When I heard earlier this year that longtime Boston Red Sox left fielder Jim Rice made it into the Hall of Fame on his 15th and final try, I could only think of one response:
"It's about time!"
I grew up in the '80s and watched Rice play. In his era, he was most certainly one of the most feared hitters in baseball. His lifetime stats of a .298 batting average, 382 home runs, 2,452 hits and 1,451 RBI in 16 seasons show he was certainly the anti-Dave Kingman*: a power hitter who could also hit for average.
Rice was also a great fielder also, having a .980 career fielding percentage despite playing his career at the tricky confines of Fenway Park (a lot of teams would work extra with their newbie left fielders to get used to fielding balls of the Green Monster).
On a few occasions, I even saw Rice show how much of a scam artist he was in left field. I don't remember the hitter, but someone hit a high drive to left field. Rice stared up at the wall, as if seeing how far the homer would go. The batter trotted slowly, admiring his shot and figuring if the fielder was watching it go, it had to be a home run.
The ball then caromed off the top wall to Rice, who seemed to anticipate exactly where the ball would carom. He fielded it cleanly and threw a strike to second base. Had the hitter been sprinting, it would've been a double; instead, he was held to a long single.
I've often wondered why Rice had to wait so long for his induction into baseball immortality while guys like Ozzie Smith (an average hitter at best who was in double digits for fielding errors 15 times and five times had more than 20 errors in a season) made it on his first try. I've heard two arguments why.
One, Rice hit into many double plays. Those who argue this conveniently neglect to mention Rice hit the ball very hard, and when you hit the ball hard and have slowpoke base runners in front of you (Bill Buckner, for example), double plays are inevitable.
Two, Rice wasn't very friendly. True, Rice wasn't known to be very friendly with reporters. He also challenged one-time Red Sox manager Joe Morgan to a fight during the 1988 baseball season. Big deal. Not everybody's wired to be congenial like Sally Field or funny like Jim Carrey.
I guess it just goes toward appeal: Smith was very popular and did cartwheels. Rice, in the late 1980s, showed he could be a stubborn person by resisting requestsfrom the Red Sox to wear glasses (which he did off the field) or contact lenses.
(In fairness, he said he would sweat too much to wear eyeglasses and his eyes didn't produce enough moisture for contacts; as someone who wears glasses and used to wear contacts, I can attest both can pose these problems.)
On Sunday, Rice will give his Hall of Fame speech. I suspect it'll be short and fitting of his laconic style. Maybe the Red Sox will finally get around to retiring Number 14 while they're at it.
* Prior to baseball's Steroid Era, Kingman held the dubious distinction of being the only Major League Baseball player with more than 400 career home runs who's not in the Hall of Fame. But, having a mediocre career batting average of .236 will do that.
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