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Friday, January 9, 2009
Updated: January 11, 3:06 PM ET
Rice takes final swing at Hall of Fame

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

By my calculation, it's been more than 7,100 days since Jim Rice last swung a bat in a major league baseball game. That was Aug. 3, 1989. And you want to know how long ago that was?

Billy Beane was still an active player. Barack Obama was in law school. And there was no such show as "The Simpsons." That's how long.

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So for Jim Rice to be still sweating out Hall of Fame election days, two decades later, seems like a form of torture that should have been outlawed by the Geneva Convention, not endorsed by a place as cool as the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Shouldn't five years be enough to fairly evaluate any candidate? Or 10, tops? This is a topic someone in Cooperstown needs to address one of these years. Isn't it?

But in the meantime, the good news for Jim Rice is: This is it. He's done.

It's his 15th and final year on the ballot. So either he collects that 2.8 percent of the vote that he missed by last year, or, at the very least, he's freed from writers-ballot purgatory. Forever. Hey, 'bout time.

The guess here, though, is that Rice is finally going to make it. That he'll join Ralph Kiner and Red Ruffing as the only players in history to be elected on their very last shot. And that he'll join the one, the only, Rickey Henderson on the induction stage next July.

It's Rickey's first year on this ballot, in case you missed that news. And he's going to breeze into Cooperstown as easily as he used to whoosh around the bases in his prime. So he'll never know the agony we've put poor Jim Rice through -- luckily for him.

I voted for both of those men this year, along with six others. So here's a look at my own ballot -- the eight players I voted for, plus several I didn't.

The Last-Timers

Jim Rice

Rice

Jim Rice: Yes

Ten years ago, Rice wasn't even getting 30 percent of the vote. By last year, without getting a single hit, he'd somehow climbed beyond 72 percent. So even though he still missed by 16 votes, he has put himself in a position where this has to be the year. Uh, doesn't it?

No player in history has ever gotten that close and not made the Hall of Fame. So if the Jim Rice-wasn't-great-enough crowd is tough enough to keep him out this time, those voters will help him make the kind of history no one ever wants to make.

For years now, I've chronicled my own numerous sleepless nights trying to figure out where to place Rice in historical context. In my nearly 20 years of voting for the Hall of Fame, he's the only candidate I've ever spent a decade not voting for and then, after years of conversations with people in the game -- and hundreds of e-mail exchanges with many insightful readers -- eventually changed my mind on.

So I understand exactly what those 151 voters who left him off their ballot last year were thinking. Rice's career tumbled off a cliff at age 33. He never reached 500 home runs, let alone 400. And he spent nearly 25 percent of his career DH-ing. So he doesn't have the multidimensional-player credentials some of these holdout voters are looking for to push them to the other side.

But here's the reason I convinced myself he deserved this vote: The Fear Factor. In the 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985, American League pitchers would rather have seen Freddy Krueger stalking up their street than Jim Rice stalking toward the old batter's box.

In those 11 seasons, Rice finished in the top five in six MVP elections -- and led the American League in home runs, RBIs, runs scored, slugging and extra-base hits. Only George Brett was even in the same area code as him in many of those categories.

So he got this vote. Will he get the 16 more he needs to get his plaque on Cooperstown's wall? That's the biggest drama of Ballot Day 2009, by far.

Tommy John

John

Tommy John: No

It isn't easy not voting for a 288-game winner. But while I'd gladly vote for Tommy John for the sports-medicine Hall of Fame, I ran my streak to 15 years in a row of not casting a vote for him for that other Hall.

I did do for him what I do for every candidate who survives that many years on the ballot, though: I gave him one long, thorough, last look. And here's what kept me from voting for this man, despite all those wins, three 20-win seasons, three years leading the league in shutouts and 164 particularly miraculous wins after his career (and elbow ligaments) had been pronounced dead:

In 26 years in the big leagues, he won 15 games only five times; he owns the lowest strikeout rate of any 200-game winner since World War II. And baseball-reference.com ranked him 310th all-time in ERA-Plus -- behind a crowd that includes Britt Burns, Alex Fernandez, Paul Quantrill and (obviously) 300-some other guys.

So he's a nice man, that Tommy John. Had a fine career. And I admire his ligaments' invaluable contribution to medical science. But he was 350 votes short of election last year. So unfortunately, he's about to become the winningest pitcher in history who's not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The First-Timers

Rickey Henderson

Henderson

Rickey Henderson: Yes

If only all candidates were as easy to evaluate as Rickey. The greatest leadoff hitter of all time. The greatest base stealer of all time. One of the two greatest power/speed combo packages of all time (behind that Barry Bonds dude). And, of course, the fastest talker of all time.

So I had no need to spend hours on extensive Rickey research. But I did anyway, because it was so much fun.

You'll be hearing lots of vintage Rickey stories, and almost as many vintage Rickey numbers, over the next few days. So here's my contribution -- my five favorite Rickey Henderson stats:

     • Rickey stole 100 bases in a season three times. That's almost as many times as all the other players in the live-ball era did it combined (five times).

     • Rickey also ripped off six seasons of at least 80 steals. All the other players in the live-ball era combined for 10 of those seasons.

     • Rickey walked at least 80 times in 12 straight seasons. The only player in history with a longer streak: Lou Gehrig, with 13 -- 70 years ago.

     • Rickey's other amazing streak was 14 straight seasons with at least 40 stolen bases. Just two other players in the live-ball era even had more than eight of those years in a row: Joe Morgan (9) and Lou Brock (13).

     • Finally, only one player since 1939 has ever had a season in which he rang up more runs scored than games played (minimum: 120 games). So who was that? Our man Rickey, of course, in 1985: 146 runs, just 143 games. Mind-blowing!

David Cone

Cone

David Cone: No

I didn't vote for Cone. But the more I looked at his credentials, the better they got.

His 194-126 lifetime record computes to a .606 winning percentage. That's a higher winning percentage than Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling or John Smoltz. And among all 190-game winners in the division-play era, only nine pitchers beat that.

Cone won a Cy Young, finished in the top four in the Cy Young voting four times and led his league, in various years, in strikeouts, strikeout ratio, wins and shutouts. And you know that rep he had as a big-game pitcher? He earned it. That 12-3 postseason record (including 10-1, 3.01 ERA, in the LCS and World Series) doesn't lie.

Ultimately, I felt as if he didn't sustain his greatness long enough to be a Hall of Famer. But it's no insult to say David Cone was not quite a Hall of Famer. At his best, he was one tremendous pitcher.

Mark Grace

Grace

Mark Grace: No

Grace is another guy who will probably slip off the ballot in a hurry -- but probably deserves better. He got almost 2,500 hits, batted .300 nine times, finished in the top 10 in his league in on-base percentage seven times, won four Gold Gloves at first base and had a spectacular October for the 1989 Cubs (11-for-17 with an 1.800 OPS).

There's going to be a tendency among voters to say he wasn't productive enough to be a Hall of Famer at a power position. But look again. Only four first basemen in the last quarter-century scored more runs. Only nine drove in more runs. Just nine had more extra-base hits. And nobody got more hits.

On the other hand, Grace ranked 25th among those same first basemen in slugging, 16th in offensive winning percentage and 22nd in Lee Sinins' Runs Created Above Position stat. So when it came time to cast a vote, I couldn't quite rank him with the first basemen in Cooperstown. But was this man a heck of a player? Absolutely.

The Many-Timers

Andre Dawson

Dawson

Andre Dawson: Yes

There was a time I thought Dawson was doomed to a life sentence of Jim Rice ballot limbo. But a funny thing happened to him last year. He escaped his cell in Limbo-ville. The Hawk was one of the biggest high-jumpers of the year, adding 49 votes and leaping to within 50 votes of election. So now here he is, eight elections down the road, with a very real shot.

I understand the reservations about Dawson's .323 career on-base percentage and zero 50-walk seasons (in a 20-year career). All I know is that every who's-the-best-player-in-the-National-League conversation in the 1980s included his name.

He won an MVP award and finished second twice. He was a rookie of the year. He won eight Gold Gloves. And even though he spent the last half of his career applying more ice to his knees than wiped out the Titanic, his combination of hits (2,774), home runs (438) and stolen bases (314) puts him in a group with only Willie Mays and Barry Bonds.

Except for that pesky on-base percentage, this was a man who truly had it all: power, speed, defense, leadership and massive respect among his peers. If you wrote all that down on his Hall of Fame plaque, seems to me the reaction from most people would be: Why'd it take him so long to get elected?

Tim Raines

Raines

Tim Raines: Yes

It will be fascinating to see what kind of impact Henderson's appearance on the ballot will have on Dawson's long-time teammate -- because Raines just might be the best leadoff hitter in history who wasn't named Ricky Henderson.

Because Raines spent 12 often-glorious seasons in Canada, all bulletins about his brilliance apparently were stopped at the border by customs officers. But I evaded capture after I rolled out Raines' most spectacular credentials last year. So here they come again:

Over the seven seasons from 1982 to 1988, Tim Raines led the National League in singles, doubles, triples and walks. OK, think about that. Now think about the job description of a leadoff man. You want that guy to reach base, correct? Well, this man reached base more times than anyone around him every possible way he could reach it.

And for those who also like their leadoff hitters to steal a base every once in a while, consider this: Raines was the only player in history with at least 70 steals six years in a row. And stole 808 bases in his career. And he racked up all those steals while compiling the best stolen base success rate of all time (84.7 percent).

Finally, in an age when we're supposed to have a new appreciation for on-base percentage as opposed to batting average, this is the stat that always seems to stagger the Tim Raines doubters out there:

Raines and Tony Gwynn had roughly the same number of plate appearances in their careers -- and guess which one reached base more times? All of you who guessed Tim Raines, you're all truly enlightened, 21st-century baseball observers. Oh, and you're also absolutely right. So how come this guy got only 24 percent of the vote again?

Bert Blyleven

Blyleven

Bert Blyleven: Yes

There isn't a candidate on this ballot whose stock has taken a more dramatic turn than Blyleven's, even though he's another fellow who, as you may have noticed, hasn't played a game since the Reagan administration.

This is his 12th year on the ballot. It took him four years to get even 100 votes. It took him four more to get to 200 votes. But by last year, a man who 10 years ago was getting fewer votes (70) than Minnie Minoso was all the way up to 336, and 61.9 percent.

So Blyleven is going to make it, I think. And if he does, he can thank Bill James, Rob Neyer and the many sharp, analytical, modern-day baseball analysts who helped dopes like me (who initially didn't vote for him) see the light.

With the help of Lee Sinins' fabulous creation, the Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, I know now that Blyleven gave up 344 fewer runs in his career than the average pitcher of his time. In the entire live-ball era, the only nine pitchers who beat him in that department are Roger Clemens, Lefty Grove, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Carl Hubbell, Bob Gibson and (surprise) Curt Schilling.

Those are all Hall of Fame names on my ballot. And now so, too, is Bert Blyleven's.

Jack Morris

Morris

Jack Morris: Yes

Here's another candidate who's beginning to pick up steam. Unfortunately for him, his turbo must be on the fritz because he's not picking it up anywhere near as fast as Blyleven.

Seven years ago, Morris was getting only 97 votes. Now, mysteriously, his vote total has topped 200 three elections in a row, peaking last year at 233 and 42.9 percent. But that also means 310 voters aren't checking his name. And he's already in his 10th year on the ballot. So his odds of tacking on another 32 percent aren't good.

The compelling argument against him is that his 3.90 ERA would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. And that's an argument that rattles around my brain every year this time, too. I admit that.

But if you compare this man to his peers, what do you find? You find that over his 14 seasons as a full-time starter (1979-92), Morris won 41 more games than any other starter of his generation -- and outwon Nolan Ryan by 65 wins (233-168).

And if you're looking for compelling evidence of acehood, you find that, too. And not just in Game 7, 1991, either. Morris pitched a no-hitter, started three All-Star Games, was a huge presence on three World Series staffs and started Opening Day every darned year, no matter what. So I've voted for him 10 years in a row, and I'll keep on voting for him 'til he disappears from the ballot.

Dale Murphy

Murphy

Dale Murphy: Yes

Has any modern candidate had a weirder voting history than Dale Murphy? He once used to get more votes than either Morris or Blyleven, and actually collected 23.2 percent of the vote in the 2000 election. But now he's gone seven straight years without even making it to 15 percent. And that's a trend that doesn't ordinarily lead a guy to scenic upstate New York.

So obviously, the qualities people saw in Murphy when his career was fresh in their minds have been obliterated by time, and by the insane offensive numbers of the next generation. But we're supposed to measure Hall of Famers against their own generation, right? So I keep wondering whatever happened to all the people who used to argue Dale Murphy might be the best player in baseball.

In the '80s, Murphy led the National League in runs and hits, tied Mike Schmidt for the most RBIs and finished second to Schmidt in home runs. More than that, he was also a back-to-back MVP, a five-time Gold Glove winner, a 30-30 man, a guy who once led his whole sport in All-Star votes and one of the best human beings ever to make a home run trot. So if he's not a Hall of Famer, he's sure the best player on this ballot who's only getting 75 stinking votes a year.

Mark McGwire

McGwire

Mark McGwire: Yes

Once again, I'm saving the Mac Man for last, because I'm tired of the sideshow that swirls around him. And I'm tired of giving the same monologue every year, a monologue no one apparently wants to hear.

So here's the short version. If you're interested in the long version, Google my ballot columns from last year, or the year before that.

Why did I vote for this guy again? I did it because I try to be consistent from year to year. I don't vote for a player one year and then change my mind the next year, and then change back the next year, without some really compelling reason to do so. And as more members of the steroid generation start stampeding toward us in the next few years, I think we all need to think about consistency as voters.

How are we going to handle that entire generation and feel as though we were fair and consistent? There's really no good answer. But I still believe it's impossible for us as voters to try to pick and choose who did what during the steroids era.

We know, all of us, that there are hundreds of players who used steroids but whose names have never been mentioned -- not on the talk shows, not in the Mitchell report, not even in the blogosphere. So how do we justify letting those players sail into Cooperstown while cracking down only on guys who showed up in Jose Canseco's book, or got subpoenaed, or got linked to Kirk Radomski?

I still haven't been able to resolve that question. So my philosophy is to try to handle this issue as consistently as humanly possible. And the only true way to be consistent is to vote for just about all the best players of that era -- or none of them.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.