Monday, January 12, 2009

Henderson & Rice Heading to Cooperstown

The Baseball Writers' Association of America has voted in Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. They will be inducted this summer along with the late Joe Gordon, who was inducted by the Veterans Committee last month.

Rickey Henderson was a shoo in. In his first year of eligibility, Henderson was voted in by nearly 95% of the BBWAA. Only Tom Seaver, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr received more votes in their first year of eligibility.

Henderson was in a class by himself. In 25 seasons, Henderson established himself as the best leadoff hitter the game has ever seen. His 1,406 stolen bases are a MLB record. He set the record in 1991 when he passed Lou Brock. Never one for modesty when he broke the record he announced, "I am the greatest of all-time." Henderson finished with nearly 500 more stolen bases than Brock. It isn't bragging if you can back it up. In 1980, in only his second season, Henderson stole 100 bases. Two years later he set a major league record with 130. A record that will surely never be broken. Between 1980 and 1991, he led the AL in stolen bases every year except 1987. In 1998, at the age of 39, Henderson would lead the AL in stolen bases with 66.

Henderson is mostly identified as a member of the Oakland Athletics where he played four stints over 13 years. While with Oakland, Henderson won a World Series ring in 1989 and the AL MVP in 1990. Henderson also played with the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres, Anaheim Angels, New York Mets, Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. He collected one more World Series ring with the Blue Jays in 1993; was named to the AL All Star Team ten times and had more than 3000 hits in his career.

I got to see him play at Fenway Park as a member of the Mariners in 2000 and in 2002 when he was a member of the Red Sox. Henderson's final season was in 2003 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I never got to see Jim Rice play in person. Unlike the well travelled Henderson, Rice played his entire 16 year career with the Boston Red Sox. Rice's best season was in 1978 when he won the AL MVP. That year Rice led the league in home runs, RBI, hits, slugging percentage, total bases and triples. He finished second in runs scored and third in the AL batting race. Rice would have four seasons of 200 or more hits and nearly had 2500 in his career. He led the AL in home runs three times, led the AL in RBI and slugging twice and was named to the AL All Star Team eight times. He also played in the 1986 World Series. Rice's career batting average was .298.

Rice probably should have retired after the 1986 season. Also unlike Henderson, Rice was in his last year of eligibility. If he didn't get in this year he would have been at the mercy of the Veterans Committee who have even tougher standards than the BBWAA. However, he just got over the 75% threshold receiving 76.4% of ballots casted. Rice's career declined steeply after 1986. He retired late in the 1989 season.

Rice did not have a good relationship with the media in Boston during his playing days. Moreover, his numbers were eclipsed by others. However, in recent years, the writers have taken another look at Rice. Some like Sean McAdam of The Providence Journal have pointed out that Rice's numbers look better after the "steroids era." No one ever questioned Rice's natural physical strength. The man once broke a bat on a checked swing. Some players when frustrated will break a bat over their leg. Rice could snap one in half. This was not a man with whom you wanted to pick a fight. Nor did Rice need any help hitting the ball out of the park.

He also thought quick on his feet. During a 1982 game, a ball was hit into the stands that hit a 4-year-old boy in the head and he began to bleed profusely. Rice leapt from the dugout into the stands, retrieved the boy, went back into the dugout, carried him through the Red Sox clubhouse and into the arms of the Red Sox medical staff. Rice's actions were credited with saving the boy's life.

Rice's relationship with the media has warmed in recent years. He has been a pre-game and post-game commentator for the Sox since 2003. Between 1995 and 2000, he was the Red Sox hitting coach and serves as an instructional batting coach during spring training. He has also a long standing association with the Jimmy Fund as well as RBI (Reviving Baseball in Innercities.) His off the field performance is as exemplary as it was on the field. In light of today's announcement, one can only hope the Red Sox will see fit to retire his number sometime during the 2009 season.

A hearty congratulations to both Henderson and Rice.

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