This is Jim Rice's 14th appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot. He only gets one more audition before he's turned over to the veterans committee. But he won't need year No. 15, or the smoke-filled room of the old-timers' group. Ballots are due to be mailed before Tuesday and when the announcement is made next month, I'm betting that Rice is going to Cooperstown.
Rich Gossage and Rice should top this year's ballot, gathering the necessary 75 percent of the vote. There would be nice symmetry in the sight of this duo walking through the gates of the Hall together. Rice and Gossage were two of the central figures of the 1978 pennant race and it would be appropriate to see them both enshrined on the 30th anniversary of the great race.
Adding to the 1978 Boston-New York theme, the late Larry Whiteside, pioneer of African-American baseball writers and a man who wrote thousands of words about Rice and Gossage, will be awarded the J.G. Spink Award posthumously when the hardball world gathers in Cooperstown, N.Y. this summer.
Not everyone agrees with me on Rice's chances. It's a risky prediction, given that Rice as recently as 1999 received only 29.4 percent of the vote and actually went backward last year.
But Rice has three things going for him: 1. His vote total has been north of 60 percent in recent years and Sox historian Dick Bresciani has boosted Rice's candidacy with a convincing public relations campaign; 2. The more we talk about steroids, the better Rice's numbers look; 3. There are no new candidates to overwhelm the voters.
Two years ago, Rice received more votes than any player who didn't earn enshrinement, but last year his chances diminished because of the introduction of new candidates Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. The best new names on this year's ballot are Tim Raines and David Justice. Rice beats both.
It shouldn't play out this way, of course. A candidate's resume does not change from year to year. Rice's numbers are no better today then they were 10 years ago, so why is he suddenly Hall worthy? It's because writers can vote for only 10 players and many scribes vote only for the top two or three candidates. Rice was buried last year by Ripken and Gwynn. Not this time.
Writers looking at the new ballot want to vote for somebody and it's clear that Gossage and Rice - so close in recent years - have better resumes than any of the new names.
The presence of second-year candidate Mark McGwire helps Rice, too. With 583 career homers, Big Mac would have been a slam dunk for Cooperstown if not for the steroid scandal. His name came up for the first time last year and voters categorically rejected him. With memories of his de facto congressional confession still fresh, only 23.5 percent of the electorate went for McGwire.
It can only help Rice. He was a dominant power hitter before steroids polluted the game and skewed the numbers. Rice hit 46 homers in a season back when it meant something - before 50 became the province of guys like Brady Anderson and Luis Gonzalez. People who played and watched major league baseball from 1975-86 know that Rice was the most feared hitter of his day. Managers thought about intentionally walking him when he came to the plate with the bases loaded. He played hard and he played hurt. His managers loved him. Opponents feared him.
On the flip side, Rice is a power hitter who failed to reach 400 homers and broke down physically while in his mid-30s. Defense was not part of his game and his postseason numbers are weak. It's not fair to claim he's been kept out of the Hall because he was uncooperative (downright rude, usually) with the media. Eddie Murray was far more difficult with the press and he cruised into Cooperstown, as did silent Steve Carlton.
Rice has been forced to wait because he is a marginal candidate - which is no disgrace when we're talking about the Hall of Fame. A lot of great players don't get a sniff of the Hall. Take a look at the careers of Andre Dawson (438 homers) Harold Baines, and Dale Murphy. None of them have gotten as close as Rice.
I voted for Rice, Gossage, and Bert Blyleven this year. I try to vote for the same players every year and stuck with Luis Tiant and Ron Santo till they were bounced from the ballot. Commissioner Bob Ryan still votes for Dave Concepcion every year. We know that Lee Smith was a save machine, but it's hard to vote for a selfish lug who put up numbers in an era when artificial saves were invented. Jack Morris is certainly worth a long look, but the 3.90 ERA is high.
Voting for the Hall is heady responsibility, without a doubt the most important annual task for members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. It's also a lot less fun than it once was, largely because of steroids and Rule 5 which states, ''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.''
There you have it. Baseball asks baseball writers to judge Hall of Fame worthiness based (in part) on a player's integrity and character. With all due respect to my estimable colleagues, what makes baseball scribes fit to pass judgment on ballplayers' ''integrity'' and ''character''? Why should any group be assigned this charge? It's unfair to both voters and players.
Nothing - not even fantasy leagues - kindles the fire of the fans like a good Hall of Fame argument. So I say Jim Ed Rice gets in this year. Let the arguments begin.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column will appear in Thursday's Boston Globe.