Rice's HOF Hopes Down To Last Strike

Jim Rice hit five "walk-off" homers in his career. He'll spend most of the next year hoping for one more.

Rice's Hall of Fame candidacy is down to its 15th and final year, but he received his strongest support yet in the annual Baseball Writers Association of America balloting released Jan. 8. Rice received 72.2 percent of the vote (392 of 543 ballots), just shy of the 75 percent necessary for enshrinement.

Goose Gossage was the only candidate to earn induction this year. The ex-Yankees closer received 85.8 percent of the vote in his ninth year on the ballot and will be enshrined at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown July 27 along with ex-Red Sox manager Dick Williams, ex-Braves and Cardinals manager Billy Southworth and executives Bowie Kuhn, Barney Dreyfuss and Walter O'Malley—all of whom were elected via the Veterans Committees in December.

Gossage said he wished he could walk into the Hall of Fame with his former rival Rice. "Just what I know about facing these guys, I think Jim Rice deserves to be in the Hall," Gossage told reporters on a conference call Jan. 8. "No hitter scared me, but Jim Rice came the closest."

If Rice falls short next year, his fate ends up in the hands of the Veterans Committee after another five-year wait. The recently revamped Veterans Committee—which will cast its first ballots on retired players later this year—is expected to be more welcoming than the electorate that elected nobody in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

The good news for Rice is that Hall of Fame history and his dramatic gain in this year's balloting suggests he'll get in on his final strike with the writers. Rice is the 21st candidate to fall short of induction with at least 70 percent of the vote. The first 20 all eventually gained enshrinement—including Gossage, who garnered 71.2 percent of the vote last year and enjoyed the biggest increase this year.

The last man to receive at least 70 percent of the vote prior to his 15th year on the ballot and fail to earn election via the BBWAA ballot was Jim Bunning, who received 70 percent in 1987 and 74.2 percent—tied for the third-closest near-miss of all-time—in 1988 yet saw his totals drop to 63.3 percent, 57.9 percent and 63.7 percent in his final three years of eligibility. He was elected by the Veterans Committee in 1996.

Rice's gain this year—his percentage of the vote jumped 8.7 percent—is also a good sign for imminent enshrinement. Since 1990, 10 players who had already been on the ballot two years—and had at least one more year of eligibility—have surged into either the 60th percentile or beyond with a gain of at least six percent. The previous nine were eventually inducted: Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Ryne Sandberg, Gary Carter, Tony Perez, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Orlando Cepeda and Ferguson Jenkins.

In addition, Rice has more momentum than the last player to reach the last year of his candidacy with a legitimate shot at enshrinement. Cepeda received just 59.6 percent of the vote in 1993 before he garnered 73.5 percent of the vote in his final appearance on the writers ballot. He was elected by the Veterans Committee in 2000.

Still, after 14 straight misses, election is anything but a sure thing for Rice. No player has been inducted in his final year of eligibility since Ralph Kiner in 1975. And since players were limited to 15 years on the ballot, only one player has ever made it in his 15th year: Red Ruffing in 1967. (Kiner made just 13 appearances on the ballot because there were no elections in 1961, 1963 or 1965)

And Rice's candidacy has been unpredictable—just like Bunning, who saw his percentage decrease five times in his final 14 years on the ballot. Rice has lost percentage points four times (1999, 2002, 2003 and 2007). Perhaps not coincidentally, each of those years featured at least one first-ballot inductee.

So he may not be helped next year by the presence of Rickey Henderson, who is almost certain to gain induction in his first year on the ballot. It should be noted Rice did gain votes in three other elections in which at least one other player was elected in his first year on the ballot: 2001, 2004 and 2005.

Rice sounded optimistic about his chances 2009 in a statement released by the Red Sox shortly after election results were released Jan. 8. "Today's results are obviously a disappointment," Rice said in the statement. "I believe my accomplishments speak for themselves, and a majority of the voters seem to agree. It is tough to come this close, but I remain hopeful for the 2008 results.

"I appreciate all the kind words from so many players, including Rich Gossage, and I congratulate Goose on his well-deserved election today."

Now Rice waits to see if he's receiving the congratulations—instead of offering them—next year.

Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE

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