“At Last”: Jim Rice goes to the Hall

Get out your old Etta James LP, put it on your turntable, and go to her iconic song “At Last,” because Jim Rice is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown tomorrow, and it’s about time.

This settles years of heated arguments among the citizens of Red Sox Nation, in bar-rooms and around dining-room tables, about whether this would, or should, ever happen.

My son Andrew, who is one of my best friends and has many admirable qualities, has been arguing with me for years that Rice isn’t Hall material. The basis for his position is the tyranny of something called Jamesian statistical analysis, which crunches numbers in new and interesting ways.

But Andrew is innocent of actually ever having seen Jim Rice play, and my argument was based on the old-fashion method of being thrilled to watch a superb athlete on your team come up to bat, something I was privileged to see many a time in the late 70’s and 80’s.

The critics say Rice didn’t have the numbers, that he hit into too many double plays, that he struck out too much, that his career wasn’t long enough, that he wasn’t a great fielder. He did hit into too many double plays, because he hit the ball so hard he couldn’t beat out the throw. And he did strike out a lot, because he had a big swing (so did Babe Ruth). And he didn’t start out as a great fielder in the tricky Fenway left-field, but he became one.

But I’ll give you some numbers: a life-time batting average just under 300 (298); 382 home runs; 1, 451 RBI’s; 8 times on the All-Star team; 2 Silver slugger awards; 1978 AL MVP.

He came up to the big leagues in 1975 with another rookie, Fred Lynn, and the two, nicknamed “the Gold Dust Twins,” set Boston ablaze with their exploits. Lynn ended the season as Rookie of the Year and AL MVP. It could just have well been Rice, who came in second in the ROTY voting and third in the MVP voting. Hit by a pitch in the final week of the season he missed the spectacular ‘75 World Series that the Sox lost in seven games to the Reds. Sox fans have always wondered what the outcome would have been if Rice had played.

In 1978, a year I went to far too many games at Fenway, including the final tragic play-off game against the Yankees when Bucky Dent hit the winning home run into the Green Monster, Rice was about as good as it ever gets. He hit 3.15, and led the league in triples, home runs and RBI’s, the only player to ever do that in the same season.

Rice came to Boston during a time of great racial tension, and played for a team whose management at the time was not known for its advanced views (not to put too fine a point on it.) He was a proud and dignified man, who developed an awkward relationship with the Boston sports press, perhaps the most knowledgeable (and arrogant) in the country. He replaced Carl Yastrzemski, a Boston icon, who had himself replaced Ted Williams, in left field. The comparisons were daily and got under his skin. He stopped talking to certain reporters, some of whom got to vote for the Hall of Fame, and this, in my view, delayed his entry.

But he put up amazing numbers in the pre-steroid era, and was the most feared batter in the game for many years. And I saw him play in many a game, and I can testify that his coming to bat brought energy and anticipation to the Fenway faithful.

This was his last year of eligibility, and a great injustice has been avoided by his induction. I’m glad to see him in the Hall of Fame, where he surely deserves to be. At last!

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