|Rice's 14th try could be his best chance at Hall of Fame|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 05 January 2008 09:35|
Or, he could have smiled a little more.
The often surly Boston Red Sox slugger, feared by opposing pitchers and unfriendly to the reporters who vote for the sport's highest honor, has fallen short of hall induction for 13 years.
Now, with the rampant use of steroids unveiled as one source of the game's home run inflation, Hall voters have a chance to re-examine Rice's numbers in the context of his era and give him what could be his last, best chance at induction.
``I think if you're the dominant player of your time, you should be in the Hall of Fame,'' said former Red Sox teammate Rick Miller. ``And he was.''
A year after Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. were inducted on their first try, the 2008 ballot had no certain inductee. Reliever Rich Gossage and Rice were the top returning vote-getters with 71.2 percent and 63.5 percent last year, respectively; 75 percent is needed for induction.
Rickey Henderson becomes eligible next year - an obvious first-ballot inductee who could take votes away from candidates lingering from previous years. So this could be Rice's best chance before he's bounced from the ballot and thrown to the whims of the veterans committee.
``It seems like there's been a groundswell of support for him, from what I've been reading. Hopefully there's something to that and he gets in,'' said former teammate and current Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy. ``I've been hoping all along, because in my mind he always has been a Hall of Fame player.''
Rice was dominant from 1975, when he was the runner-up to teammate Fred Lynn in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, until 1986, when he led the league in 12 offensive categories, including runs, homers, RBIs and slugging percentage. But his numbers fell precipitously after that, and his inability to stretch his career hurt him when his lifetime numbers were compared with those who played during the recent statistical explosion.
Only 25 players hit more homers in baseball's first century or so; in the 18 years since Rice retired, he has been knocked out of the top 50. He was 36th on the career RBIs list; now he is 54th. He was 48th on the career slugging percentage rankings when he retired; now he is 87th.
``Things are not like they used to be; the players are not the same,'' Rice said. ``You have to put guys in different categories and ask, 'What were those guys considered during their time?'''
Rice spoke by telephone from his home in South Carolina this week, after the 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America sent in their Hall of Fame ballots but before Tuesday's announcement of the results. Rice has not campaigned for inclusion, he said, nor was he particularly anxious.
``Hillary (Clinton) and everyone's doing a lot of campaigning. Why should I be out there campaigning?'' Rice said. ``I never thought I'd play one day in the big leagues, I wound up playing 15 years. That was something I was gifted with.''
But Rice needed to play more than that to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer, or even a second-, third- or 13th-ballot selection. In addition to another 18 homers, he was 15 hits - that's one more per year - short of being a lifetime .300 batter, dropping to .298 after hitting .234 in his injury-shortened 1989 finale.
He also finished with 2,452 hits and 1,451 RBIs.
``A lot of guys getting into the Hall of Fame, look at the longevity. Fifteen years compared to 21 or 22,'' Rice said. ``Yes, I could hit 18 more home runs if I played 22 years.''
That would have made him a better candidate.
But it wouldn't have made him a better player.
``Most guys just got to 3,000 hits playing 20 years. Longevity shouldn't be a reason to be in the Hall of Fame,'' Miller said. ``His stats when he played were as good or better than anybody's. It's just because he didn't play as long.''
And, probably, because he played at the wrong time.
Rice led the league in home runs three times - twice with 39 homers, or a little more than half as many as Barry Bonds hit in the juiced-ball heyday of 2001. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated the 60-homer barrier in 1998, a year when Rice's league-leading totals from '77 or '83 wouldn't have cracked the top 13.
``There was a day when 40 home runs was a lot of home runs. That's kind of gone by the books,'' Remy said. ``It certainly was a different era.
``Ever since the McGwire and Sosa year - that was so absurd, nothing ever came close to that. Of course, you're stunned by things like that.''
But to Rice, the Steroids Era isn't just about performance-enhancing drugs.
It's an attitude where players are more likely to swing for the fences rather than playing a team-oriented game where everyone - including the most feared hitters in the game - would give themselves up to advance a runner. Smaller ballparks and expansion pitching staffs also cheapen home runs.
``You can go back before the steroids, you can go back to Nautilus equipment, weights, more teams, smaller ballparks. There's a lot of things you can go back into,'' Rice said. The question is, ``What kind of hitter was I? Did I do things for the team or more as an individual.
``I could have been more selfish, but when I played it was a team thing,'' he said. ``If you tell a young guy now, you've got to hit 500 home runs to get to the Hall of Fame, he'd have to decide if he wants to do that.''
An eight-time All-Star and three-time home run champion, Rice was the AL MVP in 1978, when he also led the league in hits, RBIs, slugging percentage and triples. He had 406 total bases, which at the time was surpassed just 15 times in baseball history.
``He was one of the most feared hitters in the game of baseball in that stretch,'' Remy said. ``He'd hit the big homer, but you'd look in the box score and he'd have three other hits.''
Rice also may have delayed his induction by keeping reporters at arm's length - or worse. Sometimes snarling and usually unapproachable, he alienated many of the electors; however, several of the Boston beat reporters who covered Rice most closely said they have voted for him each year since he became eligible in 1995.
``They didn't have any trouble out of me. The trouble came when you wanted to talk about the team,'' Rice said. ``That was my trouble: Do not come to the ballpark to find out all the negative stuff. I didn't have any trouble per se with the media, I had trouble because I didn't give them scoops.
``The question is, do you want a guy that could play, or do you want a guy that can give you stories?''
In any case, Rice has mellowed since his playing days. In a telephone interview this week he was gracious and eager to help.
Until, that is, it was mentioned that as a postgame commentator for Red Sox TV broadcasts he is a member of the media he once seemed to regard with disdain.
``No, I'm not,'' he said quickly, but not especially sharply. ``We don't go in the clubhouse. I don't have a badge to go in the clubhouse. I'm not the media.''