Jim Rice in . . . The Nagging QuestionJanuary 11, 2009
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…