Monday, January 12, 2009

Jim Rice, Hall of Fame 2009

Evaluation: Jim Rice was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 15th and final year of eligibility thanks to drug use - other people's drug use.

Rice's career had an unusual pattern. After 7-10 seasons of dominance, in which he was one of the five to ten best hitters in baseball, he didn't gradually decline as most stars do. Rice fell off a cliff. Third in the American League MVP voting in 1986, Rice was a benchwarmer by the middle of 1988. This precipitous fall left Rice short of some of the traditional career Hall of Fame metrics for sluggers, most notably 400 homers (he had 382).

In 1994, Rice's first year of eligibility, baseball's Steroid Era was just getting underway in earnest. Throughout that decade, 382 homers seemed an increasingly paltry figure for a Hall of Famer. Then, as knowledge grew and attitudes changed towards the use of performance-enhancing drugs by ballplayers, Rice's Hall credentials underwent a continuing reassessment by the electorate of which I am a member. His raw numbers came to seem less important, and his acknowledged status as a leading hitter of his time more so. This process culminated in his election this year.

Rice is not a top-shelf Hall of Famer. But I've voted for him since I became eligible to vote in 2000, and I see no need to apologize. All clubs, no matter how exclusive and small, have distinctions among their members. There have only been 43 different Presidents of the United States, an exclusive club indeed, but nobody argues that Rutherford B. Hayes and Thomas Jefferson were equally important figures in American history.

More to the point, Rice's election is how the Hall of Fame voting process is supposed to work, and how the entire academic discipline of history does work. The past and present are always intertwined, because the past can only be perceived in the present. The 15-year window for eligibility is designed to allow history time to work, for perspective to be gained as the game of baseball continues to change and evolve. Doesn't always work. This time, it did.

History, even baseball history, is not immutable, a fact statistics lovers sometimes forget. The sum required for the Louisiana Purchase was $6 million and remains so, but PERCEPTIONS of Thomas Jefferson have undergone what investment bankers call, with pained faces, "volatility." Conventional historical wisdom on Jefferson has been in constant and extreme flux since his death in 1826. Some of that is due to new knowledge, but most of it comes from the changes in the society examining Jefferson's life and times.

Baseball's no different. Its little society constantly changes, and perceptions of the past change with it. To use an obvious hypothetical, we view players who hit 50 homers in a season during the Steroid Boom far less favorably than we do anyone (actually, George Foster was the only one) who did so in Rice's time.

Congratulations, Mr. Rice. Welcome to the club. Don't worry. You belong.

A reminiscence: (Ballgames run together after a few years of sportswriting, so this anecdote will be vague on a few reportorial details). On a summer afternoon in the Ralph Houk era of Red Sox history, Jim Rice was in the on deck circle at Fenway Park. A batter, whose identity need not concern us, had his bat sawed off by a nasty inside fastball, and the jagged top half flew into the front few rows of box seats, smacking a small child (a girl, I think) no older than 7 or 8 square in the face.

Everyone present froze at this horrible scene - except Rice. Before even the kid's parents could react, Rice had bounded into the seats, picked the child up in his arms, and carried her (maybe him) into the clubhouse and trainer's room for medical attention.

Rice's reputation as a personality was already well-established, and I knew from personal experience he could be curt, to put it mildly, with reporters. But sitting in the press box, it was impossible not to see the truth plain as day. This was not the act of a selfish, sullen, churl. It was the act of a caring human being with quick wits and extraordinary reflexes.

Rice very much did not wish to talk about this event after the game. I didn't mind. The lesson of the story, which I ought to have learned as a child myself, had struck home. How a person relates to you is not necessarily how they relate to others. Media and human relations are not the same.

News consumers should remember that, too.


Post a Comment

<< Home