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Rice's case for enshrinement was enhanced by steroid era

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 24, 2009 12:03 PM

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As best we know, Jim Rice never took banned substances, never secretly used a syringe, and never relied on performance-enhancers. Yet, when the definitive account of the steroids era is written, there may be no one remembered as a greater beneficiary.

James Edward Rice is making his official journey into Cooperstown this weekend, immortalizing a career that took far too long validate. As it turned out, the voters are the ones who needed the help of steroids this time. Rice was the most dominating hitter in baseball during the majority of a career that lasted 2,089 games and covered at least parts of 16 seasons, and we didn’t understand how good he was, how truly worthy of enshrinement, until his numbers were crystallized by those greedy, self-promoting body builders who all but engineered their careers in a test tube.

Shame on them, of course. Shame on us, too. Thank heavens that we recognized the error of our ways before it was too late.

With regard to Hall of Fame enshrinement, we all know the rules. A player presents his case over the course of thousands of games, and then he retires. Five years later, he comes up for election. He remains eligible so long as he gets 5 percent of the vote, for a maximum of 15 years, no matter who else joins the discussion. If and when he is named on 75 percent of ballots cast in any one year, he takes his place in baseball’s pantheon and is effectively frozen in time.

Rice needed all 15 years, right down to the very last day,. In 2009, his 15th and final year of eligibility, Rice needed to appear on 405 of the 539 ballots cast to make it into the Hall of Fame. He ended up on 412. Even eight fewer votes would have left Rice with an approval rate of .7495 that would have robbed him of the game’s greatest individual honor. In Cooperstown, there is no rounding off and there is no such thing as a close second.

In retrospect, there can be no disputing the impact of steroids on Rice’s career, which ended in 1989, nine years before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in what has since proven to be nothing more than a long-drive contest. It all seems so silly now, doesn’t it? McGwire and Sosa hit a combined 136 home runs in 1998, precisely 35.6 percent of the total Rice hit in his career, and we celebrated them as superheroes. As it turned out, McGwire and Sosa were nothing more than superhuman, like the juiced-up Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV".

Five years later, when baseball’s dirty little secret exploded into a full-blown epidemic, the superheroes didn’t look so super anymore and the lumberjacks started getting their due. Rocky Balboa chopped wood on an abandoned farm in a snow-covered Soviet Union; Rice swung his axe in what was then our steroid-free national pastime. Rice went to eight All-Star Games and finished in the top five of the American League MVP balloting on six occasions. In 1978, the year he won the MVP, Rice batted .315 with 46 home runs, 139 RBIs and 406 total bases.

As it turns out, those numbers mean even more now than they did then.

By 2004, when the game’s steroids scandal was starting to mushroom, Hall of Fame voters were starting to recognize what many New Englanders learned during the summer of 1978. Back then, Rice hit the ball as consistently far as Big Mac or Sammy, and he didn’t do it in baseball’s version of the WWE. During the five-year period from 2000-2004, Rice appeared on the following percentage of Hall of Fame Ballots, in order: 51.5, 57.9, 55.1, 52.2, and 54.5. Some of those numbers resulted from an influx of candidates that included people like Eddie Murray and Gary Carter, some of whom took away votes from people like Rice. Some were a simple indication that many voters regarded Rice as the classic borderline candidate, a literal 50-50 proposition.

Then, beginning in 2005, the numbers started to go up, and they started to go up dramatically: 59.5, 64.8, 63.5, 72.2, and finally 76.4. Rice’s career accomplishments did not change during that span. He already had spent 10 years on the ballot. And yet, it was if someone had shed an entirely new light on the career of a man whose presence in the batter’s box, especially, should have been indisputable in the first place.

Like any voters in any election, the qualifying members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (who cast the Hall of Fame ballots) can be inconsistent and open themselves up to scrutiny. All of them have a responsibility to explain their decisions. Over the years, one of the greatest criticisms of the BBWAA has been the change in voting results from players like Rich Gossage all the way down to Rice. How can a player go from getting 29.4 percent of the vote one year (as Rice did in 1999) to getting 76.4 percent of the vote precisely 10 years later? How can voters explain such a glaring inconsistency when Rice did not have a single plate appearance during that span?

The final answer, of course, is that voting bodies change, standards change and even the game changes, the last of those all but coming in the form of a genetic alteration.

During those years, Jim Rice changed too, from a lumberjack into a baseball superhero.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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