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Jim Rice in . . . The Nagging Question

January 11, 2009
 Untitled 

Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
– Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”

How do you best assess your memories, your subjective impressions? How do you transform the wisps and traces of what was into the plaque-solid affirmation of what is?

I guess this is what is at issue with Jim Rice, and why there has been so much argument about him that writers broaching the well-worn subject of his candidacy for the Hall of Fame have started to preface their thoughts on the subject with an apology, like someone sheepishly playing a song on the jukebox that everyone else has grown tired of.

The most passionately invested participants in the argument are those who use thoughtful statistical analysis to make the wisps and traces of Jim Rice seem like the aftermath of a trash fire. Recently, Sean Smith in Hardball Times damningly compared Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame credentials to those of Brian Downing. Last year, Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus concluded his analysis of Rice by saying “He’s no Hall of Famer, not by any stretch of the imagination.” These stances are not at all lone voices in the wilderness, either, but part of a chorus that includes some of the best baseball writers in the country (Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer come to mind) and that stretches back to the Big Kahuna himself, Bill James, who in his Historical Baseball Abstract called Jim Rice “probably the most overrated player of the last thirty years” and ranked him as the 27th best left-fielder of all-time, two places behind Rice’s decent, profoundly unspectacular contemporary, Roy White.

I want to believe that claims like that are not true. I want to believe that the wisps and traces of the past are the last visible glimpses of something golden. I want to believe there was something about Jim Rice, and it wasn’t all just a figment of my imagination.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have that belief confirmed, but I can say that Jim Rice sure seemed like a future Hall of Famer in 1978. In July of 1978 he appeared on the cover of Sport Magazine, along with a quote from Hank Aaron, who raved, “This kid’s gonna break the home-run record.” The following month he made his debut, shown at the top of this page, as the subject of a Baseball Digest cover. “Pitchers hate to face Jim Rice,” the cover caption claims. It’s quite a claim, if you think about it. I was never charged with the responsibility of trying to get Jim Rice out, but I certainly know what it’s like to hate to face something. You lie awake at night dreading it. Your stomach hurts. You whimper, verging on tears. You wonder how it would be if you just took off out west on a Greyhound and assumed a new identity. The clock becomes your enemy because it keeps dragging you closer to the thing you hate to face. Death, public speaking, a bully. According to the August 1978 Baseball Digest, Jim Rice was all these things to the ulcerated, nerve-wracked pitchers of the American League.

The following April, Baseball Digest revealed that Rice had been named the American League’s “Most Dangerous Hitter” by a poll of players, executives, and writers. That same month, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The magazine’s feature story on Rice focused primarily on his prickly relationship with writers, but it also set the mold for the feared descriptive that these days so nauseatingly often comes up in arguments about his candidacy for the Hall of Fame, your support or lack thereof for Rice revealed by whether or not you enclose the adjective in caustic air quotes:

“He is among the most fearless as well as feared hitters in the game,” Ron Fimrite wrote in 1979 without any trace of a detractor’s wheedling sarcasm or a supporter’s bullying bombast, “because he will stand his ground against the fiercest brushback artist. For that matter, he may be at his most dangerous after being hit or threatened by a pitch. And, as his four-year major league batting average of .306 attests, he is not exclusively a power hitter.”

The striking language of extreme, even violent, emotions used to describe Rice—hate, fear, danger—helped imbue the man with a mythic aura. Events that had no bearing on the winning or losing of games—Jim Rice was so strong he snapped a bat by merely check-swinging; in his free time, Jim Rice drove golf balls into orbit; Jim Rice was scary to talk to in the locker room, burning twin holes in your forehead with his glare; Jim Rice leaped into the stands to rescue a boy who had been drilled by a foul ball—fed into this aura of strength and ferocity and danger and heroism.

To his credit, his aura seems to exist not only in the eyes of fans and sportswriters but in the eyes of his peers as well. Goose Gossage, perhaps Rice’s closest counterpart among pitchers during those years in terms of being thought of as an intimidator and not merely a skillful performer, had this to say to the Boston Globe about Rice just last year, upon his induction into the Hall of Fame:

“If Jimmy played in this era, his numbers would be through the roof. The reason I say it’s easier to hit is because the hitter is protected so much. A pitcher can’t scare a hitter anymore or he’ll get thrown out of the game. The strike zone is the size of a postage stamp. Hitters are wearing all that armor, the ball is livelier, the ballparks are smaller. There weren’t many hitters that I feared when I came into the game, but when Jimmy stepped to the plate, he was as close as I came to being scared.”

***

But the Nagging Question leading up to the announcement on Monday 2 P.M. Eastern of 2009 Hall of Fame Inductees isn’t really about Jim Rice, or not exactly about him, but is instead this good old classic question: Who would you put on your ballot if you had a vote? (Scroll down a little on this page to see all the eligible names.)

I’ll start: Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Alan Trammel, Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith, and, yes, Jim Rice

Here’s some music to ponder your choices by…

28 comments

  1. 1.  Blyleven, Rickey, Rock

    I’m convincable on McGwire, and I wouldn’t object to Trammell, Rice, or Murph, but I’m in a small-Hall mood today.


  2. 2.  I had that Baseball Digest….

    Rickey
    Raines
    Blyleven
    McGwire
    Trammell

    I feel the same about Murphy that you do about Rice…as a Braves fan I’d not object to Murph’s inclusion (I think he’s a better candidate than Rice), but my Brain says he shouldn’t be in.


  3. 3.  I am a card carrying member of the Jim Rice Mythology Society. I, too, have read the analyses you cite, and I, too, don’t want to believe it.

    I don’t really have a passionate feeling about who gets in or out. I think one of the things I took away from James’ “Politics of Glory” is that the Hall is soiled. Putting Player A in or keeping him out doesn’t change that.

    Personally, my ballot reads Blyleven, Raines, Henderson, and Rice.

    I won’t be crushed if Jim gets shut out-the arguments against are strong. But I’ll be okay if he gets in, too-I like some myth with my numbers.

    BTW-Josh, I hope you’re getting the MLB Network. It is proving to be great dead air filler for me-when I’m doing something else, I can put it on and catch an inning or two of an old game, or a documentary, or their news shows, or whatever. It’s sort of like an ESPN that’s all baseball, all the time.


  4. 4.  Like Jim Rice, Don Mattingly was voted the best hitter/player by his peers in 1986 and 1987. Also like Rice, this was likely warranted due to a couple of fantastic seasons. Unfortunately for both players, however, they faded quickly. It seems that as time passes, people forget the memory of that rapid fade and instead focus on that short period of time when the player was indeed one of the most feared in the game.

    Jim Rice is not a Hall of Famer. He wouldn’t just be an iffy selection; he would be an awful selection. As someone who is clinging to the believe that the baseball HoF actually has integrity, it really bothers me that Rice will likely be elected tomorrow. Of course, if does get in, that should significantly bolster the argument for Mattingly. Now, I don’t think Mattingly is HoF’er either, but he was my hero growing up, so since the standards are dropping, I guess Donnie Baseball deserves his honor too.

    Even worse than Rice getting in, sadly, are the arguments being made to support his candidacy as well as the intense lobbying by Boston-based writers. If the Hall of Fame does not significantly revamp its voting process soon, the baseball HoF will lose its relevance.


  5. 5.  i’m a big fan of his season w/400 total bases, but i don’t think he doesn’t have enough years of dominance. my rule is borderline guys don’t get in. i realize the goose supports him but he’s just being nice. i keep going back and forth but the spiel about boston writers influencing the process for a guy they hate makes me say no to him. i am against mattingly too btw.


  6. 6.  Having grown up in Boston, being a year younger than Josh and having every Baseball Digest from 1979 to 1983, I’ve love to endorse Rice. But he doesn’t do it. If Joe Posnanski, Bill James and Rob Neyer are against something, it CAN’T be right. Not to mention he has lower OBP than Kevin Millar (“Lower Anything than Kevin Millar = Bad” in my book).

    Having grown up in Boston, I also remember fans saying Rice’s number should be 6-4-3 instead of 14, and I pretend to ignore that if we had an “Out Average” instead of “Batting Average” we wouldn’t even be talking about Rice. I remember that Sport magazine and the quote by Aaron like it was yesterday. I wouldn’t vote for him, but to me, Jim Rice is always a Hall of Famer.


  7. 7.  “Even worse than Rice getting in, sadly, are the arguments being made to support his candidacy as well as the intense lobbying by Boston-based writers.”

    Even worse than a regular Yankee fan is one who states his opinion as if it’s fact and/or doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Yeah, Boston writers love Jim Rice. If they did, he’d have been voted in by now.

    And if you’re gonna compare Rice’s “short” time of dominance to Mattingly’s, you should note that Rice had many more solid years than Mattingly had.


  8. 8.  ok he had more good years than mattingly but a fraction of the aforementioned Aaron and the shoe-in Rickey. he’s no shoe-in, that’s the bottom line.

    he’d be one of the worst outfielders in the hall if he got in, wouldn’t you agree?


  9. 9.  I thought Rice was, then I didn’t. It’s hard to separate myself as a Sox fan to say who should and shouldn’t be in the HoF.

    The only person who should be elected from the current ballot is Rickey Henderson. He was one of the greatest ever, not just his era.

    Jim Rice’s number should be retired on Opening Day at Fenway Park, because Jim Rice was one of the greatest of his era, and one of the greatest Red Sox ever. A Red Sox fan doesn’t rattle off great outfielders for the hometown team by skipping Jim Ed Rice.


  10. 10.  7 I’ll spare the ad hominem attacks because it’s clear your argument doesn’t have merit without them.

    For the more in tuned among us, it’s been obvious that Gammons, Ryan and Shaughnessy have been spearheading the Rice get out the vote effort. If you missed that, maybe you need to read a little bit more?

    As for the comparison to Mattingly, consider the following:

    Rice: 9,058 PAs; OPS+ 128; .298/.352/.502 in a hitter’s park; 8 All Star appearances; 3.15 MVP shares (1 award); 5 top-10 OPS+ finishes ( 1 first place finish)

    Mattingly: 7,721 PAs; OPS+ 127; .307/.358/.471 in a pitcher’s park; 6 All Star appearances; 2.22 MVP shares (1 award); 5 top-10 OPS+ finishes (2 first place finish)

    Anecdotally, Rice was voted the best hitter in the game by his peers in 1979, while Mattingly was voted the best player in the game by his peers in 1986 and 1987.

    Basically, Rice and Mattingly were equally productive hitters, but Rice gets an edge for about two more seasons worth of PAs. Of course, Mattingly was a 9-time gold glover, while Rice was a bad right fielder. Also in small samples (80 PAs for Rice vs. 25 PAs for Mattingly), Mattingly was excellent in his lone post season, while Rice was very bad in two of his three post seasons.

    To make a long story short, there is really no way to argue that Rice is a Hall of Famer, while Mattingly is not. It seems that 15 years has made people forget Rice’s rapid decline and flaws as a player, so I guess there is a chance that the same will take place for Mattingly.

    It would be better if the HoF sought to tighten its standards, but unless the voting process is revamped, its continued dilution is inevitable.


  11. 11.  3 : Well said. That’s just about how I feel, although I think (as the entire sprawling existence of this site attests to), I’m more prone to cling to the beliefs forged in my youth, which was presided over by a giant Jim Rice poster.

    And no, I don’t have the MLB network (I don’t even have cable), but I do have XM radio, which has someone blabbing about baseball 24/7. Yesterday I listened to a Luis Tiant interview in which the should-be Hall-of-Famer said of Rice, “He intimidated the pitchers. When he hit the ball you don’t know where it gonna stop.”


  12. 12.  12 : “Rice was a bad right fielder.”

    Not to seize on something that may have been a typo, but just as a clarification for those who might not know: Rice was a left fielder (though he did log a few games in right). Also, Bill James points out that Rice “was a pretty good defensive left fielder.”


  13. 13.  I’m guessing the many Red Sox fans here will know the answer to this, so: wasn’t Dewey Evans BETTER than Jim Rice? That was always my Yankee-fan perspective in the 80s, even before I knew about Bill James, OBP, etc.

    Ergo, if Rice is a Hall of Famer (I shudder at the thought), how is Dewey (the superior fielder, and the better hitter) NOT a Hall of Famer too? When will the Red Sox begin their PR blitz for him? Whoops – they missed the boat.

    As for my ballot, it would be: Henderson, Raines, Blyleven, Trammell, and McGwire, and maybe Tommy John (though I think Jim Kaat remains more deserving). Rules be damned, I’d also write in Lou Whitaker. How he fell off the ballot after 1 year is beyond me. To use a ridiculous argument, in 1997, if someone told me that Jim Rice was a Hall of Famer but Lou Whitaker was not, I would have laughed in that person’s face. Yet here we are.


  14. 14.  Henderson, McGwire, Blyleven, Raines, Trammell.

    That’s pretty much how I feel about Kirby Puckett. I understand there are lots of arguments that he really doesn’t belong, but the 12 year old in me isn’t having any of it.

    I can’t resist pointing out, though, that Frankie Frisch also very likely wanted “to believe that the wisps and traces of the past are the last visible glimpses of something golden.” And analysis tends to show that among the left and right fielders in the Hall, the only ones who aren’t clearly better than Rice were highly questionable selections by Frisch’s Vets’ Committee. A list here:
    http://www.bb-ref.com/pi/shareit/kCcV
    Take out the guys on the ballot who have no chance of making it (Gant, Parker, Vaughn), guys who spent half their careers in the Negro Leagues (Irvin), who were inducted as managers (Stengel, Southworth, I believe McCarthy), and Rice gets awfully close to the bottom of that list. Rickey, Raines, Slaughter, Keeler, and at least arguably Brock jump ahead of him based on defense, longevity and/or baserunning, and so his only real company is three or four of Frankie’s old pals.

    Certainly, Rice was a very, very good player. It’s just that real, BBRAA-certified Hall of Famers at his position are either even better (Stargell, Kiner), or are about as good for much longer (Winfield, Yaz–both of which were also better at their peaks, and saw their overall numbers dragged down by their longevity).

    Just nobody try to make the exact same argument to me about Kirby…


  15. 15.  13 : Fair point about Dewey (though I think the implication about this site being overrun by Sox fans might be a little inaccurate; I think we’ve already heard from all of the regular Sox commenters, and we’re only 14 comments in). I think Dewey doesn’t have that “aura” thing going that Rice got off the ground in the ’70s. Hank Aaron never said of Evans, “That kid’s gonna break the home-run record.” Not saying it’s right or anything, but just trying to hypothesize about the differing perceptions of the two players.

    14 : Nice points, and I appreciate your admission of subjectivity when it comes to your guy, Puckett.


  16. 16.  12 Yep…that was an inadvertent mistake.

    The notion that Jim Rice didn’t know OBP was important and therefore shouldn’t be judged off it is ridiculous. The notion that “a walk was as good as a hit” had been around long before Rice. It’s comical to suggest that Rice wasn’t aware that making outs was a bad thing to do.


  17. 17.  15 My apologies; I meant that as “hey, I am a Yankees fan, and this is the only site I visit that has multiple Red Sox fans as regular commenters (not to mention you Josh) and so I’m curious to have your folks’ opinions because I trust you”, not “this place is overrun with Red Sox fans”. My bad for not being clearer.

    My fear is that Rice’s induction might lead to other less than worthy candidates (Dawson, to name but one) also being inducted, but maybe that’s a baseless fear.


  18. 18.  As another Cardboard Gods’ era Red Sox fan, Jim Rice’s image loomed over my impressionable years as well. He was larger than life. The Hank Aaron quote (which I accepted as Gospel), the bats snapped on checked swings, the time Jerry Remy hurt his knee and was carried off the field in Rice’s arms like an overgrown and mustached toddler… But then the glow began to fade. Rice’s performance slipped. As a team, the Red Sox settled into mediocrity.

    And Bill James arrived to dominate the baseball world of my later teenage years.

    I’d so like to see Jim Rice as a Hall-of-Famer, another link in the chain through Yaz back to Ted Williams (remember those giddy days in the late 80s when it looked like Greenwell might be another worthy successor?). But the analysis of Rice’s case is pretty clear. He doesn’t belong.

    And since that’s the case, I’m hoping he remains outside Cooperstown, not because I think there’s any sanctity to the current Hall of Fame, but because I would hate to see Rice, the Zeus of my Cardboard Gods, reduced to a poster child for unworthy Hall-of-Famers, his name brought up in every debate about weak and marginal candidates for Cooperstown.


  19. 19.  17 : Gotcha. I’m sure I was being oversensitive; the Rice debate always turns me into exactly the kind of guy Rice was reputed to be with reporters–touchy and prone to snappish misinterpretation.

    18 : Interesting point about Rice’s good name actually suffering in a way by gaining induction and inviting eternal complaints about such induction.

    Greenwell was good, but in the end he was no Troy O’Leary.


  20. 20.  Well, as of 2 pm eastern, I’m a happy man.

    A little bummed that Blyleven, Trammel and Raines didn’t get more support.


  21. 21.  i just want to address the kirby puckett criticism: he had the best 11 year career of anyone but wee willie keeler, in hits. he won two world series, an mvp, was a great fielder and hit .356 in 88, the highest righty ba in the al since dimaggio’s streak season.

    because he didn’t smoke (more), he caught glaucoma and had to retire. w/o the injury, he would have had more years of productivity.

    he belongs, even before he told the twins to “jump on my back, i’ll carry you.”


  22. 22.  10 Mattingly benefited a great deal from the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium.
    Claiming that Rice played in a hitters park while Mattingly played in a pitchers park, is very misleading.
    IMO, neither belong.


  23. 23.  Congrats to Red Sox fans and Jim Rice !

    As a long-time Tiger observer/fan, it would be nice to see Trammel in the Hall but, to me, I think a stronger case could be made for Lou Whitaker. He’s arguably the American League’s all-around dominant player of his position for his era. His numbers speak for themselves, but one of the advantages of seeing him as often as I did was being able to witness his more abstract skills; his ability to turn the double play, his even more amazing relays from short right field, his late-inning clutch hitting, his ability to protect the plate and drive the pitch count up fouling off pitch after pitch, his durability (can you imagine how many times he was slid into?), etc.

    Not to make it an Alan vs Lou thing, but the fact that Trammel stays under consideration while Whitaker is on the back burner has more to do with politics,personality and media perception, IMO; maybe race, to some extent. Trammel was always a more gregarious guy, didn’t shy away from post-game interviews, was more accessible , hung out with Gibby, had some high profile moments (’84 Series), etc. Press folk could relate to him – Whitaker was quiet and stayed to himself. Even the Detroit media, while laudatory, was kind of condescending to Whitaker as if he was Gilligan to Trammel’s Skipper or something. It was late into Whitaker’s career, for example, before anyone even bothered to ask what he thought of the nickname ‘Sweet Lou’; he hated it. He said it “sounded like a pimp name”.

    Geezus, sorry to ramble, this is my first post here, but Whitaker was possibly my favorite Tiger player of my lifetime and I consider myself lucky to have witnessed his skills on locally televised games as well as in person as often as I did. Every year that goes by with him further and further from consideration always makes me question the real value of the whole Hall of Fame concept. Not that it’s as weird and arbitrary as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but………..


  24. 24.  23 : Good to hear the Detroit perspective on Whitaker V. Trammel. For what it’s worth, I think they’re both Hall-worthy. I think Trammel’s as good as many shortstops in the hall, and I believe someone (maybe Bill James) once described Lou Whitaker as a stripped-down, no-frills version (in terms of all-around skills) of Joe Morgan.


  25. 25.  In recent years I have allowed the statistical case against Rice to win out over what I watched/followed as a childhood fan. This awesome post gives the Rice aura its due and puts some imagery behind the “most feared” adage. I’d forgotten about the broken-bat checked swing (though it was repeated over many a Wiffle Ball game back then) and the kid who was hit with the foul ball (not to mention Jim Ed carrying Remy off the field).

    Rice was all that, while Dwight Evans was seen as a .270 hitter with some power and a “good eye” and great arm. Now we can see that Evans was a textbook run creator (OBP + SLG) and run preventer, whereas reasoned analysis has dinged the Rice aura. The rational vs. emotional will always pervade these discussions. Props for handling the case of Rice in a way that honors both instincts.


  26. 26.  For anybody still contemplating Rice, here’s an excellent take on the subject:

    http://wezen-ball.blogspot.com/2008/12/through-years-jim-rice.html


  27. 27.  BTW, I certainly didn’t intend to sound dismissive of Trammel’s value in my remarks above – I agree with the comment on the Brock thread that if he and Whitaker played for the Yankees they’d already be inducted – It’s just that every year at “Hall time” Trammel’s name is at least tossed around while Whitaker seems to be considered over and done with as far as ever getting in the HOF. The disparity in perception re: their value as players always kind of alarms me; Lou needs all the advocates he can get


  28. I’m thinking about Jim Rice today and I still can’t believe he’s going in the HOF.

    Jim Rice to me is a great example of perception vs. reality and how people internalize their belief system at a certain age and stay with it regardless of facts. It’s kind of reminds me of how your father would still wear black socks with his sandles in the middle of summer during the 1980′s.

    Rice wasn’t even considered a strong HOF candidate before all the sabermetric stuff like win shares, war, and warp came out. But those 3 measurements just point out how awful his HOF induction really is. In all three of those measurements Rice ranks about 250th in career value, around George Foster, Andy Van Slyke, and Daryl Strawberry.

    My main problem with the writers is Why do they consider George Foster a laughable HOF candidate and then vote for Rice when they were basically the same player.

    It’s not like Rice had this great long “peak” to go against his rather pedestrian career value. As far as his “peak” goes it lasted for about 3 season: 1977-1979.

    Rice wasn’t even the best OF of the Red Sox teams, Evans and Lynn were better players. And Evans was much better and he should be the one going into the HOF.

    I even checked on his career stats at baseball reference and it’s amazing for a guy that was a LF/DH who played his entire career at a great hitters park like Fenway, he only finished in the top 50 in 2 offensive categories!!: Sac Flies and Grounded into Double Plays. And when you consider that Sac Flies only became a accepted stat in 1954 and GIDP is a negative statistic which Rice finished 6th, it really makes you shake your head.

    What is comes down to is some kind of B.S. notion that can’t be proven like being “feared”.

    But what really bothers me is that guys like Grich,Whitaker, and Dwight Evans aren’t even on the ballot and guys like Santo, Raines, Allen, Trammell, Blyleven, Torre, Wynn, can’t get elected.

    There are literally 100 better position players than Rice not in the HOF. And about 100 pitchers with more value than Rice not in the HOF



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