. His background was insular and parochial. But then so was ours, for that matter. Neither of us was prepared for the task. So there was tension from the start and it persisted. He was suspicious of us. We were resentful of him. On the odd occasion, snappy words were exchanged and voices raised. But it never got out of hand. Neither side wanted that nor was it ever as nasty as has been sometimes portrayed, invariably by people who were not there.

Over the last 15 years, as the Hall of Fame cause of Jim Rice has been endlessly debated and dissected leading to his repeated rejection some have suggested that his unpopularity with the knights of the keyboard, who of course do the electing, was the deciding factor. It was theorized that the embittered old newspaper boys were getting even for all the times Rice had dismissed them with a baleful glare on deadline. There was the further suggestion that race might be a factor

But I never believed it. Among the 500 plus blokes who have the vote there may be a half dozen who might lower themselves thusly. But the overwhelming majority takes the task terribly seriously and pride themselves on rising above personality issues. I don’t always agree with their findings but I’ve never doubted their honor. As for the racial question, the elections of the last 40 plus years serve to dismiss that odious inference.

It was neither racism nor a personality clash that made Rice’s road to Cooperstown a struggle but an honest and legitimate debate about his merits as a player. He is the quintessential ‘border-line’; a player who had the requisite skills and performed brilliantly in spurts but may have been too meteoric, burning out too swiftly. Luck has much to do with it. Longevity, which is all about luck, is highly valued and the key to piling up big numbers. Rice lacked it.

No one disputes that at his height he was as good as they come. There was none better during his three-year reign of terror (1977-79) when he averaged 41 homers, 129 RBI, 208 base hits and a .320 batting average whereupon he leveled off and had only two more truly dominant seasons. Still, he was steady enough to finish with 382 homers, 1451 RBI, 2452 base hits, and a .298 batting average. There are plenty of hitters in the Hall who can’t touch those numbers.

But he was effectively finished at 33 and gone at 36. He went down young and hard and that hurt him because it was well remembered. That he had been unexceptional on defense and a DH a quarter of his career didn’t help either. All of which raised what is always the central question in weighing a candidate’s case. Was the level of excellence truly exceptional and was it sustained long enough? There was sufficient doubt and it was not personal but genuine. The net effect was to give the stat-heads, who like to quibble about these things until the cows come home, plenty of ammunition to vacillate on Rice’s case endlessly. And so they did. Indeed, doubt persists even beyond his election. In his final year of eligibility with the writers, Rice made it by only seven votes.

If we were never buddies, most of my dealings with him were acceptably civil and professional. In my years on the beat, I never believed the players had any obligation to be chummy with the media or held it against them if they weren’t. If a fellow wanted to be friendly, that was fine. But if he didn’t, that was his privilege and it is, after all, a two-way street. A certain adversarial edge is necessary to the relationship. Media getting too cozy with players serves no good end and will always backfire, sooner or later. Moreover it is unfair to both the people who are paying the reporter and those who are reading his stuff. I had a certain respect for Rice’s consistency. He was an open book. There was no guile in his act. He never tried to use us. He never played politics.

Moreover, he had many strong qualities that many media-friendly players conspicuously lacked. Rice was accountable. He never offered excuses. He always showed up. He played hard. He played hurt. His managers (until he reached the very end of the line) raved about him. His teammates liked him and were loyal to him. Opponents greatly respected him. He had no problem with umpires. He was never a contract problem. The only blight in his relations with team personnel was an embarrassing tiff with what else but the public relations department. Plainly ‘P.R’ was his infernal hang-up. But in the end, Rice’s inability to be warm and cuddly with the fans let alone play footsie with the media had little to do with his merits as a player. So much for the “personality issue”.

Rice deserves to be bronzed at Cooperstown. He compares favorably with several lads who were long ago anointed with two of the best examples being Chuck Klein and Earl Averill. Both were superior offensive forces whose runs of excellence were brief but torrid. In a different way he also compares well with contemporary fellow ‘immortals’ like Tony Perez and Billy Williams. Both had longer careers but neither at his peak was as fierce a force as Rice, nor as feared. There are more such examples; more than enough to verify that Jim Rice belongs.

As one of his old ‘media adversaries’ I am both pleased his day has finally arrived and anxious to defend the process that delivered him. It was fair and reasonable even if it brought him some discomfort as he waited year after year making him squirm as his achievements were being probed and parsed and picked apart endlessly. He’ll get over it. He’s still a young man with plenty of time left to enjoy the enormous benefits of being a member of one of America’s most favored and exclusive honor societies.

Having to wait 15 years for the moment of deliverance was not that grave a burden. Klein and Averill were both long gone when they finally made it. What makes the distinction so precious is the fact that it is not casually dispensed. If having to wait 15 years was good enough for Ralph Kiner it should be good enough for Jim Rice. Come to think of it, their credentials are rather comparable.

Rice gets to make his walk in the sun with the irrepressible Rickey Henderson. Rare are the players who deserve to go in on their first try which is a distinction, you must keep in mind, that was even denied the likes of Joe DiMaggio. But Rickey Henderson is one of them. And he knows it. They’ll be joined next July by the ghost of Joe Gordon, who only had to wait a half-century. Rickey and Joe will be elegant company for Jim Ed Rice. One only hopes he’ll allow himself to enjoy it.

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