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Respect For Rice Overdue

Rafael Palmeiro will be elected to the Hall of Fame, regardless of the fact that he was caught by Major League Baseball’s new drug testing policy, which showed that he took steroids to boost his numbers on the field. He is certainly not the first player in baseball to have used a performance enhancer to try and better himself at the plate, with Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti both admitting in recent years of widespread use of steroids by themselves and former teammates that saw home run totals climb into the stratosphere. The latter paid the ultimate price last fall when a cocaine overdose, likely fueled by his reliance on illicit drugs to keep that high that he felt playing baseball all those years alive, took him from this earth at the tender age of 41.

Palmeiro’s career numbers are indeed impressive, having recently passed the magical 3,000-hit mark and the 500 home run mark in 2003. Given that he is signed to play through the end of next season, it is quite possible that he could manage to hit enough home runs to qualify as only the third player in major league history to have a minimum of 600 home runs and 3,000 hits, joining only Hank Aaron and Willie Mays in that respect. The numbers are impressive, especially when you consider that Palmeiro has never held a batting or home run title in his 20 seasons playing in the majors. Unfortunately, the recent ten-day suspension will hang over his head for years to come, tarnishing an otherwise unblemished record.

Of course, there are others in recent years whose names will someday show up on the ballots of the baseball writers whose reputation are modestly stained; Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa come to mind, although there is no concrete evidence that they have used illegal performance enhancers. Although it’s true that McGwire admitted to using androstenedione during the 1998 season as he and Sosa chased Roger Maris’s 37-year-old home run record, at that time it was not a banned substance as it is now, so he essentially gets a get-out-of-jail free card. So don’t be surprised to see them get elected, either.

Being a Boston fan, I can’t help but think about former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, a player that I admittedly only caught in the latter part of his career. It’s not hard to look at his numbers and be impressed. Had he not debuted in the same season as rookie teammate Fred Lynn, he would have easily walked away with American League Rookie of the Year honors and perhaps even the MVP as well after batting .309 with 22 home runs and 102 RBI. From 1977 through 1979, his numbers were almost equal in every season, averaging .320 with 41 home runs and 128 RBI. In 1978, he collected 406 total bases, the only American League player since the legendary Joe DiMaggio in 1937 to have more than 400 in a season; three times, he led the AL in home runs and twice finished number one in slugging percentage.

Rice was the classic power hitter in the lineup; though only 6-foot-2 and weighing in at just over 200 pounds, he used his short stroke and his strong wrists to drive balls all over the yard. From 1975 through 1986, he was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball as he averaged .304 with 29 home runs and 106 RBI. When he finally called it a career after the 1989 season, he had amassed 382 home runs, 2,452 hits, and 1,451 RBI; all three place him in the top 100 of all-time in MLB history. One would think that would be enough to get his plaque hung alongside the likes of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, two other Red Sox greats and among the only players he trails in several offensive categories in team history.

Yet Rice still waits outside the gates, perhaps silently wondering if the last few, injury-plagued seasons hurt his chances. Had he not tried to play through injuries to his knees in those seasons, he might have built on those numbers even more, finished on a high note, and found his way to Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility in 1995. However, when you consider that he put nothing more in his body other than perhaps a few vitamins, those numbers today are that much more impressive when compared to the baseball stars today that are pumped up on more than adrenaline. Rice is probably not the only star from his era that has been overlooked; Andre Dawson is one other player that comes to mind who put up great numbers but was nagged by injuries late in his career that probably hurt his chances.

Enshrinement in the Hall of Fame should not come easy; being a player of that caliber in any sport means that you were one of the best ever to play. For years, the baseball writers who voted for these ballplayers have generally turned a blind eye towards passing judgment on that player’s ethical conduct because, for the most part, the numbers have been all that mattered. Thus, Palmeiro and his contemporaries will be given a pass and honored among other past greats of the game, even with concrete evidence that they tampered with their bodies to give themselves an edge on the field. Yet, knowing that, perhaps players like Rice who were the power hitters of their era should be given a pass for, well, just being human.

The Hall Won’t Heed The Call

Yesterday, the Veterans Committee from the Baseball Hall of Fame voted on whether any former players that had not been elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America deserved induction and, of the twenty-five candidates on the ballot, not one of these legendary figures made the cut. Two former greats, Ron Santo and Gil Hodges, were the closest to gaining entrance with 65% of the vote, eight votes shy of enshrinement. Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat, two other luminaries from the game, gained just a little more than half the vote. Meeting biennially, the committee was revamped after the election of former Pittsburgh great Bill Mazeroski in 2001; there was the argument that his career numbers were hardly worthy of the standards necessary to sit alongside names like Ruth, Williams, and other immortals. By not electing a single player to join Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg this July, the outcome makes it two straight shutouts served by the committee, as no one was elected in 2003.

The Hall hails these results and those of recent BBWAA ballots as proof that it has set higher standards for induction, meaning that punching your ticket to immortality won’t happen if you don’t meet considerable merit. Then there are those who believe the Hall has suddenly become an elitist organization that has set the level of expectations for membership too high. Whatever the case, it is quite obvious that, for too long, the metrics used to decide whether a candidate should be elected have been inconsistent and this, in turn, has only added to the confusion. Obviously, there is more to being worthy than just wearing your heart on your sleeve for twenty-plus seasons; you need to have numbers, honors, and a show of consistency to pad that resume. Yet there are players out there with all that who still find themselves on the outside looking in through locked gates while believing that they have what it takes to be given the key.

Jim Rice, to me, is a perfect example of a former player who is more than deserving of having his plaque alongside the greats of the past. For well over a decade, the former Red Sox great was a constant force at the plate, averaging nearly .304 with 29 home runs and 106 RBI. He also finished in the top five in the AL MVP vote six times during that stretch, winning his only award in 1978 when he stroked 46 home runs and drove in 139 RBI, best in the league that year, while hitting .315 and finishing less than twenty points behind league-leader and future Hall of Fame inductee Rod Carew. Unfortunately, there are two things that seem to hurt Rice; one, that he struggled in his last three seasons at the plate, and two, that he was never a favorite of the writers, who saw him as callous and aloof.

Rice is not the only player that has been mysteriously locked out; Bert Blyleven is another example. The former pitching great finished his career with 287 wins and an ERA of 3.31 and was 5-1 in the post-season with two World Series rings to his credit. He won fifteen or more games in a season ten times and is fifth all-time in strikeouts with 3701. Blyleven’s problem seems to be that he played most of his career for teams that never received much media attention, like Minnesota and Cleveland. Had he pitched in Boston, New York, or Los Angeles, some believe he would be a lock.

There are plenty of other examples, too. Kaat won 283 games as a starter, pitched three seasons in which he won 20 or more games, and collected 16 consecutive Gold Gloves at his position (tied with Hall of Fame great Brooks Robinson for most ever in a row); why is he still not there? Andre Dawson’s career numbers include 2774 hits, 438 home runs, and 1591 RBI, and he collected Rookie of the Year honors, an MVP award, and eight Gold Gloves during his career; why is he still absent? Jack Morris won 15 games or more in 13 seasons and also collected three World Series rings and a World Series MVP award; does he not deserve this distinction?

Nonetheless, the fact remains that there will always be nominees, often times a sentimental favorite, who fail to make the cut; both fortunately and unfortunately, the popularity of a player cannot be the measuring stick to decide if they will get the nod. Often, numbers are thrown around that define whether a candidate is an automatic entry, such as 3000 hits, 500 home runs, and 300 wins; these are all numbers that, of the tens of thousands of players that have put on a major league uniform, only a few have matched in a solid baseball career. So when a player has failed to amass these numbers, then you must dig deeper into his statistics and determine whether he has performed at a level in his career that makes him a worthy candidate.

As someone with a great interest in the history of the game, the Hall of Fame is an embodiment of its remarkable heritage. For a player to have his name preserved for years to come as a representation of baseball excellence is one of the highest accolades in sports; therefore, voters have a responsibility to make these choices based on standards that are evenhanded and constant. Until the Hall begins to demonstrate some consistency and fairness in its selection process, it will be difficult for those outside this circle to understand why some legendary players are still waiting for the call from Cooperstown.