Debate rages in Rice's last year on ballot

If you have access to a wireless connection and a Web site that follows baseball, you're probably aware that Jim Rice's Hall of Fame case stems from his reputation as one of the "most feared" hitters in the game in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Which leads to a natural follow-up question: From a pitcher's perspective, how do you best define fear?

Did Rice elicit the type of fear that makes a pitcher wonder, "If I leave a ball over the middle of the plate, is this guy going to hit it 450 feet?" Or was the fear of a more personal and self-preservational nature? As in, "If I make a mistake with this guy, I might lose a body part."? Ballplayers are only human, and you'll find plenty of third basemen who would privately admit to feeling a sense of trepidation when they're playing in tight and Gary Sheffield is in the box.

Rice, a slugging left fielder with the Boston Red Sox, was a strong and imposing presence in the pre-steroid era at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, yet skilled enough to hit a career .298 and handle a wide array of pitches. So the challenges he posed could mean different things to different people.

No one understands that better than former Baltimore pitcher Mike Flanagan, who has a battle scar to prove it.

In the late 1970s, the Red Sox and Orioles had a heated rivalry in the American League East. Earl Weaver's Baltimore club was built on pitching, and Rice was the focal point of a Boston lineup that included Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans and future Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk.

In the second inning of a game at Fenway Park in September 1979, Rice hit a screamer up the middle that deflected off Flanagan's right shin for a base hit. When Flanagan limped back to the dugout at the end of the inning, blood had seeped into his sock, his leg was throbbing and discolored and he asked Weaver what he should do.

"Put some freeze spray on it and just go back out there until you get in trouble," Weaver said.

In the eighth inning, with Flanagan clinging to a 3-2 lead, Weaver came to the mound for a conference.

"I said, 'Earl, what do you call trouble?' I've been pitching out here for eight innings on a peg leg, and I can't even feel my foot,'" Flanagan recalled, laughing. "This was almost 30 years ago, and I still have the scar on my right shin. I've got a little remembrance from Jim."

And now the time has come for a definitive verdict on Rice's legacy. He's on the Hall of Fame ballot for the 15th and last time, and he'll learn Jan. 12 whether it's good news or whether he's about to be shuttled off to the Veterans Committee for several years in Ron Santo-like purgatory.

History is clearly in his favor. Last year Rice was named on 72.2 percent of the ballots, to fall 16 votes short of induction. Of the 20 players who previously received between 70 and 75 percent of the vote, all 20 eventually made it into the Hall through the writers vote or the Veterans Committee.

All the signs point toward Rice's becoming the first player since Ralph Kiner in 1975 to be elected in his final year of Baseball Writers Association of America eligibility -- and joining sure thing Rickey Henderson on the podium in late July.

A Rice induction would generate a new round of tributes in Boston, where even columnists who had testy relationships with Rice during his playing career have championed his cause. Conversely, it will prompt yet another round of outrage, ridicule and name-calling in the blogosphere, where the writers who favor Rice are assessed on a sliding scale from misguided (best case) to imbecilic.

In an age of sophisticated statistical analysis and abundant forums for opinion, the dialogue is sometimes testy, and often entertaining.

The voting members of the BBWAA have gradually warmed to Rice's candidacy since he received 29.8 percent of the vote in his first appearance on the ballot in 1995. Rice has received a lift from the efforts of former Boston PR man Dick Bresciani, who has staged a spirited e-mail campaign on Rice's behalf.

Bresciani's argument is predicated on Rice's dominance during a 12-year period from 1975 through 1986, during which he led the American League in homers, hits, RBIs and nine other offensive categories. Rice also ranked among the top five in MVP voting six times -- the same as Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Murray.

To say that the number crunchers lack enthusiasm is an understatement of epic proportions.

Rice's detractors in the statistical community concede that his peak offensive numbers were impressive, but claim he fell off a cliff before making a serious case for Cooperstown. They point out that he was a base clogger, a GIDP machine and a mediocre defender at best (he never won a Gold Glove), and argue that his production wasn't nearly enough to overcome his lack of an all-around game.

Furthermore, Rice appeared to benefit greatly from playing in Boston before the construction of a new press box changed the wind patterns and made Fenway Park less of a hitter's haven. Rice posted a .920 career on base-slugging percentage at home and a .789 mark on the road. For sake of comparison, San Francisco Giants outfielder Randy Winn recorded a .790 OPS last season, and teammate Fred Lewis was a tick above that at .791.

The anti-Rice argument has received ample play on ESPN.com, where Rob Neyer and Keith Law have spoken forcefully against Rice's Hall-worthiness. And it's hard to forget the 2002 edition of the "New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," in which James rated Rice the 27th-best left fielder in history -- two spots behind Roy White -- and called Rice "probably the most overrated player of the last thirty years."

Craig Wright, an author and baseball statistician, voices a common sentiment -- that Dwight Evans is a stronger Hall candidate than Rice. Then Wright takes it a step further: He contends that Rice is barely better than Dick McAuliffe, the former Detroit Tigers infielder who received zero of 401 votes cast in his only appearance on the ballot in 1981.

"If you were to look up the rankings of great second basemen and put it in context the way a baseball analyst would look at it, you'd be surprised how high up Dick McAuliffe ranks," Wright said. "And if you looked at Jim Rice among left fielders, you'd be surprised how far down he ranks. They were very close to each other. It's a matter of perception."

The disparate views reflect the disconnect between those who place complete faith in the quantifiable and observers who prefer to take a step back and award bonus points for cachet, personal magnetism and a certain "wow" factor. It helps explain why Ozzie Smith is in Cooperstown and Alan Trammell will probably never get there.

Rice's playing contemporaries aren't immune to that starry-eyed point of view. At a press conference during the 2007 induction weekend, a reporter asked Cal Ripken Jr. to name his most glaring omission from Cooperstown. Ripken immediately mentioned Rice.

"Every year, when you'd go to the All-Star Game, there was always someone who batted fourth in the lineup," Ripken said. "Jim Rice was that guy."

To which Craig Wright, after checking the box scores, responds that Rice hit cleanup in precisely two All-Star Games.

"There are worse players than Rice in the Hall of Fame, but if you used them as the standard, then we should put another couple hundred players in," Wright said. "Those players were mistakes. The election of Rice would be another mistake."

Few people have a more well-rounded perspective on Rice's candidacy than Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. The two stars were spokesmen for Spalding and became good friends on the golf course, and they had 90 face-to-face encounters over nine seasons. Rice batted .218 against Palmer, but hit nine homers (eight of them solo shots) for a .575 slugging percentage.

In hindsight, Palmer recalls Rice as a "strong Tony Oliva." Rice was patient enough to take what opponents gave him, and skilled enough to shoot a slider on the outside corner the opposite way for a single. Palmer takes issue with the perception that Rice thrived in Boston by playing pepper with the Fenway Park Green Monster; most of Rice's home runs against Palmer were to right center field.

In the unlikely event that Rice falls short of the 75 percent threshold required for election this winter, Palmer might eventually be required to pass judgment on him in the Veterans Committee.

"I think offensively, Jim Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame," Palmer told ESPN.com. "I would have no quarrel with it. I know how tough an out he was, and how difficult he was to pitch to. I know he made everybody in that Boston lineup better -- and it was a terrific lineup.

"But if I was a sportswriter and I was going to vote for Jim Rice, I think you'd have to give just as much if not more consideration to Andre Dawson. He was such a great all-around player. He won the Gold Gloves. He hit the home runs. He stole the bases, and Jim Rice wasn't able to do that."

A lot of people don't think Dawson belongs in the Hall because of his .323 career on-base percentage. But like Rice, he derived a certain mystique from his status as "the man" among his peers.

"Al Michaels tells a story about how he was reading the Wall Street Journal one day and watching the game. Somebody said 'Reggie Jackson' and Al put the paper down," Palmer said. "I don't think if you were a Red Sox fan or a baseball fan in general, that people didn't stop talking to their children or their spouse or whatever and pay attention when Jim Rice came to the plate."

People paid attention then, and they're paying attention now. The stats guys aren't going to like it. But almost 30 years after denting Mike Flanagan's shin, Jim Rice is on the verge of making a bigger and far more lasting impression.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.