Monday, January 12, 2009

Jim Rice -- Baseball Hall of Famer

Boston Red Sox outfield at Winterhaven, Florida:
Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans.

For me and a lot of Massachusetts kids, Jim Rice was our Babe Ruth, our Jim Thorpe, our Jesse Owens, our Satchel Paige, our Lou Gehrig, our Ken Norton, our Louis Sockalexis.

Jim Rice was the most powerful hitter we had ever seen.

Jim Rice began playing for the Boston Red Sox when hatred of black people in Massachusetts was at its peak -- when Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. ended in 1974 the Boston School Committee's century old policy of keeping black Boston children from attending white Boston schools. As my brother said, "You turned on the news and there were white grownups in South Boston throwing bricks at little black kids in school busses."

Boston school kids coached by their parents to hate black kids, protesting against black kids being allowed to attend their schools. Boston, Mass. 1974.

This was the atmosphere Jim Rice entered in his rookie year in Boston:

Jim Rice was a supremely talented black man in a city that could not decide if it should hate him for his skin color or love him for his talent. Jim Rice declined to play the media game with Boston's sports reporters and focussed on improving his fielding and hitting. Carl Yastrzemski taught Rice how to play the dents in the Green Monster and took up first base so Rice could inherit his (and Ted Williams) hallowed position in Fenway's left field. Johnny Pesky became Rice's career-long mentor. Williams to Yaz to Rice.

This was a non atypical line score from Jim Rice in the late 1970s:

1977: In an 8-7 loss to Oakland at Fenway Park, Jim Rice hits a homer in the 2nd, 3rd and 6th innings; he would also get a single in the 4th inning.

For me, a young skinny white kid from a podunk falling down forgotten farm town in the swamps south of Boston, Jim Rice was a role model. We were the last crop of Massachusetts kids to play baseball in cow pastures, unorganized by any adults. The parking lot of the North Easton Railroad Station across Sullivan Avenue from Shovelshop Pond was our Landsdowne Street.

Jim Rice was not a Louis Armstrong type of baseball player. Jim Rice was a John Coltrane type of baseball player. Intense, private, deep and powerful. Jim Rice was the Lee Van Cleef of baseball players. All he needed was a toothpick out the side of his mouth. Jim Rice with a baseball bat was like Jimi Hendrix with a guitar -- but Jim Rice didn't die. It's said some managers would rather walk Jim Rice with the bases loaded than pitch to him; and Whitey Herzog put his third baseman in left field when Rice came up.

I saw the scary, distant and aloof edge in Rice's demeanor -- and liked it. It's nice to have the toughest, baddest guy in town -- the guy everyone fears and no one dares challenge -- on your side.

In one summer game at Fenway, a very young boy in the seats got clocked by a sharp line drive. Jim Rice came out from the dugout and into the stands and carried the young boy in his arms to a doctor. Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was at that game, as a boy:

Photo by Ted Gartland.

"Jim Rice was my favorite player growing up," Theo Epstein said. "I was at the game when the kid got smoked by the line drive by the first base dugout. We were in the grandstand. No one knew what to do. Out popped Rice. He climbed through the stands. He got him" – Epstein flexed his arms as if cradling a child – "and brought him down to the doctor. For a young kid, that made a real impression."

Theo Epstein says it well. Jim Rice made a massive impression on an entire generation of young boys across New England, at a time when there were few black male role models in our state. Going into the stands to care for a tiny kid smacked by a line drive was not required by Major League rules. But by Jim Rice's rules, it had to be done.

Not many kids get to see the baseball equivalent of Jack Johnson in his prime. Or Marvin Hagler in his prime. Myself and Theo Epstein and lots of other kids did. We saw Jim Rice in his prime. And we will never forget.

Because of the great weight given to career stats, Hall of Fame selection favors players with long tenure who patiently and tenaciously compile the numbers. The system favors the actuarial over the mercurial. Jim Rice was dogged with injuries and stopped playing at 36. Rice had to sit-out the1975 Red Sox v. Reds World Series because his wrist had been broken by a late season pitch. Had Rice been able to play in October 1975, his bat might have put the Sox over the top (think of 2004 without Manny or Ortiz). The Epic Fail of 1978 deprived the world of seeing Rice in the post-season during his most astonishing year of play.

Yes, this is playing "what if" -- but the entire Hall of Fame voting system requires voters to play what if. Reggie Jackson's reputation as Mr. October was dependent on him being on a team that could get to October. Had Jackson not been traded to the Yankees, his Hall of Fame luster would be many degrees duller, even though Reggie was always the same guy, the same hitter, the same talent. These are the intangibles that transcend statistics. Carl Yastrzemski toiled for a not too good Red Sox team for many years, as did Teddy Ballgame. But both Yaz and Williams transcended their teams seasonal shortcomings and became singular talents of their times.

Jim Rice tangled with some of the best teams and players in baseball history. In 1978, Rice barely edged Ron Guidry for American League MVP, the year Guidry was the scariest pitcher in baseball and Rice the scariest hitter. In any other year, either would have won MVP handily. Guidry was to Rice as Bob Gibson was to Yaz -- except Rice had to face Guidry all season. During Rice's prime, the Sox played battled against some of the best Yankee teams in Yankee history. Without a wild card. And without the wild card, the Sox would not have a 2004 World Series Flag.

The Red Sox nemesis, Goose Gossage, the scariest relief pitcher of his time, was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2008. Rice said he called Gossage as soon as he got the news of his induction. Rice said, "[Goose] said he thought we were both going to be inducted last year and he was wishing me the best, so that’s another guy I called.”

I don't know why I am so happy that Jim Rice has finally been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. All I know is that when I heard the news this afternoon I started crying. Perhaps because I thought that Jim Rice would not make this year's ballot, and this year was his last chance. After eight years of never-ending bad news, this was unadulterated, unalloyed, unspoilable good news.

As an 11 year old kid growing up in Easton, Mass. in 1975, Jim Rice was to all of the kids in the neighborhood our own Clint Eastwood. He was the coolest, strongest, most implacable guy we ever saw. We were in awe of him and wanted to be him. Jim Rice let us forget for a moment, despite all the racist shit we heard everyday at home, that even though we were white and he was black, it didn't matter. When Jim Rice stood up to bat you felt sorry for the ball.

Jim Rice's induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame is the ultimate karmic revenge for that horrible day in 1978 when Bucky Dent blooped a fly ball over the dented old metal Green Monster and you could hear a penny bouncing down Linden Street that afternoon because everyone not at work was glued to their fuzzy TV set -- watching Yaz hit that painfully slow last flyball to end Jim Rice's incredible 1978 season:

46 home runs. 139 RBIs. 213 hits. .600 slugging. 15 triples. .315 avg. 406 total bases.


Lisa K. said...

Nice write up. Reading "Shut Out" be Howard Bryant also brings to life a lot of what Rice had to endure as the black superstar of the racially ambivalent Boston Red Sox.

btw, there was actually *one* black sports reporter in Boston at the time-Larry Whiteside, an MLB reporter who died about 18 months ago. But according to Bryant, there was no love lost between the two.

Anonymous said...

Jim Rice was, is, and always will be The Strongest Man In All Baseball. Any racist idiot would not dare challenge him.

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