At 2 p.m., it will be announced that Rickey Henderson, in his first year of eligibility, and Jim Rice, in his last, are the newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Neither will come as a surprise; Henderson’s election has been a foregone conclusion for a decade, while Rice’s became inevitable with his surge in the balloting last year.
That inevitability is why the debate over Rice’s candidacy, so fierce a year ago, has been quiet this time around. The hagiographers, the storytellers, the mythmakers…they’ve won. Those who would argue the objective standards have lost. Once Rice advanced to within a handful of votes and a spot as the leading returning vote getter, it was clear that he would cross the line this time around, making a debate over his candidacy pointless. All of the points made last year, and the year prior, and the year before that are just as valid, just as winning as they have always been. All of the comparisons of Rice to Hall members, and those left out, and his peers on the ballot still show him to fall below the line. Nevertheless, the idea that Rice was the “most feared” hitter of his era, a notion that is both unproven and unprovable, has carried the day.
Five years after he played his final game, when the idea that he was the most feared slugger of his era should have been most fresh in the minds of the electorate, Rice finished eighth in the balloting with 137 votes, just shy of 30% of the pool. He was the second-highest vote getter among corner outfielders, just behind Tony Oliva. Four years later, on an admittedly deep ballot, Rice garnered 146 votes, appearing on 29.4% of the ballots. The idea that Rice was the most feared hitter in baseball during his career, which again should have been fresh in the minds of the voters, carried little weight with more than 70% of those with ballots.
Bill James once wrote that the further removed you got from a player’s career, the more that career became about the player’s numbers. In Rice’s case, the exact opposite effect occurred. As we looked more and more at the numbers and realized that Rice had a short career, and a short peak, and didn’t hit all that well outside of Fenway Park, and his peak was more about counting stats built in a great lineup than what he did himself, and that he didn’t contribute very much outside of the batter’s box…his vote totals grew.
There’s no rationality there. As we get further from Rice’s career, the more the mythology of it is carrying the day, as opposed to the objective performance record. Rice had leveled off, for a five-year period, between 50% and 60% of the vote. Nearly 20 years after his last good season, Jim Rice had been judged 11 times as unworthy of the Hall of Fame.
Then, in 2006, he jumped, and in 2008 he jumped again, and in 2009 he’ll jump in. There’s no good reason for this, but let me proffer a bad one that makes more and more sense to me as we go through this. The leap in Rice’s vote totals is reflective of a generational change within the voting pool. You have to be a ten-year member of the BBWAA to get a vote, so new voters in the mid-2000s would have started writing in the mid-1990s, and they’d be…well, they’d be about my age. They’d have grown up watching Jim Rice, and they’d remember, even more than the people covering him, the stories about his prowess. They weren’t making the myth, they were the ones swallowing it whole.
When it came time to fill out their first Hall ballots, those writers focused on Rice as a statement of their knowledge of the game, their commitment to telling the stories as opposed to buying all that stat stuff those other guys were doing. Those writers, the ones between 35 and 45, who watched Rice as a kid and bought the legend, are putting him into the Hall of Fame today.
Rice’s honor isn’t about him. Rice’s honor is about late baby boomer sportswriters a little bit fazed, a littel bit daunted, by the objectivist revolution in baseball validating their own youth, their own memories, their own relevance.
I’ll have more on this as a guest on ESPNews today at 2 p.m. ET.