Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Case For Jim Rice by Josh Rutledge

When word arrived that Jim Rice had once again been denied entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I reached the immediate decision that some type of drastic protest was in order. Petitions weren’t going to cut it. Debate on Internet message boards was futile. Nothing less than a full-blown hunger strike could bring attention to an injustice of such an unprecedented severity. And in my case, I decided, the hunger strike was going to have to be a thirst strike.
Just as I have abstained from Wild Turkey bourbon for the past three years in protest against the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s failure to elect Twisted Sister front man Dee Snider, I knew I was going to have to give up a favorite beverage in support of Jim Rice.

So I resolved the following: I will not drink another drop of Coca-Cola until Jim Rice enters the Baseball Hall of Fame. And let the record show that I have no personal interest in Jim Rice. I am a diehard, blood-and-guts, religiously devoted fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. To have ever considered Jim Rice or any other non-Phillie a “favorite” player of mine would have been out of the question. But as a reasonable human being and a student of baseball, I’m shocked and appalled that the most dominant American Leaguer of his generation has been passed over for Hall of Fame induction 12 years in a row. And with Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. on the ballot next year, it looks like Rice will have to wait until at least 2008 to finally receive his due enshrinement in Cooperstown. And Coca-Cola, who in recent years probably generated at least one percent of their annual profits strictly from my purchases, will have to get by without me.

It’s been reported in the press that Rice’s Hall of Fame snubbing may be “punishment” for the way he treated baseball writers during his career. By all accounts, Jim Rice was a dick. But so was Steve Carlton. As was Eddie Murray. The pundits argue that the likes of Murray and Carlton amassed such staggering numbers that their prickishness had to be overlooked. I would argue the same in favor of Rice. Murray finished with a .287 career batting average and a .476 slugging percentage. Rice, on the other hand, finished at .298 and .502.

Granted, Rice’s career longevity (or lack thereof) could be held against him, and 382 career home runs just doesn’t sound that great. But let us keep in mind that hitting 382 home runs in 16 years back in the 1970s and ’80s was probably comparable to hitting 500 home runs in that same time span today. And if longevity is a prerequisite for the Hall of Fame, then why is Kirby Puckett in the Hall? Shouldn’t the true measure of a player’s greatness be not how long he did it, but rather what he did? And if we measure what Rice did, the stats are awe-inspiring. In a 12-year run from 1975-86, he appeared in eight All-Star games and hit over .300 seven times. Six times he finished in the top ten in the AL in hitting, and four times he finished in the top five. In addition to winning three home run crowns, four other times he finished in the top ten in homers. In nine of those 12 years, he finished in the top ten in RBI. Seven times he finished in the top five. He led the league in total bases four times, and five times he finished in the top five in MVP voting. He became the first player in league history to amass 35 or more home runs and 200 or more hits in three consecutive seasons. And his monstrous 1978 season is still the stuff of legend. His 406 total bases that year were the most in the AL since 1937. He also led the league in hits, triples, home runs, extra base hits, and RBI – and was second in runs scored and third in batting average. His career .298 batting average was a remarkable achievement for a power hitter. Compare that to the career averages of Hall of Fame sluggers Mike Schmidt (.267), Harmon Killebrew (.256), and Reggie Jackson (.262). Mark McGwire, who may be inducted into the Hall next year, finished his career with a .263 average.

In this age of steroids, small parks, and watered-down pitching, it seems that baseball observers have become more and more obsessed with gaudy statistics. Five hundred career home runs was a ticket to immortality in a bygone era. But today, averaging 32 home runs a year for 16 seasons doesn’t seem like such a lofty standard. Players like Rice and Andre Dawson, who were great stars in their time, may be victims of this new infatuation with giant numbers. And that’s a shame. A player can only truly be measured by how brightly his star shone in his day. And if we’re talking the years 1975 through 1986, I’d be hard-pressed to name a single major league player who was greater, more consistent, or more feared by pitchers than Jim Rice. Just as importantly, I remember what it was like to be a little kid in the early 80s and hold a Jim Rice baseball card in my hand. Even if you didn’t particularly like Jim Rice, you wanted that card. You’d trade a George Foster and a Dave Kingman for it – because Jim Rice was money year after year. The numbers on the back of the card didn’t lie. And the picture on the front of that card – well, you thought maybe it would come to life and kick your ass if you didn’t pay it proper respect. Something tells me that little kids of this decade didn’t feel the same about an Edgar Martinez card.

I’m tempted to imagine the absolutely sick statistics that a player like Jim Rice would have put up in today’s era, but such ponderings would require a serious Coke fix. And lord knows it could be a long, long time before I get another one of those.

Josh Rutledge is the editor of Now Wave Magazine and now exclusively drinks Yuengling Lager. He hopes the Phillies will finally make the playoffs this year but isn’t about to hold his breath. Every year, he wishfully predicts the downfall of the Atlanta Braves, so he’s picking the Mets to take the NL East in ’06.

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