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Rice powered his way into game’s exclusive club

By John Powers
Globe Staff / July 24, 2009

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For 15 years, the debate was about the numbers. Did a .298 lifetime batting average, 382 homers, 1,451 runs batted in, and 2,452 hits add up to a Hall of Fame career? But for those men who played with and against Jim Rice from 1974 through 1989, his statistics told an incomplete tale.

To appreciate the qualities that got him to Cooperstown, where Rice will be inducted Sunday along with Rickey Henderson, you had to be there.

“You have to play with a guy every day,’’ says Carl Yastrzemski, who patrolled left field for the Red Sox before Rice, played with him for nine seasons, and who entered the Hall in 1989. “That’s more important than the numbers.’’

For more than a decade, Rice, whose No. 14 will be retired by the club before Tuesday’s home game with Oakland, was one of the most feared hitters in the game, particularly during the three seasons from 1977-79 when he averaged .320 with 620 hits, scored 342 runs and knocked in 383, and hit 124 homers.

“He was the one guy we talked about, not letting him hurt us,’’ says Cecil Cooper, who faced Rice for 11 years with the Milwaukee Brewers after playing alongside him for two full seasons in Boston. “He probably was the guy who got the most conversation, and deservedly so. He wasn’t the prototypical slugger per se, but he’d just mash the ball. He was a monster at the plate.’’

Rice’s raw natural power was legendary. His 1976 bomb off Kansas City’s Steve Busby went over everything next to the Fenway flagpole in center field. It was, reckoned owner Tom Yawkey, “unquestionably the longest ever’’ homer hit there. The previous year in Detroit, Rice broke his bat merely by checking his swing. “Never seen anything like it,’’ marveled catcher Carlton Fisk.

Yet what made Rice remarkable was his power wedded to average. “I wasn’t a home run hitter,’’ he says. “I could hit home runs. My thing was to hit the ball from left-center to right field. Elevate the ball.’’

That’s how he’d done it in high school in Anderson, S.C., where there was no fence in right at Nardin Field. “You had to hit it 9 miles,’’ says Carroll Emery, who coached Rice at Hanna High School. “When Jim came back I told him, ‘You’ve got the green wall there. We’ve got the briar patch at Hanna.’ ’’

Had Rice been a pure pull hitter, he would have had considerably more Monster shots, but that would have changed his game. “Fenway was not a great park for him,’’ says former teammate Fred Lynn. “Jim would hit the ball to right-center a lot, and that’s a big part of the park.’’

What made Rice’s menacing bat most intimidating was that it was in the lineup virtually every day. “Ask out of a game? No such thing,’’ says Don Zimmer, who managed Rice for five years. “I might go up and ask if he wanted a day off, but it was like talking to the wall.’’

Unless his hands were in a cast, the man insisted on playing. “Zim and I got in an argument one day because I wasn’t in the lineup,’’ recalls Rice, who considered the rotund skipper a Santa Claus figure (“He knew if you were good or bad.’’). “He said, ‘You’re not swinging the bat good.’ I said ‘Zim, put me in the lineup.’ And he got up in my face. He said, ‘I said you’re not playing and you’re not playing.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re going to have two left fielders out there because I’m playing.’ So I played and I think I hit two home runs. After the game he walked by and said, ‘Well, I see you came out of your little slump.’ ’’

In his first 10 full seasons Rice played 1,469 games, more than anyone during that time but Steve Garvey and Mike Schmidt. In five of them, he appeared in at least 155. “When I think of Jim, I think of how sturdy he was,’’ says Dennis Eckersley, who played seven seasons with Rice. “He took pride in playing 162.’’

If the club was paying him for a full season, Rice figured, he should play a full season. “Why waste time sitting on the bench?’’ he says. “I wanted to be in there every day. I thought about someone like Lou Gehrig. If someone goes in one day and gets your spot, it might end your career. I didn’t want that.’’

His managers would have been happy to give him days off during spring training, but Rice only wanted one - March 8, his birthday. Otherwise, he was on the bus every day, even for the brutal seven-hour round trip to Pompano Beach. “I’m not being paid to play golf or fish or sit by the pool,’’ Rice once said. “I’m being paid to put on a uniform and bust my butt.’’

During his career, Rice appeared in 2,089 games, more than any Sox player except Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, and Dwight Evans. “I never thought I’d play one day in the big leagues,’’ he reflected, “and I played 15 years.’’

A can’t-miss prospect
When he was growing up in Anderson, in the state’s northwest corner, Ed Rice (as he was known then) wasn’t sure he wanted to be a ballplayer, even though he started for Westside High as a seventh-grader. When he turned up to try out for the local American Legion team as a 15-year-old, Rice hit five of the first seven pitches more than 385 feet, then didn’t come back the next day.

“I had a rule that I would never go after a player, but I went after him,’’ recalls Olin Saylors, who coached the team.

When Saylors found him hanging out at a variety store, Rice explained that he preferred to earn money to buy clothes. “Son, if you continue playing this game,’’ the coach told him, “one day you’ll be wearing silk underwear.’’

Saylors, who’d played minor league ball for the Braves, knew a can’t-miss prospect when he saw one. “God gave him the ability,’’ he says, “and he just touched it up.’’ Few kids Rice’s age crushed a baseball the way he did. “If you were a blind person, you could tell when Jim Rice came up,’’ says Saylors. “The ball came off his bat with a different sound.’’

Size, strength, speed - Rice had it all. He played wide receiver and safety on the Westside football team that won 30 straight games and two state titles and small forward on the basketball team that also won a state crown. Then, when school integration arrived in 1970, Rice abruptly found himself crosstown at Hanna, which had been the white school.

“It was sort of messed up,’’ says William Roberts, the former Westside football coach who lost all of his starters to Hanna and won just one game the next season. “Nobody knew what was going to happen until it happened.’’ According to the redistricting plan, which drew a line down Murray Avenue, Rice should have stayed at Westside. “But the ratio at each school had to be 72 percent white and 28 percent black,’’ remembers Hanna football coach Jim Fraser. “The feds got looking over everybody’s shoulder.’’

Coincidentally or not, the line was drawn around Rice’s house and he ended up at Hanna, where he made an immediate impact on the gridiron and started on both sides of the ball in the annual Shrine Game between North and South Carolina. “Our favorite play was to have Steve Whitfield toss it up 50 yards and have Ed running by people,’’ says Fraser, whose team won the regional title that season.

Given his size - 6 feet 2 inches, 188 pounds - it seemed curious that Rice would be a safety. “I said, ‘Ed, you’d be a terror at linebacker,’ ’’ says Fraser. “He said, ‘Coach, I’m not a hitter.’ ’’ Still, Rice was such a promising player that Nebraska wanted him for its national championship varsity. A football scholarship from the No. 1 team was tempting. “I felt if I went to college, I would have graduated,’’ says Rice. “My dad would have made sure I graduated.’’

But baseball seemed the better option. Given the same four years, Rice figured he could make it to the major leagues. Even though Hanna had a losing season that year after most of its top players were shifted to Westside, every bird dog in the area knew about Rice. “Sometimes we’d have 15 scouts to watch him play,’’ recalls Emery.

The Red Sox, eternally obsessed with wallbangers, drafted the 18-year-old Rice that spring of 1971 with their first pick, the 15th overall, gave him a $45,000 bonus and sent him to their Williamsport farm team, where manager Dick Berardino was impressed by how quickly he could get around on a fastball. “Balls would look like they were almost by him,’’ says Berardino, “and then he’d hit this shot to right-center field.’’

That explosive ka-pow off a short stroke immediately turned heads. “Ted Williams saw Jim and said, ‘Where’d that guy come from?’ ’’ recalls Johnny Pesky, then a Sox coach. Anyone who saw Rice sensed he was on the fast track to Fenway. “He was a big, nice, quiet, kind of naive country boy,’’ remembers Cooper, who roomed with Rice when he first made the club. “But even back then he was a big, barrel-chested, imposing figure.’’

What set Rice apart, as much as his concussive swing, was his willingness to work. That was the first question his Legion coach had. “He was so much better than the other kids, my concern was that he might not push himself hard,’’ Saylors says. “Will he listen to me and get better day by day? And he did.’’

Rice’s approach, his managers all said, was beyond reproach. “Jimmy was always on time,’’ says Berardino. “Anything you asked him to do, he’d do.’’

Working his way up
Rice climbed the organizational ladder quickly, but right on his schedule. Winter Haven, the full-season Single A club in the Florida State League, which he led in runs and hits. Then Double A ball in Bristol, where he led the Eastern League in hitting (.317) before coming up to Triple A for the stretch run and hitting a three-run homer to give the PawSox the Junior World Series title. Then the Venezuelan instructional league and a final apprenticeship in Pawtucket, where Rice clinched the triple crown with a month to go before being called up in 1974.

“Jim was the most improved player from one year to the next that I’ve ever seen,’’ says Pesky. “He was a perfect example of how a kid learns from scratch. He learned everything from the bottom to the top.’’

The learning curve intensified once Rice made it to the majors. “Yaz told me, ‘If you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to learn how to hit breaking balls,’ ’’ he says. “The American League is a breaking ball league. The National League is a fastball league. So I learned to sit on the breaking ball and adjust to the fastball.’’

Rice also knew that he had to improve his defense if he wanted to be more than a designated hitter. “One thing they said about me is, he’s a good hitter but a bad fielder,’’ he says. “Any player that a manager takes out for defense, he feels half of a player and I didn’t want to be known as a half player. Freddie Lynn came from USC and there was all this talk about how good a defensive player he was, and Dwight had already established himself.’’

All Rice had to do was to learn how to patrol the majors’ quirkiest left field with its minimal foul territory, right-angled corner, and pockmarked 37-foot wall of tin-covered concrete that made every fly ball a ricochet lottery. “The wall had a lot of dead spots in it then,’’ recalls Rice. “That’s why you had to go out there and work every day because there was no way that anyone could teach you how to play the wall unless you’re out there.’’

So day after day Pesky hit 75 balls off the Monster for Rice to play on the carom, plus at least as many grounders. Even after a night game, Pesky testified, Rice would be ready to go by 11 a.m. You never had to go looking for him. “When you’re at the ballpark and you’re just killing time, that’s more stressful than going out there working,’’ Rice figured.

Few if any rookies had stepped into as potentially stressful a situation as Rice did when he was called up. He was a black player from a southern town coming to a northern city that was in turmoil over race-based school busing. Yet Rice insists that he wasn’t apprehensive. “I’ve been here since 1975,’’ he points out. “What does that tell you right there? I think it was more troublesome for people who were living in Boston than for me being from the South, because we didn’t have any trouble there. All the busing and everything was about people here in Boston.’’

Rice also was inheriting a position that since 1939 essentially had been played by two men, both of whom went to the Hall of Fame. But unlike Yastrzemski, who stepped in after Williams retired in 1960, Rice’s predecessor still was in uniform.

“What’s it like following Yaz?’’ muses Lynn. “Well, he was still there.’’

What could have been an awkward transition was eased by Yastrzemski’s willingness to switch to first base. “Jim had to be in the lineup,’’ says Yastrzemski. “What I was thinking was that it was the right thing to do for the Red Sox to win. It was a simple decision.’’

Monster in left
Rice batted .309 with 22 homers and 102 RBIs in 1975. Lynn, playing in center, hit .331 with 21 homers and 105 RBIs. They were the most impressive rookie duet in club history (Globe writer Peter Gammons dubbed them the Gold Dust Twins) and they made an invaluable contribution on the club’s first pennant in eight years.

“It was like having a double-barreled shotgun,’’ says Cooper, who was the designated hitter that year. “They were phenomenal. They got there and started grabbing headlines right away. We wouldn’t have gotten there without them. No question about that.’’

Lynn ended up winning both the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards. “Freddie deserved it,’’ says Rico Petrocelli, who played third base that year. “But a lot of people didn’t give Jim the credit.’’

When Detroit’s Vernon Ruhle broke Rice’s left hand with a pitch Sept. 21, he was finished for the season. “It wasn’t intentional, it was something that happens in the game,’’ Rice shrugs. “I dealt with it, but I wish I could have played.’’

So did his teammates, who lost three one-run decisions to the Reds in the World Series, including Game 7 at home. “That’s what everyone forgets, that we didn’t have Jim in the lineup,’’ says Yastrzemski. “I would have liked to have seen Cincinnati without [Johnny] Bench or [Pete] Rose.’’

In his MVP year of 1978, Rice played every game and led the league in seven offensive categories with an astounding set of numbers - a .315 average, 213 hits, 46 homers, 139 RBIs, and 406 total bases. “You have to dream about having a year like that,’’ marvels Yastrzemski.

Most notable was the total-base count, the league’s highest since Joe DiMaggio in 1937. “I never thought about 400 total bases,’’ says Rice. “I just hit the ball and ran. Players now, they have a chance to get a triple and they just ease up on second base. I’m like, man, the outfielder is rolling the ball in.’’

As impressive as the 46 homers - the fourth-most in club history - were Rice’s league-leading 15 triples. “To hit a triple, you have to hit the ball so hard that it rattles around like a Pachinko game,’’ says Lynn. “For Jim to hit that many, he was hitting them off the wall and they were ricocheting.’’

The way Rice was spraying the ball around and out of the park that season, nine fielders weren’t enough. “What I’d really like to do is put two guys on top of the Citgo sign and two in the net,’’ mused Royals manager Whitey Herzog, whose “Rice shift’’ put the second baseman on third and the third baseman in the outfield.

The brilliance of Rice’s performance that season was obscured by Boston’s late-season collapse and the playoff loss to the Yankees. That year was the high point both for him and the ball club. The Sox, despite 91 victories the next season, finished third, nearly a dozen games behind Baltimore. Once Lynn, Fisk, and Rick Burleson departed after the 1980 season, what Gammons called the “dynasty that never was’’ ended.

“I don’t know what happened with Lynn, Burleson and Fisk,’’ says Rice, who’d signed a seven-year contract for $700,000 per season in 1979, “but you can’t fault anybody for changing their ideas for where they want to go.’’

Rice himself could have commanded top dollar as a free agent, but opted not to test the market.

“I didn’t think about going for the money,’’ he says. “And at the time, where were you going to go? The only place you could go was New York, and I didn’t want to go to New York. I had already established myself here. My wife loved it here, my kids were born here. Why pack up and go anyplace else?’’

So Rice stayed and eventually was named captain. He hadn’t sought the role and, like Yaz before him, didn’t want the unofficial spokesman duties that came with it. He’d never been comfortable with the daily give-and-take with the press, particularly if they wanted comments about his teammates, the manager, or the front office.

“I didn’t have an issue with any writers,’’ Rice says. “I think writers had an issue with me and the issue was one thing: I never would tell them what they wanted to hear. I didn’t think I should be a mouthpiece for my teammates when I have no idea.

“My trouble wasn’t being nasty to writers. If you’ve got anything to ask me about my teammates or the front office, go ask them. If you want to talk about me, about why I screwed up tonight, I will tell you. Anything besides that, that’s not me.’’

Rice approached the captaincy much as Yastrzemski had.

“By being a veteran player and being a leader and by the numbers I put on the board,’’ he says. “That was more of a captain symbol than anything else.’’

Genuine numbers
Had his body not broken down, Rice might well have had the numbers to make it to the Hall earlier. His last great year came in 1986, when he hit .324 with 200 hits, 110 RBIs, and 20 homers, helping the Sox to their first pennant in 11 years. His final three seasons were shortened by knee and elbow injuries that required surgery and in 1989, after the front office told him he wouldn’t be asked back, Rice retired at 36.

“If I had the rehab the way guys have right now and knowing myself and my determination, yes, I could have played another couple of years,’’ reckons Rice. “If I was not productive for the ball club, I would have walked away. That was just my upbringing.’’

Rice’s career numbers put him on the threshold of the Hall, his ballot percentage ranging from 29.4 to 72.2 since 1995. As he watched the Schmidts and Winfields enshrined while his tally fell short, Rice was philosophical about his lengthy limbo. “I didn’t have any control over it,’’ he says. Still, the wait and the annual will-you-or-won’t-you? questions wore at him. “I think it really bugged him, but he never let on,’’ says Cooper. “Jim’s a prideful kind of guy. It might have killed him, but he still wouldn’t say anything.’’

Rice wouldn’t brag and he wouldn’t gripe. “One thing about Jim, he never complained about something that went wrong, that he didn’t get his due,’’ says Petrocelli. Sox vice president Dick Bresciani, the club historian, put together a persuasive comparative statistical package to make Rice’s case. No other player ever has had 200 hits and 35 homers in three consecutive seasons. During his prime, Rice led the league in total bases five times, was among the top five in slugging percentage five times and placed among the top five in the MVP voting six times.

Every other former player with Rice’s career average and homers - from Babe Ruth to Williams to Mickey Mantle to Willie Mays to Hank Aaron - had been enshrined in Cooperstown. “I knew he was dominant enough to be in the Hall of Fame,’’ says Zimmer, who was one of Rice’s biggest advocates.

What was significant was that he put up numbers at a time when the game was played without steroids and supplements. Compared with the present era of tainted stats produced by juiced-up sluggers, Rice’s undeniably were genuine. “Over the past five years a lot more people got exposed,’’ says Eckersley, who entered the Hall in 2004. “You can’t help but look at Jim’s numbers and maybe change your mind, and I think a lot of people have.’’

This year, 76.4 percent of the voters, seven more than necessary, were convinced. When Rice got the call in January that he was in, he was both elated and relieved. “Roomie, I made it,’’ he informed Cooper by phone.

He might have been voted in eventually by the veterans committee, as Joe Gordon was this year. “Once you’re in the Hall of Fame, you’re in there,’’ Rice says. “But I didn’t want to go in on the veterans committee.’’

Like Williams and Yastrzemski before him, Rice strode proudly through the front door. And, like them, he finished where he started. One career, one uniform. “If I had to do it all over again, there are a couple of things I would have loved to have tried,’’ Rice says. “Being a switch-hitter and going to the National League and trying to win the MVP there, too. You know how many times that’s been accomplished? Once - Frank Robinson. That would have been a challenge. And I would have loved to play in Atlanta. It was close to home and during that time it was a good ballpark to hit in.’’

But Boston, then as now, was home. “We had an owner from South Carolina who told me, as long as you play for this ball club you don’t have to worry about anything,’’ Rice says. “From Day 1, Mr. Yawkey called us a family and as of today this is still a family. It’s an old tradition, like a family reunion.’’

This is a city where tenure has uncommon significance, especially in the left field corner of the country’s oldest ballpark. For a half-century, three men owned that position, one following the other. Starting Sunday afternoon, they’ll share an exclusive room in Cooperstown for eternity. “I am most proud of the other two guys who played ahead of me,’’ Rice said. “I hope when fans think of the Green Monster, they think of me. Williams, Yaz, and Rice.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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