Monday, January 12, 2009

Rice Finally Makes The Hall

When opposing teams dreaded to see a particular player come to the plate over a 10+ year period, that player was destined for the Hall of Fame. Ricky Henderson clearly fit that description over more than two decades and Jim Rice did also though over a shorter time.

More than a few observers have argued the Hall of Fame has been lowering its standards over the last several years. Not, of course, when, say, a Tony Gwynn or Cal Ripken entered, but when fellows like Bill Mazeroski or Joe Collins got the call from the Veterans Committee, more than a few howls of protest were heard. Many of these same people along with the ever-growing legion of Red Sox haters, have long argued Rice was very good but not great.

Some candidates are shoe-ins. Everyone expected Henderson to be elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility, that is, assuming he would finally retire and wait the required five years before becoming eligible. Henderson would still be playing if someone offered him a contract. Henderson changed the tone of a ball game every time he came to the plate, which meant from the opening gun since he was arguably the greatest leadoff man in baseball history. Ricky didn't have to sit the phone long for his call to come. Heck, he probably was on his way to second when Cooperstown rang.

Rice, on the other hand, would sit by the phone for fourteen years to no avail. Nearly every one of those fourteen years he would see his totals creep upward, depending on who else was on the ballot; and every one of those fourteen years he would fall short. The arguments for and against him were intense. While some remembered one of the most feared and fearsome-looking hitters in the American League, especially in the late '70's and early '80's, others including a lot of people who never saw him play, would look at the totals -- old and new school type stats -- and the limitations (he was a mediocre fielder and base runner) and say he just wasn't great enough.

One should not underestimate this business of not having seen him play. Unlike the current era of interleague play in which every team televises every one of its games locally if not regionally, national broadcasts occur on Sunday nights, Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons at the very least, and internet and cable packages enable one to watch any team, in Rice's era a player in the American League was not going to be seen at all by residents of National League cities unless his team made the World Series or he appeared in the All-Star game, and then only for three innings at best.

National League followers from those earlier eras, or younger fans who would not have been around to see Rice play, have no idea what a feared presence he was in the the Red Sox lineup. As someone who grew up watching the Orioles, who were still very competitive at the height of Rice's career (they went to the World Series twice), I can attest to how much I dreaded his coming to bat. An inning or two before each of his AB's, I'd start thinking ahead and telling myself, uh oh, he's coming up next inning. His impact was not only how much anxiety he produced, however; he also produced a whole lot of runs and key hits on a Red Sox team that, while competitive, was not the dynamo of today. Many AL pitchers who were his contemporaries have spoken up on behalf of Rice's candidacy over the years. They remembered hating to see him come to the plate. There is no greater testament to how good a hitter he was. His presence in the Hall is fitting.

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