Debate: Is Jim Rice a Hall of Famer?

Originally Published: January 2, 2008
ESPN.com

Jim Rice
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesJim Rice led the American League in RBIs twice.
Jim Rice hit 20 or more home runs in 11 of his 16 seasons in the majors and also drove in more than 1,400 runs in his career. But so far those numbers haven't been enough to get Rice elected to the Hall of Fame.

In this, his 14th year on the ballot, will Rice finally get enough votes to become part of the class of 2008?

ESPN.com correspondents Larry Stone and Phil Rogers discuss Rice's Hall of Fame candidacy.

FROM: Larry Stone

TO: Phil Rogers

SUBJECT: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

Hi, Phil. Happy holidays. I was looking forward to debating the merits of Jim Rice's Hall of Fame candidacy with you, but I just learned that Jim Rice was already inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. So I guess it's a moot point. Talk to you later.

Oh, wait -- that was Jim Rice, the dirt biker from Wooster, Ohio, and it was the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Pickerington, Ohio.

So back to Jim Ed Rice of the Red Sox. I can't believe Rice has been on the ballot 14 years, and people still have to make the case for him. He should have been basking in Cooperstown long ago. If you had asked anyone during Rice's prime -- his teammates, his opponents, the fans who watched him -- whether Rice was a Hall of Famer, I guarantee you the answer would have been an emphatic yes. Somehow, his legacy has diminished over time, when it should be just the opposite. With all the steroids-induced slugging of the '90s and 2000s, I actually think Rice's statistics look better with each passing year.

As our pal Jayson Stark said a few years ago, when he finally saw the light and began to vote for Rice, he met one essential Cooperstown criterion: the fear factor. Pitchers absolutely hated to face him, and for good reason.

I'm talking, of course, about Rice's glory years, from 1975 to '86. I recognize that his prime was relatively short, and that he suffered a precipitous drop and early career exit that have probably kept him out of the Hall.

But I maintain that Rice was so brilliant during those 12 years that it supersedes the fact that he didn't reach some of the magic numbers that excite Hall of Fame voters, particularly 500 home runs (or, in Rice's case, even 400 home runs).

MOST HOME RUNS (1975-'86)
Mike Schmidt* 440
Dave Kingman 365
Jim Rice 350
Reggie Jackson* 330
George Foster 321
*Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
During those 12 years, Rice was the most dominant player in the American League. Maybe not the best player -- I'd give that nod to George Brett. But check out Rice from 1975 to '86. He ranked first in the AL in games (1,766), first in at-bats (7,060), first in runs (1,098), first in hits (2,145), first in home runs (350), first in runs batted in (1,276), first in slugging percentage (.520), first in total bases (3,670), first in extra-base hits (752), first in go-ahead RBIs (325), first in multihit games (640), fourth in triples (73) -- so much for the notion that Rice was nothing but a plodder -- and fourth in batting average (.304). He also was first in outfield assists with 125. For some reason, Rice has been labeled a lousy fielder, but even Bill James, a leading detractor of Rice's Hall of Fame credentials, concedes that he was a better left fielder than most peopled regarded him.

If you look at the entire major leagues over that same 12-year period, Rice still ranked first in RBIs, hits, total bases, go-ahead RBIs and multihit games, second in slugging, runs and extra-base hits (to Mike Schmidt), third in homers (to Schmidt and Dave Kingman), and second in outfield assists (to Dave Winfield).

That's 12 years at the very top of his profession -- enough to make a Hall of Famer of, say, Kirby Puckett. But for some reason, not good enough for Rice.

A few other points to consider, Phil, and I'll let you have your say: six finishes in the top five in MVP voting during those 12 years; Rice's transcendent 1978 season (in which he won the MVP award and became the first American League player since Joe DiMaggio to finish with more than 400 total bases); and his three-year stretch of 35-plus homers and 200-plus hits from 1977 to '79, the only person in history to do that.

I have much more, but you deserve a chance to make your pathetic -- er, well-reasoned -- case against Rice.

FROM: Phil Rogers

TO: Larry Stone

SUBJECT: RE: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

Hey Larry. Good to hear from you, and happy holidays, even if you're making me feel a bit like the Grinch. I've never voted for Rice, which is surprising given that in practice I've been a very liberal Hall of Fame voter. I lean toward the benefit of the doubt, being aware of just how high of a standard 75 percent approval is. But I am going to take an especially hard look at Rice this year, and maybe you can change my mind -- or not.

MOST RBIs (1975-'86)
Jim Rice 1,276
Mike Schmidt* 1,221
Dave Winfield* 1,147
George Foster 1,114
Steve Garvey 1,076
*Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I'd sum up my nonvote this way -- Rice's career was short, and while he was a dominant hitter in his prime, he didn't put up big enough numbers (either season or career) to get out of the Hall of the Very, Very Good and into the Hall of Fame. Your point about assists is a good one -- even if I could throw guys out at second or third base from left field at Fenway Park, which is deep shortstop in other parks -- but I'll admit I consider him a plodder and one-trick pony. The point about triples really surprises me.

Career stats matter a lot when the Hall's considered, and your guy Jim Ed is 54th career in RBIs and 53rd career in homers -- and that was despite playing in a ballpark that fit him well, and in a lineup that was always solid, and sometimes loaded, around him. I'll give you his excellence for a brief period of time -- 35-plus homers and 200-plus hits for three years in a row ('77-79) is an awesome feat, but those career totals just don't get it done for me, no matter how you break them down. How do you overlook that 53/54 combo for a guy whose gift was hitting?

FROM: Larry Stone

TO: Phil Rogers

SUBJECT: RE: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

Phil: My New Year's resolution is to make you a Rice convert.

And since you are concerned with Rice's career ranking, let me give you some names: Duke Snider, Hank Greenberg, Hack Wilson, Johnny Mize, Joe Medwick, Chuck Klein, Robin Yount, Roberto Clemente and Kirby Puckett. They all rank below Rice in career RBIs, and all are in the Hall of Fame. In fact, there are at least 47 position players in the Hall with fewer RBIs than Rice (there might be more, but I stopped counting).

Here are some other names for you: Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Kiner, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, Al Simmons, Hack Wilson and Puckett. All rank below Rice in career homers, and all are in the Hall of Fame. This time, I counted more than 40 before I quit. Granted, many of those had other assets besides slugging, but I don't think Rice's career numbers disqualify him -- particularly since he played in an era that produced some of the lowest offensive totals in the live ball era. As SABR member Paul White (not to be confused with the fine USA Today writer of the same name) points out in a persuasive essay advocating for Rice's Hall of Fame credentials, "if one ranks all 101 American League seasons by the OPS figure that led the league, 12 of the 16 seasons in which Rice played finish in the bottom third."

I can't help but think that a big reason Rice hasn't gotten elected yet is that a lot of writers of his day just didn't like him. I remember covering a game at the Oakland Coliseum in the 1980s, when I was working in the Bay Area. I was in the press box writing my story when Steve Fainaru, the Red Sox beat writer for the Hartford Courant (and brother of Mark Fainaru-Wada), came back up from doing his postgame interviews in the clubhouse. His dress shirt was in tatters. I found out later that Fainaru had gotten in a heated dispute with Rice, and that Rice had reached down and yanked his shirt, sending the buttons flying and ripping the shirt. But besides being occasionally tough for the media to deal with -- which should never be a Hall of Fame disqualifier, in my opinion -- Rice never got in trouble, did a lot of good deeds off the field, and was a good family man, by all accounts. Heck, he once saved the life of a 4-year-old boy, Jonathan Keane, who was hit in the head by a foul ball off the bat of Boston's Dave Stapleton in 1982. While blood gushed from the youngster's head, Rice raced into the stands from the dugout, cradled Keane in his arms, and sprinted with him through the dugout, down the runway and into the clubhouse. Red Sox team doctor Arthur Pappas said later that Rice's quick actions may have saved Keane from serious injury.

"Time is very much a factor once you have that kind of a head injury and the subsequent swelling of the brain," Pappas told the Hartford Courant in a 1997 article. "That's why it's so important to get him to care so it can be dealt with. [Rice] certainly helped him very considerably."

Surely, Phil, you gotta give Rice a point or two in the "character" category that's listed on the Hall of Fame ballot. You know, the part that reads: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."

I think Rice qualifies on all counts. Speaking of his contributions to the team on which he played, consider this: During Rice's 12 peak seasons, the Red Sox averaged 89 wins a year, reached 95 wins four times and won two American League pennants. If Bill Buckner fields that grounder, maybe Rice has one World Series ring. And if he didn't get hurt and miss the '75 World Series, maybe he has two. And then maybe we wouldn't even be having this debate.

FROM: Phil Rogers

TO: Larry Stone

SUBJECT: RE: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

Dang it, Larry. Hall of Famers with lesser numbers, SABR calculations, you are pulling out the big guns on me here. I feel like this has turned into a mock trial, and you're making a mockery of me.

I've got a couple simple thoughts on Rice that have always stopped me from voting for him. Let me know what you think of them.

MOST HITS (1975-'86)
Jim Rice 2,145
Steve Garvey 2,121
Cecil Cooper 1,975
George Brett* 1,961
Robin Yount* 1,933
*Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The first of them, which I'll hit you with now while saving the next one for later, is that he fails my tiebreaker test for borderline Hall of Famers (of which there are dozens and dozens). My first tiebreaker is always how did a guy play in the postseason, the biggest games, assuming he had a chance to play in them. You point out that Rice didn't get a World Series ring, and you're right. But you fail to make a couple of other points. For instance: In 18 postseason games, Jim Ed hit .225 with two home runs and seven RBIs. The way I interpret that, he had a chance and didn't seize the moment. It's no crime there, but to me, given that I'm on the fence about him and the Hall, it gives me a reason not to vote for him.

You mention the Bill Buckner play in 1986, and you're right. The Red Sox would have won if Buckner had handled the simplest of grounders -- or if John McNamara had taken Buckner out of the game before that inning. But there was another reason the BoSox didn't celebrate in '86 -- their cleanup hitter (Rice) didn't drive in a run during that seven-game series against the Mets. Not one.

In that fateful Game 6, the Red Sox had taken a 5-3 lead with two runs in the top of the 10th before the Mets scored three off Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley (and Buckner) in the bottom of the 10th. But the Red Sox would have had a bigger lead than 5-3 if the top of the 10th hadn't ended with a bases-loaded flyout by Rice. I know it sounds harsh to judge a career by a handful of at-bats, but when I look for a reason to give Rice the benefit of the doubt I can't find it. So, if you can, help me some more.

FROM: Larry Stone

TO: Phil Rogers

SUBJECT: RE: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

OK, Phil, you connected on that one. No ribbies in a seven-game series: not good. But you conveniently failed to mention Rice's full numbers in that '86 World Series against the Mets. He hit .333 (9-for-27) with six runs scored, a double, a triple, six walks, a .455 on-base percentage and .899 OPS. Not too shabby. And in the ALCS that led up to it -- the one that included Dave Henderson's epic homer off Donnie Moore in Game 5 -- it was Rice's three-run homer off John Candelaria in the fourth inning of Game 7 that broke the game open as the Red Sox won the pennant with an 8-1 win over the Angels.

I honestly don't think Rice should be penalized on this count. His teams won three division titles (Hall of Famer Ernie Banks would have killed for just one postseason appearance) and he wasn't a disgrace in the playoffs or World Series. Furthermore, from 1977 to '79, the Red Sox won 97, 99 and 91 games, and finished second, second and third. If there had been a wild card, who knows what kind of postseason numbers Rice would have put up. Are you going to blame him for Bucky Dent?

Now, if you want to mark down Rice for the Fenway Park factor, you might be on to something. But the postseason? I'll give you a solid shot to the jaw, but no knockdown.

Give me your next shot.

FROM: Phil Rogers

TO: Larry Stone

SUBJECT: RE: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

Stoney, in regard to the '86 World Series, I will quote a great American, Hawk Harrelson -- "Don't tell me what you hit, tell me when you hit.'' But lots of Hall of Famers -- Carl Yastrzemski, to name one -- made outs in the biggest at-bats of their career. I'll grant you that it's the nature of the game, even for the greatest players. I'll also concede you make good points with the overall numbers from the postseason, '86 in particular. That's a fair point about those 90-win teams that couldn't get in the playoffs. The nature of the postseason has changed a ton since the wild card.

MOST HOME RUNS (RED SOX HISTORY)
Ted Williams* 521
Carl Yastrzemski* 452
Jim Rice 382
Dwight Evans 379
Manny Ramirez 254
*Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But I said there were a couple points that stopped me from voting for Jim Ed. I feel like I'm putting myself up on a tee with the next one, but here goes. When the game got tough for him, he just walked away. He didn't fight to keep playing after his body was breaking down, the way a guy like Andre Dawson did. Rice might have revived his career elsewhere after the Red Sox released him at the end of 1989. He was only 34 when he played his last game. Rice let himself get bitter at the system, angry at the knees that were failing him, and didn't find a way to compensate. Look at how his numbers tailed off when he was only 32, 33 and 34. I'm not above cutting somebody some slack because of injuries. I was a big supporter of Kirby Puckett, who was forced out of the game early by his eyesight, and another reason I give Dawson the benefit of the doubt is because he essentially played in a parking lot on the so-called turf in Montreal. But I can't find a reason to hand Rice a pass. I know this sounds cold, but I just don't know if he fought hard enough to keep playing. Help me here. What am I missing?

FROM: Larry Stone

TO: Phil Rogers

SUBJECT: RE: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

Phil, I can sense that I'm breaking you down on Rice. Maybe this will put you over the edge: I did a little research, and it turns out that Rice didn't have a chance to revive his career. After the Red Sox cut him loose in '89, not one team made him a contract offer. He wanted to continue, but someone has to sign you first. Rice even took the extraordinary step of playing for the St. Petersburg Pelicans of the Senior League in 1990, to show teams that he was over his knee and elbow problems that required four surgeries in 1989. Still no offers, so he hung it up.

I suspect that Rice made himself no friends around baseball with his attitude (or what his attitude was perceived to be), and he obviously didn't perform well those last few years, largely because of injuries. His retirement was forced on him, by the Red Sox, and by the rest of baseball. I maintain, yet again, that his body of work from 1975 to '86 shouldn't detract from the sour ending to his career. I'm not sure why a guy gets Hall of Fame points for hanging on and slogging through some bad years that pump up his career totals. It's a shame that someone didn't sign Rice, even to be a platoon DH against lefties, so that he could have gotten 400 homers and a few other milestones like 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBIs. But no one did, and so here we sit, arguing his merits.

I'm going to put my 14th consecutive check next to his name. Phil, I hope you put your first.

FROM: Phil Rogers

TO: Larry Stone

SUBJECT: RE: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

Larry, I have to hand it to you, you are breaking me down as bad as my kids at the mall. The St. Petersburg Pelicans? Now that is research, and based on your lead I've gone ahead and added some of my own digging to yours. Jim Ed not only played for those Pelicans in 1990, but he had helped them into first place when the league folded. The Pelicans were 15-8 and two games ahead of the hated Sun City Rays when the league went belly up, ending the playing careers for a lot of great players, including Vida Blue and Fergie Jenkins. So I guess there goes my long-held theory about him just giving it up and walking away. Score it E-scribe.

MOST RBIs (RED SOX HISTORY)
Carl Yastrzemski* 1,844
Ted Williams* 1,839
Jim Rice 1,451
Dwight Evans 1,346
Bobby Doerr* 1,247
*Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I started covering the American League in 1984, which means I saw just about as many lean years as good ones from Rice. Maybe that's why I hadn't looked harder at his case. I had my mind made up when I first looked at his name on a ballot, even if I didn't know I did. It was nothing personal against Rice. He never gave me the Steve Fainaru treatment. But I've always just felt he was one of those great players who comes up a tick short of being among the best ever. I think you've sold me. What do you think of that?

FROM: Larry Stone

TO: Phil Rogers

SUBJECT: RE: Jim Rice -- Hall of Famer or not?

I think that's great, Phil. I always knew you were a reasonable man (even if Dusty Baker didn't think so). I truly believe that Rice is worthy, though I understand the hesitation by those who don't. It's guys like Rice who make Hall of Fame voting such an agonizing and exhilarating experience. I have high hopes that this is the year Jim Ed gets to join his motorcycle-riding namesake in immortality.

Now, about Mark McGwire …

Happy New Year

Sincerely, Larry

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