Jim Rice can thank steroids for his recent induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It's quite possible that had there been no era of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball, we would not be toasting Big Jim today.
That's not to say that Rice didn't have issues as a player. Arguably the most feared hitter of his era, Jim not only wreaked havoc with opposing pitchers for 16 seasons, but also spread loathing among members of the sports media. Surly in response to routine questions, he made no friends among a body that was charged with voting eligible players into the Hall of Fame.
So during his recent 15-year run of voting, many observers had good reason to believe that Jimbo's attitude toward the press had a lot to do with his noninduction. His career stats were impressive: .298 batting average, 382 home runs and 1,451 runs batted in. Rice had fallen shy of the gold standards - specifically a .300 batting average and 400 home runs - so it was just enough of a shortfall to have reporters show him who was boss.
This subterfuge cloaked a more plausible explanation for Rice's belated induction. He retired in 1989 and became eligible for induction in 1995. Those five years saw the greatest sea change in the game's history in how it was played, and thus in its statistics.
That was all it took. Everyone assumed that sportswriters would teach Jim a lesson by holding him out of the Hall for a few years, and then he would deservedly take his place.
A funny thing happened on the way to immortality. Baseball, the sport judged by numbers more than any other, went skyrocketing out of control. In the early 1990s, balls started flying out of Major League parks at unprecedented rates.
The commissioner's office explained that the baseball had changed, that it was wound tighter. South American producers of the official game ball were setting the internal gut rope with a higher tension, creating a denser core. This physical change was enough to give extra length to any hit, thus the surge in home runs and extra-base hits.
But that wasn't all. This also coincided with an era of new retro ballparks, which began in 1992 with Camden Yards in Baltimore and hasn't ended. The new baseball-only facilities have been generally smaller in dimension than the former cookie cutter mausoleums of the 1960s and 1970s.
Finally, expansion happened. In 1998, baseball added franchises in Tampa and Arizona, and this had the immediate effect of diluting the quality of Major League pitching. Hurlers who should have been in the minor leagues for additional seasoning were rushed up to the majors, serving up even more gopher balls to juiced-up hitters.
The net result? Monstrous offensive numbers, just as Rice began serving his penance for being a grouch with the beat writers. As the 1990s progressed, Rice's career numbers, which hover around the 50th percentile in terms of Hall of Fame inductees, suddenly looked unimpressive.
This was regrettable, particularly since Rice's home media, the New England Sports Network, offered him a position as commentator and game analyst so that he could make amends with the fourth estate, essentially by becoming a member himself.
When the steroids scandals finally broke in this century, and the public, as well as the press, began to realize how deep the statistical inflation had run during the period of Rice's retirement, his achievements got serious reconsideration - just in time for his 15th and final year of Hall eligibility.
When Jim Rice came to the plate in the 1970s, he had the same chiseled and bulky frame he sports today, and opposing teams loathed to see him strolling over from the on-deck circle. Maybe someone should have told the sportswriters to pay attention to the reality of Rice's career instead of being seduced by gaudy stats of the steroid era.
Back then, Jim had been shown the ultimate sign of respect more than once when he was intentionally walked with the bases loaded. That alone should have been enough.
Telly Halkias is a writer and editor from Vermont. E-mail him at email@example.com.