This weekend, Jim Rice will become a permanent resident of the Hall of Fame — 20 years after his final at-bat in a Red Sox uniform.
As his long purgatory on the writer's ballot attests, Rice was a controversial pick and his candidacy always seemed to reveal the dividing line between old school and new school, East Coast media and the rest of the country, statheads and saberhaters. Those divisions may always exist, but, as they say, the facts on the ground are these: Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer.
There's no disputing that.
But as we watch Rice deliver his speech to the crowd on the Cooperstown lawn, let's ask a question that will have an impact on the larger baseball world.
What does the induction of Jim Rice mean for other guys who are still outside looking in?
After Bruce Sutter was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, a groundswell of public support emerged for the candidacy of fellow reliever Goose Gossage, who — while not as proficient at the splitter, the pitch whose mastery seems to have gotten Sutter into the Hall — was probably the best relief pitcher of Sutter's era.
So might Rice's induction wind up helping some of the other great slugging outfielders of his era who are still on the outside looking in, like fellow MVPs Dave Parker, Andre Dawson, and Dale Murphy? As Kyle Wingfield wrote in the Wall Street Journal, by the time those players finished playing and had completed the five-year waiting period, the steroid era was underway, making their career numbers look small by comparison. Now that Rice has overcome the misfortune of timing, it's possible some of his contemporaries may be able to take advantage.
Dale Murphy is one of the players most frequently mentioned in conversations about Rice, though he was nearly his polar opposite as a player. Rice was a big, slow, African-American; Murphy was thin, fast, and white. Rice was a poor defensive corner outfielder; Murphy was a catcher turned Gold Glove center fielder. Rice's teams won; Murphy's teams lost. Rice was combative with the press; Murphy was a famously nice guy who never drank or swore.
But despite all of those differences, they wound up with similar numbers: 382 homers and 1,451 RBI for Rice, 398 homers and 1,266 RBI for Murphy.
Rice's candidacy — which was usually accompanied by the magic words "most feared" — centered on his best years as an established ballplayer. In other words, once he'd grown into a hitter and before he fell off a cliff.
In the 12 seasons from 1975 to 1986, he averaged 29 homers and 106 RBI a year with an .876 OPS. (.876 may not seem like much these days, but that's the fourth-highest OPS during that period, behind HOFers Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Eddie Murray.)
Murphy had fewer effective years, basically the 10 seasons from 1979 to 1988, but two MVPs to Rice's one, four Silver Sluggers to Rice's two, and five Gold Gloves to Rice's zero. During that period, Murphy averaged 30 homers and 90 RBI with an .868 OPS. (Murphy's seventh in OPS, sixth in RBIs and second in homers over that stretch.)
Both Rice and Murphy stopped being effective players after their early 30s. In Rice's final three seasons, ages 34-36, he had a .726 OPS with 10 homers a year; in Murphy's final five, ages 33-37, he had a .692 OPS with 12 homers a year. If Murphy had been forced to retire due to injury or a medical condition like Kirby Puckett, rather than played terribly through his mid-30s, he might have been inducted long ago. Since the greatest argument against Rice is that he stopped being good at a relatively young age, Murphy should benefit from the fact that this didn't stop Rice from getting in, as Braves blogger Mac Thomason has written.
• Fenway Park was a better hitters' park than Fulton County was.
• The National League was the superior league to the AL during their careers.
• Rice hit into a ton of double plays.
• Murph walked a lot more, at least in his best seasons.
• Murphy was a Gold Glove centerfielder, Rice an average-at-best left fielder.
Of the '80s slugging outfielders who are left on the ballot — Dawson, Parker, and Murphy — Dawson still has the best chance of being elected. He received 67 percent of the vote last year and has seen his balloting climb steadily in the past few years, just like Rice.
Meanwhile, Parker and Murphy have been mired between 10-15 percent for a number of years now. They may never make it, because the media in Pittsburgh and Atlanta simply don't have the same wattage as Rice's backers in Boston or Dawson's in Chicago.
So, while Rice's induction will almost surely lead to a victory for Dawson, it's hard to know whether it will raise Murphy from the morass. His candidacy certainly deserves a boost. Will voters take another look at the best center fielder of the 1980's?
Or will he have to wait for the Veterans Committee to put him where he belongs?