Jim Rice, 1977July 27, 2009
For a little while, the exact years of my childhood in Vermont, this man inspired an unparalleled awe. For me, his induction yesterday into the Hall of Fame was mostly about a happy reconnection to that time when my brother and I saw Jim Rice as the loftiest of the gods. My brother brought back that childhood way of seeing in an email a couple days before Rice’s induction:
“I’ll always remember the spectacle of Rice in his glory like so: Digs into the box, waves the bat through the strike zone twice, then waits, with relaxed, expressionless mien. Stillness, absolute focus. Then that compact, ferocious swing, connecting and sending the pill back the other way so hard that it seems to pick up speed as it nearly beheads the pitcher and leaves the infield, a ruler-straight rope all the way to the triangle in center, *thock* just above the 420 sign, where it leaves a dent visible from all corners of the ballyard. And Rice, churning past second then sitting into a slide at third, bouncing up. Easy triple. Calmly surveys the scene. He is the master of this domain.”
The question is, how long was Jim Rice master of this domain?
In 1980, Jim Rice’s torrid three-year stretch as arguably the best hitter in baseball came to an end, the slugger dropping off to 24 home runs, 86 RBI, and a .294 batting average, numbers that were all below the 30-homer, 100-RBI, .300-average plateaus upon which his reputation as a rare combination of home run power and high batting average were built. In 1981, the strike-shortened year, his numbers were about the same on a per-game basis as they were in 1980. By then I had become a sports pessimist, especially about the parts of the sports world that were most closely connected to me, and so I wondered if the figure in the biggest poster on the wall of my bedroom had begun to decline. It seemed very important to believe that when I was watching Jim Rice I was watching a Hall of Famer. In 1980 and 1981 that belief began to falter.
Over the next half-decade, Rice seemed to regain his touch as a world-class run-producer. He drove in 97 runs in 1982, then 126, 122, 103, and 110 in 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1986. I think it’s safe to say that many of the writers who vote on player induction into the Hall of Fame still tend to look at the statistic of runs batted in as an unmatched and even inarguably objective reflection of player’s worth. Just yesterday, in the lead-up to Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame speech, I heard longtime Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan on the radio describing Jim Rice by saying that some guys are run producers and some guys just aren’t; Jim Rice, it was implied, had the stones to stand up there and drive in runs in situations where others with less fortitude would fail. With all that in mind, I believe it’s a fair to assume that had Jim Rice continued throughout the mid-1980s to drive in runs at the sub-100 rate he had in 1980 and 1981, he would not have been making an induction speech yesterday at the Hall of Fame.
So the question is, what changed between the 1980-1981 years and the 1982-1986 years? How did Jim Rice go from an 86-RBI-a-year man back up to a 112-RBI-a-year immortal?
Part of the answer was sitting a few feet away as Jim Rice made his speech. Another part of the answer was not on the stage, though some believe that he has more of a right to be standing there than Rice. I’m talking about Wade Boggs and Dwight Evans, the two hitters who most often preceded Rice in the lineup in 1984 and 1985, the two weakest years of Rice’s mid-1980s renaissance. Boggs in particular deserved a thank you from Rice yesterday (regrettably, he didn’t get one, as Rice—unlike fellow inductee Rickey Henderson, who came off as decidedly more humble and magnanimous than Rice—did not acknowledge any fellow teammates beyond his one-time roommate Cecil Cooper); Boggs’ arrival in the majors and at the top of the Red Sox lineup and as a constant presence on the bases coincided exactly with Rice’s career resurrection. With Boggs and Evans hitting in front of him, Rice was able to appear to be roughly the same kind of hitter in 1984 and 1985 as he had been in 1977 through 1979. But in 1978, for example, Rice had racked up massive RBI totals almost in spite of the tandem hitting in front of him, Rick Burleson and Jerry Remy, who had anemic on-base percentages of .295 and .321, respectively. In 1984 and 1985, by contrast, Rice hit behind Boggs (.407 and .450 OBP, respectively) and Evans (.388 and .378). Jim Rice was a great power hitter in the 1970s; in the 1980s, he was a good power hitter who, because of his talented teammates, looked great.