Friday, December 28, 2007

Jim Ed Rice

I’m not sure what possessed him to do it, but in the Boston Globe this week, Dan Shaughnessy opines that Jim Rice will finally get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this time around, and also insists that he certainly deserves it. I agree that Rice probably will get in this year, since he doesn’t have a lot of competition, and that he’ll also likely be joined by Goose Gossage. I think Gossage’s induction is long overdue, and I’ll be happy for Rice if he does get the call. It’s always great to see another Red Sox player be inducted, especially one I watched his entire career, but I think Rice is the classic “just shy” guy. He had about 12 good years, from his rookie season in 1975 to 1986. During those years, Shaughnessy insists Rice was the most fearsome hitter of his time. That’s stretching it a bit, Dan. Actually, that’s stretching it a lot. Andre (Hawk) Dawson, Dale Murphy and Dave Parker were all at Rice’s level, and each of those three had years as good or in some cases better than most of Rice’s. None of them are in Cooperstown. There are also guys named Reggie Jackson, Eddie Murray and a few other pretty good hitters, who have been rightfully inducted. Rice was a fearsome hitter, but certainly not the most fearsome of his time. Although he had the quickest and strongest wrist snap in the game, credentials for Cooperstown, especially for a slugging outfielder in an age of hitters, have to be examined carefully. When you do that, I actually believe that Dwight Evans is more deserving of induction than Jim Rice, and in a minute I’ll prove why.

Rice’s great claim to Fame was his power, but he only had 382 career homers, and that ranks him 53rd on the all-time list, well behind Carlos Delgado, Jose Canseco and Darrell Evans. He’s 4 behind Chipper Jones, 3 behind his former teammate, Mr. Dwight Evans (did you know that?), and 1 behind Larry Walker. Rice is tied with Frank Howard. Nobody I just mentioned is in Cooperstown, and none of them are going to be. Rice had a few fantastic seasons, though none of them strung together, and he won the MVP in 1978. In that golden year, he truly was the most fearsome hitter in the game. But that was 1 year. Rice had 11 seasons of 20 or more homers. Dewey did that, too. So did Barry Bonds’ father Bobby. Joe Carter had 12. These are very good numbers, but not Hall of Fame caliber, and that’s what we’re talking about here. Total bases: Rice led the American League 4 times, which is terrific, but he still ranks only 66th all time, well behind Harold Baines, Dave Parker, Vada Pinson, DWIGHT EVANS, and about 30 behind the immortal Steve Finley.

Rice was exceedingly 1-dimensional. He wasn’t blessed with great speed, either defensively or offensively. He did lead the league with 15 triples in 1978, but he led the league in everything in 1978. After that, his high was 7 in 1984. Defensively, he ranged from indifferent to abysmal. His arm was never better than average, and he played in an outfield that also included Fred Lynn and (ahem) Dwight Evans, who holds the Red Sox franchise record with 8 Gold Gloves. The contrast, for those who might not remember it, was best described as striking. Rice was never in great danger of winning even one Gold Glove. Offensively in his own league, Reggie Jackson and Eddie Murray were each as fearsome, if not moreso than Rice (Murray from both sides of the plate), and they’re both in Cooperstown today. Both of them were far better defensively than Rice, as well. You’d also have to admit that Dawson (mentioned above) is in a league above Rice defensively, too. Hawk belongs in a class with Robin Yount and my buddy Dwight Evans for flashing the leather.

I mentioned Dave Parker earlier. The "Cobra" was, in many ways, the National League version of Jim Rice. Parker finished 43 career homers behind Rice, though 40 RBI ahead. He also won an MVP award as Rice did, but Parker managed to lead the National League in batting average twice and picked up 3 Gold Gloves as well. If Jim Rice gets into Cooperstown, Dawson should be there first (playing on significantly inferior Expos and Cubs teams: 438 career HR, 8 Gold Gloves, 8 All-Star appearances). Dwight Evans next, THEN Rice. Parker should be soon after. Anyone for inducting Dave Parker into the Hall of Fame?

Jim Rice wasn’t even the best player in his own outfield for the vast majority of the time he called Fenway home, and I don’t hear anyone screaming for Dewey’s induction. To be fair, Rice did terrorize pitchers for much of his career, and he was great fun to watch. I loved writing his name in my scorecard when he played, and knowing that he was ours. It’s not like the Red Sox didn’t respect him. Nobody else has been issued a #14 jersey since Rice retired almost 20 years ago. Rice had a unique characteristic that I only encountered one other time before or since: the ball sounded different coming off Rice’s bat. There was a more authoritative, sharper CRACK when Rice hit the ball. The only other guy that I remember creating that sound in my lifetime was Bo Jackson. Bo Jackson is certainly no Jim Rice, but Jim Rice is certainly no Reggie Jackson, either. If you’re looking at sluggers from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Jim Rice might well be in the top 10, and perhaps even the top 5, but this is a discussion about comparing him to (literally) the best ever. By that standard, I’m sorry but he doesn’t qualify. He’s just shy, but that “just” makes all the difference.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

It's all just so unspeakably sad

The Mitchell Report is out now, and it’s all just so unspeakably sad. There’s more than enough blame to go around. From the stars who determined that they were willing to do whatever it took to fight the natural pace of aging in the modern athlete, to the bit players who followed suit just to stay on a big league roster, to the training staff who either assisted or pretended not to know, to team and league management who willingly and consciously turned a blind eye to the corrosion in the game and rationalized the outrageous statistics as being the harbinger of a new age of great ballplayer, to the players’ union who insisted that drug testing was nothing more than an invasion of privacy, and therefore completely unacceptable (and subsequently refused to cooperate in any way, shape or form with the Mitchell probe). And don’t forget the great titans of the press who winked and refused to acknowledge the 800 pound elephant in the middle of the room, some of them now decrying the Mitchell Report as being either inadequate or fundamentally compromised because Senator Mitchell is on the board of the Boston Red Sox. Everyone involved bears guilt, blame and responsibility for the fraud that was perpetrated on the American public for a generation.

What are we left with now? It’s impossible to know what to make of the statistics that baseball fans treasure so reverently. How many of Barry Bonds’s homers “count”? Should one (or more) of Roger Clemens’s Cy Young Awards be ignored due to some number of the strikeouts and wins having come out of a needle? Which ones? Which years? How about Andy Pettitte? Ken Caminiti? Jose Canseco? Mark McGwire? Should one (or more) of the Yankees’ World Series championships not count now? How many others *not* named in the Mitchell Report were involved? How many of the players who were named in the Mitchell Report were named incorrectly? What if Clemens and Tejada and Jack Cust and Brendan Donnelly and Mo Vaughn are actually innocent? What if they’re not? Should their accomplishments be stripped from the record books like Marion Jones’s Olympic medals? All of them? Some of them? Starting when? Ending when?

Or should we just accept that like it or not, it happened, stop worrying about the past and just move on now? That last one might be the best and easiest idea, but it isn’t possible. Baseball is all about history, more than any other sport on the landscape. All of us have to come to terms with this era somehow.

Personally, there are things I’d like to see happen. They certainly won’t, of course. I’d like to see both Bud Selig and Donald Fehr resign their positions and allow baseball to move on with a new sense of responsibility and impetus for change. I’d like all current players named in the report to end their careers immediately, and see MLB (and Minor League Baseball, as well) permanently suspend any player who tests positive from here on in. Zero tolerance. One strike and you’re gone. No appeal. Playing professional baseball is a privilege, not a right. Deal with it. That might send a clear message to kids that if you use these substances, your hope of playing organized baseball is nil.

I agree with Senator Mitchell in that there’s no sense in punishing players for transgressions that took place years or decades ago. Writers will have to decide on their own what to do in evaluating Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Sheffield and others when it comes time for Hall of Fame consideration. I don’t envy them that dilemma.

But no matter how it happens, change has to be serious, far reaching, and immediate. Baseball has faced literally dozens of crises in its history, including labor relations, gambling, race, free agency. It has weathered these storms and come back each time, stronger than ever. It needs to do it again, or else nobody will care who wins, who loses, who breaks a major record or who is inducted in Cooperstown.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Early December musings

· I’m a big college football fan, but this season has been maddening, and the NCAA refusing to implement anything resembling a playoff appears increasingly counter-intuitive, given what’s transpired over the past few weeks. Gene Wojciechowski of summarizes it better than I could. Maybe this year the Lords of the NCAA should just determine that nobody’s worthy of being called National Champion.

· The Boston Celtics are DAMN good. I haven’t said that preceding sentence in well over 20 years. Have you watched them play? This team is for real. Kevin Garnett has turned them into a whole other animal, and I don’t know about you, but I’m already envisioning the C’s going up against San Antonio in a hot, stifling June series. I think we’ve waited long enough for Banner #17, don’t you?

· George Mitchell’s steroids report for MLB is due out any day. It might have the impact of a nuclear warhead. I’m idly wondering if it will be hard hitting enough to get Congress involved, forcing the implementation of an IOC-type testing program, or perhaps threatening to revoke MLB’s utterly ludicrous anti-trust exemption, which has been in place since the early days of Prohibition. It might even succeed in shaking the players’ union out of its selfish intransigence. Well, ok, maybe that’s asking a bit much.

· I love that Kenny Rogers fired Scott Boras so he could re-sign with the Tigers, as he had wanted all along. Scott Boras should watch “Jerry Maguire” sometime. There are some important truths for him in that movie.

· Dick Williams, the manager of the Red Sox’ Impossible Dream team of 1967 as well as the great ’72 and ‘73 Oakland A’s teams and a pennant winner in San Diego, has been voted into the Hall of Fame. Good for him. Williams was a superb, no-nonsense kind of manager that we’d call “old school” today. The only promise he made to reporters before the ’67 season was “We’ll win more games than we’ll lose”. That would be been good enough for the majority of the fan base at the time. By the time Williams’ career was done, franchises in both Boston and Oakland were transformed forever.

· Brooklyn Dodgers fans will be furious that the late Walter O’Malley is going to enshrined in Cooperstown as well, but that’s just too bad. He deserves to be in. He helped transform the game exactly 50 years ago. A shame he couldn’t live to see the day.

· Sometime during (or after) the baseball general manager meetings in Nashville, the Red Sox will have one of the following on the 40-man roster: Johan Santana, Eric Bedard or Dan Haren. And we’ll be missing some combination of Coco Crisp, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholtz, Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson.

· Add me to the list of fans who will be seriously pissed off if we lose Ellsbury or Buchholtz. It isn’t that I don’t want Johan Santana: he is, hands down, one of the three best starters in the game. Acquiring him will create a rotation that borders on the unfair, but he’s going to demand a contract that will rival Venezuela’s annual oil revenues, and Theo still has to make Jonathan Papelbon happy in another year, so Pap can continue doing his deranged rocker act each October. Home grown talent is worth so much more than we realize, and when it pans out (like Lester, Papelbon, Pedroia, Ellsbury and Buchholtz, all of whom contributed to the team’s championship trophy), it affords a team a huge advantage. I don’t want to lose those few gems we develop in house that we already KNOW are going to make it big. Can you say Jeff Bagwell?