Slugger Rice Takes One More Swing At Hall of Fame
Jim Rice would stand in front of the tin-and-concrete Green Monster with its funky caroms. Johnny Pesky would smack balls off it with his skinny fungo bat.
Day after day, the diminutive Boston Red Sox coach and the powerful youngster worked together - Pesky swinging away at Fenway Park's left-field wall and Rice learning to field the balls cleanly. It wasn't that tough, the slugger said.
Certainly not as tough as making the Hall of Fame when "other people are making decisions for you.''
Rice worked very hard to become a good left fielder and harness his raw power at the plate. He's powerless to control how the writers who vote for the Hall of Fame cast their ballots.
They've judged for 15 years whether his 15-year career, starting with his first full season in 1975, is worthy of entrance into baseball's shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y.
For 14 years, the answer was "no.''
On Monday when the results of voting by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America are revealed, the 55-year-old native of Anderson, S.C., will find out if that's changed. It's his last year of eligibility before his case is passed on to the Veterans Committee.
He doesn't plan to wait by the phone.
"If I was in South Carolina, I'd probably be playing golf,'' Rice said. "If I'm in Boston, I hope I'm not shoveling snow.''
Some things, he said, are certain: He's not anxious and he won't be bitter if he doesn't get in.
After 15 years, he's a veteran at taking it in stride.
"I don't downplay it,'' Rice said. "I just don't think about it. The ballots are in. There's nothing you can do about it. So you can't change anything, so why worry about it.''
Last year, he was named on 72.2 percent of the ballots with 392 votes, up from 63.5 percent (346) in 2007. He was 16 votes shy of the 75 percent needed.
Of the 20 other players who received 70-75 percent of the vote, all eventually were elected, some by the Veterans Committee. The highest percentage for a player who wasn't elected in a later year was 63.4 by Gil Hodges in 1983, his final time on the ballot.
"There always can be that one that may not get in,'' Rice said. "When you talk about 72 percent, I don't look at that until it actually happens.''
Many people think it already should have.
"Jim Rice deserved to be in there a long time ago,'' said Pesky, a longtime Red Sox coach and instructor who turned 89 in September and still plans to go to spring training. "Jim Rice worked as hard as any ballplayer we've ever had here.''
Fred Lynn was Boston's center fielder who won the AL rookie of the year in 1975 when Rice was runner-up.
"My biggest question is, what's taken so long?'' he said. "I think he'll make it. I thought he would make it last time.''
Red Sox manager Terry Francona was emphatic.
"I am shocked he's not in the Hall of Fame,'' he said. "For a period of time, he was probably the best offensive player in the game.''
From 1977-79, Rice batted .320 with averages of 41 homers, 128 RBIs, 207 hits, 114 runs, 31 doubles and 12 triples per season. He had at least 200 hits in each season and had 15 triples in both 1977 and 1978.
The big obstacles to his election have been his relatively short career and his occasional surliness with writers, a trait that has mellowed dramatically. But his numbers are comparable to at least one Hall of Fame slugger whose career was of similar length, first baseman Orlando Cepeda.
Cepeda, who played 50 or more games in 14 seasons, batted .297 with a .499 slugging percentage, 379 homers, 1,365 RBIs, 2,351 hits, 1,131 runs, 417 doubles and 27 triples.
Rice, with 15 seasons of at least 50 games, hit .298 with a .502 slugging percentage, 382 homers, 1,451 RBIs, 2,452 hits, 1,249 runs, 373 doubles and 79 triples.
"Obviously, he didn't play 20 years or he didn't hit 400 homers and didn't have 3,000 hits but he was dominant for the time that he played,'' Lynn said. "You have to look at longevity as being a gift where a guy wasn't injured.''
Try Rickey Henderson, a shoo-in as a first ballot Hall of Famer this year. He spent 25 years in the majors through 2003. And in 2005 he was playing in the independent Golden Baseball League, hoping for another shot at the big time.
The number of top-quality players on the ballot may influence voters. The only inductee last year, Goose Gossage, was elected in his ninth year of eligibility. A brilliant reliever, he wasn't as good a player as Henderson.
"Goose and I spent some time together'' before last year's announcement, Rice said. "He said, 'Hey, man, I think we're going in together.' I said, 'Hey, just wait until it happens.' That's the only thing you can do.''
He could have posted higher power numbers if he were more selfish and had swung for the fences, he said. But Rice recalled that owner Tom Yawkey, another South Carolinian, emphasized the group ethic to his players.
"There were no individuals in the clubhouse because he came down and talked to all the ballplayers,'' Rice said. "You are not stronger than the team.
"My job wasn't to hit home runs. My job was to hit the ball from gap to gap with a man on first base to score the guy.''
The MVP in 1978 and an eight-time All-Star, Rice didn't reach the postseason until 1986, when he hit .324 with 20 homers and 110 RBIs. But he managed just 31 homers the next three years and retired after an injury-shortened 1989 season, when he hit .234 with three homers and 28 RBIs in 56 games.
Now, 20 years later and 15 years after he became eligible for the Hall of Fame, he awaits the final word.
"In'' or "out.''
He's hardly an emotional wreck.
"If I was in South Carolina (on Monday), I'd be playing golf,'' he said. "I'd say, 'My wife is at home.' I'd say, 'Call me. Here's my number. Eighteen holes come first.' "
This program aired on January 12, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.