A word of advice to anyone seeking a shrine in Cooperstown someday: It could never, ever hurt to have one of the best fan bases in the world on your side.
On Sunday, longtime Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice will finally earn his place alongside the game's legends in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a full two decades after he finished his major league career on August 3, 1989. It's been a long wait for Rice, who was finally tapped for baseball immortality in his final year of eligibility.
As Cooperstown conundrums go, Rice is as borderline as they get. The arguments in the "pro" column are obvious — Rice was an eight-time All-Star and an MVP, and he batted .298 in his career with 382 home runs and 1,451 runs batted in. But the longer Rice stayed on the ballot, the more scrutiny he received, and the cons of Rice's candidacy got plenty of attention.
Rice's defensive value was unimpressive; his speed was nonexistent. He seldom walked, leaving him with an on-base percentage of .352 — that places him 588th all-time, a fraction of a point behind Steve Henderson and a fraction ahead of Ossie Bleuge. (Who?)
As time went on, those in the pro-Rice camp began to lean less and less on statistics and accolades and more on the intangibles — his clout, his swagger, his reputation for dominance, the "fear" he struck in opposing pitchers.
It seemed that Rice was fighting a losing battle for a spot in Cooperstown. The empty rhetoric wasn't quite working; the numbers weren't quite there. Voters were seeing through it.
That's when Boston came to the man's side.
To Rice's benefit, he played his entire career in one city, and it happens to be a city that reveres its baseball heroes. If you want to drum up support for your credentials on a baseball field, Boston is the place to be.
First, there was the media.
Sean McAdam wrote in 2005 that he was "warming up to Rice" in the wake of baseball's steroid era — Rice's numbers were authentic, and they were the product of an era that came before the explosion in the game's power numbers. After years of hesitation, he voted Rice in.
In 2007, there was Dan Shaughnessy, who wrote that "This is Rice's year" in a column that chronicled the years of close calls that had slowly moved Rice toward the magical 75 percent mark.
Then came Bob Ryan, who just this January discussed Rice's candidacy, calling him "Mr. Borderline" but saying he finally deserved his chance at a plaque in the Hall.
There were also the fans. Take, for example, the fans in Pawtucket, who gathered at McCoy Stadium to sign a large inflatable petition billed as "the world?s largest Jim Rice jersey," set in place to drum up support for Rice's candidacy for the Hall of Fame.
Only in New England.
When you're dealing with Mr. Borderline, it takes an extraordinary effort to make that final push into Cooperstown. It took the support of an entire region of the United States — its writers, its fans, everything.
If Rice had been a career journeyman, or if he had played his entire career in Seattle, San Diego or Kansas City, Sunday afternoon's ceremony would not be happening. But Rice played in Boston, and he'll be thankful for that for the rest of his life.
The four men who keep falling short of Cooperstown — Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith, Jack Morris — will never have the kind of support that Rice did. They all had longer careers than Rice, who played just 16 seasons, but they also all played for four or more different teams.
Baseball is a conservative institution, and sometimes it values loyalty over production. Jim Rice was loyal to the city of Boston, and that loyalty was repaid in spades this year.
It took 15 years to get Jim Rice into Cooperstown, but New England got the job done. It wasn't easy, but Boston stuck by its man. That's what a great baseball town does.