Warming up to Rice

For 11 years, I've resisted voting for Jim Rice for the Hall of Fame. This year, I plan to right that wrong. My guess -- indeed, my hope -- is that enough voters will join me and Rice will finally gain entrance to Cooperstown.

It helps that this year's ballot lacks any marquee newcomers. Without any first-time names to check off, voters often reevaluate nominees they've passed over in other years.

More than anyone, Rice stands to benefit from that reassessment. In an era when power numbers are properly viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion, Rice's production over the course of his 16 years gains additional stature.

Rice's numbers are very good -- 382 homers, 1,451 RBI -- and best of all, they're not the least bit tainted. At a time when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds -- arguably, the three most productive hitters in the game over the last dozen or so years -- have been linked to illegal enhancements, there is no skepticism regarding Rice, no "did he or didn't he?" question to be asked.

When it comes to Rice's stats, it's useful to recall the infamous line from Seinfeld: They're real ... and they're spectacular.

Of course, as 50-homer seasons became the benchmark in the steroid era and No. 8 hitters routinely hit double figures in home runs, Rice's stats seemed to similarly suffer by comparison. Rice, after all, never hit more than 46 homers in a single season and fell short of the 400 career homer club which, once upon a time, was tantamount to election.

For some, it seemed difficult to regard Rice as a slugger for the ages when Cecil Fielder, Brady Anderson and other non-Hall of Fame types had each done something Rice hadn't -- hit 50 homers in a season.

But my perspective on Rice began to change a year ago, thanks to colleague Jayson Stark, who noted Rice's achievements within the context of his time. Longtime Red Sox public relations executive Dick Bresciani followed with his own, more exhaustive research, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Rice's accomplishments had gone unappreciated.

Sure, I rationalized, Rice was a very good hitter. But because he was only an average outfielder and baserunner, I believed him to be too one-dimensional to warrant induction into Cooperstown, and I wondered whether he was good enough for a long enough period of time. (For the record, Rice's personality, which was sometimes less than sunny, didn't enter into the equation. Nor, of course, should it have. The people who covered Rice on a regular basis during his playing career, and thus were most often exposed to his occasional churlishness, have been his most consistent supporters.)

But with direction from Stark and Bresciani, I saw that Rice's dominance as a hitter -- particularly when matched against his contemporaries -- is plenty good enough for the Hall.

For a period of 12 years -- 1975-86 -- Rice led all American League players in 12 different offensive categories, including home runs (350), RBI (1,276), total bases (3,670), slugging percentage (.520), runs (1,098) and hits (2,145).

In that span, his typical season looked something like this: 29 homers, 106 RBI, 91 runs scored and an average above .300.

But what really elevates the case for Rice is context. He led every player in his league in virtually every significant offensive category for a dozen years. And when you add in all of the National League players from the same era, Rice still leads in five categories and finishes second in three others.

First or second in eight different categories for a dozen years? That sounds plenty dominant enough for me.

It's been suggested that if Rice had found a way to add 18 homers to his career total and lifted his career batting average of .298 two measly points, that his election would be guaranteed. But such benchmarks are superficial and ever-changing.

Better to view Rice through his own era when, in addition to winning the AL MVP in 1978, Rice finished in the top five in AL MVP voting five other times. He led the AL in homers three times and twice led the league in RBI.

Finally, there's historical perspective. Among all major leaguers, only nine players have compiled as high a career batting average (.298) and as many homers. They are: Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Stan Musial.

They're all Hall of Famers. Rice should be, too.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.