I interviewed Jim Rice in the family room adjacent to the Red Sox clubhouse at Fenway Park In August 2000. At the time he was in his sixth season as the team’s hitting instructor. It was about four hours before game time, but Rice was already in his uniform and anxious to get out to the batting cage.
The best single word to describe Jim Rice up close and personal is imposing. You have an idea of how big he is from watching him on the field for all these years. But it isn’t until you sit three feet away from him that you realize how big he really is.
And imposing is a good one-word description of his passion for the game. The man has studied the game from every angle and no detail seems to escape him. You get a sense of this from his role as an analyst on NESN for many seasons, but it is even stronger in a one-on-one conversation.
Sometimes I like to throw in a little “free association” into my interviews. I’ll ask a player to name the first thing that comes to mind when I mention the left-field wall. Pudge Fisk answered, “beautiful.” Dwight Evans responded, “close.”
When I asked Jim the same question, his answer was, “37 feet high.” Jim Rice is obviously a man who has taken measure of the left field wall. And he came out way ahead.
THE ROAD TO COOPERSTOWN
Former Red Sox All-Star leftfielder Jim Rice, a long-time NESN analyst and National Baseball Hall of Fame member, has been a part of professional baseball for 52 years. And for all 52 of those years he has been associated with the Boston Red Sox. Named to the Red Sox Hall of Fame in November 1, 1995, he was part of the original group of 10 former Red Sox players to be so honored.
Red Sox favorite Johnny Pesky, who spent almost 70 years with the team was one of Rice’s biggest fans. Johnny recalled, “Not only was he one of the best ballplayers this team has ever had, but he may have been the hardest-working ballplayer I was ever associated with. He and I would go out to the park before anyone was even in the stands and I would hit ball after ball to him in left field. He probably had the best work habits I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of hardworking ballplayers.”
THE 1975 BOSTON RED SOX
The 1975 Red Sox are often remembered for the heroics of Pudge Fisk, and the pitching majesty of Luis Tiant, but Jim Rice’s monster rookie season was as big a factor as any in the team’s success during the regular season. Rice began the season as the team’s primary designated hitter but took over as the regular left fielder on June 2. From that game forward, his season really took off. During the next two months he batted .330, drove in 45 runs, and put together five, four-hit games.
Rice became an instant legend during a game in June of 1975. He tried to hold up on his swing in a game in Detroit and he snapped his bat in half. Long-time baseball observers said they had never heard of such a thing.
Rice ended the 1975 season with a batting average of .309 and 102 RBI in 144 games. Less remembered is the fact that he played 90 games in left field and did not make one single error. “Hitting always came naturally to me,” Rice recalled recently, “but I had to work hard at my fielding. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I made myself into a good defensive outfielder.”
His outstanding rookie year came to an untimely end when a Vernon Ruhle pitch broke his left hand in late September. He missed the last few games of the season and all of the postseason.
Rice is philosophical when asked if it was difficult looking on while his club swept the Oakland A’s and came within an inning of upsetting the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. “It was hard not being able to play, but they were my teammates so you want to be with them.”
Would the result have been different if he had been able to play? “Maybe, but we will never know. You just have to accept things the way they are, and deal with them. I’ve always felt that things like that were in the hands of the Lord. If He had wanted me to play in the World Series, I would have been there.”
ANDERSON SOUTH CAROLINA NATIVE
Jim Rice was born in Anderson, South Carolina, on March 8, 1953. Anderson is a community of almost 30,000 citizens in the western part of South Carolina, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He was the fourth-oldest in a family of nine. By all accounts, Jim Rice is clearly the finest athlete that Anderson has ever produced.
Jim Rice won a total of 10 letters during his high school career for baseball, football, basketball and track. His varsity baseball career began when he was in the seventh grade. A local recreation center was named the “Jim Rice Community Center” in 1981.
His former baseball coach at Westside High remembered Jim Rice fondly in a 1986 Boston Globe interview. “I’ll tell you what. If I had a son, I’d want him to be just like Jim. He wouldn’t have to be a ballplayer, either. He’s tremendous, because he likes people.”
Jim Rice was the Red Sox’ number one selection in the 1971 draft, and the fifteenth pick overall. Long-time Red Sox scout, Mace Brown, signed him shortly after his high school graduation.
THE ROAD TO FENWAY
Rice began his professional baseball career with the Red Sox farm club in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The 18-year-old Rice scored 34 runs in 60 games and compiled 27 RBI. But adjusting to professional baseball was easier than getting used to life off the field.
“Playing professional baseball for the first time wasn’t the hard part. Being away from home and having to take care of yourself for the first time was the hard part,” Rice recalls. “You had to learn to adjust to people from all sorts of backgrounds, and you had to learn how to be self-sufficient.”
Jim Rice spent the 1972 season playing for Winter Haven in the Florida State League. In his second year of professional baseball Rice led the league in hits and runs and rapped out 17 home runs. His exploits earned him an All-Star selection.
He earned All-Star honors again in 1973 for Bristol in the Eastern League. His league-leading batting average of .317 helped propel him to Pawtucket at the Triple A level at the end of the 1973 season. Moving up a level from Double A didn’t slow him down at all as he batted .378 for the PawSox.
In 1974 Rice drove International League pitchers to distraction as he led the league in RBI, batting average and home runs with 25 in only 430 at-bats. His outstanding performance earned him recognition as the “Minor League Player of the Year,” identifying him at the top among all prospective major leaguers.
SIXTEEN SEASONS AT FENWAY PARK
Jim Rice played in his first game with the Boston Red Sox on August 19, 1974. The 21-year-old Rice would go on to play 2,089 games with the team, placing him fourth on the all-time Red Sox list. While he appeared in only 24 games over the balance of the 1974 season, American League pitchers immediately recognized that he would be a force to deal with for years to come.
Rice took the American League by storm in 1975. He led the team with 22 home runs and he finished fourth in the American League batting race with a .309 average. He showed surprising speed for a man of his size, tying with fellow-rookie Fred Lynn for the team lead with 10 stolen bases.
Although his season-ending injury happened on September 21, he still finished fourth in American League in runs scored. If he had been able to play out the season he might have won the American League RBI crown, and his 102 RBI still placed him fifth in the league.
In July of 1975 he hit a home run off Steve Busby of the Kansas City Royals that cleared everything in left center field in Fenway Park. Former Red Sox owner, the late Tom Yawkey, thought it was the longest home run that he had ever seen in Fenway.
Rice responds modestly when reminded of Mr. Yawkey’s statement. “It may have looked that way from where he was sitting. He had a better view than I did. I couldn’t really tell from the field.”
As the 1976 season began there was some concern about the lingering effects of his broken wrist and the mythical “Sophomore Jinx.” Rice quickly allayed those fears by increasing his home run output from 22 to 25, and producing a slugging percentage of nearly .500.
The 1977 season was Jim Rice’s “breakout season.” He made the American League All-Star team for the first time and he led the American League with 39 home runs. His 206 hits and 114 RBI placed him 3rd in the league standings and his slugging percentage of .593 topped all American League batters by a comfortable margin.
Along the way Jim Rice made himself into a very credible left fielder. Long-time Red Sox Special Instructor Sam Mele remembers how hard Jim Rice worked on his fielding.
“At spring training, he would come to our door to ask if I could come out to work on his fielding. My wife Connie and I used to laugh, because it was like a little kid asking if I could come out to play catch. But the point is he wanted to improve so badly that he was willing to look a little silly. He and Dwight Evans would do the same thing. They both worked as hard as any two ballplayers I have ever seen.”
A SEASON FOR THE AGES: 1978
In 1978, Jim Rice had a season that ranks among the greatest offensive achievements in baseball history. In doing so, he helped lead the Red Sox to a tie for first place for the regular season in the American League’s Eastern Division and he was voted the Most Valuable Player in the American League. Rice led the major leagues in hits , triples , homers , RBI , and slugging [.600].
His most remarkable accomplishment in 1978 was compiling 406 total bases. He became the first major leaguer to exceed 400 total bases since Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio reached this pinnacle with the New York Yankees in 1937. And now, 44 seasons later no American League hitter hitter has reached 400 total bases in a single season.
Asked to recall his 1978 records, Jim Rice talks first about his league-leading 15 triples. And his perspective is very enlightening.
“To hit a triple, you have to be thinking triple from the moment you leave the batter’s box. You see a lot of guys stop at second and you wonder if they had a shot at a triple. Often they don’t make it because they weren’t thinking triple every step of the way.
Asked if Fenway is a particularly tough park to hit a triple in, Rice answers, “Not really. If you hit a ball in the triangle you have a great shot. If you put it right down the right field line you can do it. You can hit some triples in this ballpark. If you want third base badly enough.”
When most players and fans recall the Red Sox heart-breaking loss to the New York Yankees in the 1978 playoff game they immediately point to Bucky Dent’s three-run homer. As a serious student of the game, Jim Rice has a different perspective.
“The Yankees won that game when Billy Martin [New York manager] replaced Reggie Jackson with Lou Piniella in right field. Piniella speared Jerry Remy’s line drive in the ninth inning and Rick Burleson had to hold up on second base.
“I was the next batter, and my long drive to right field would have scored Burleson with the tying run if Piniella hadn’t held Rooster at second base. It wasn’t Bucky Dent that beat us, it was having Lou Piniella in right field making that play.”
Rice continued his remarkable slugging in 1979. He led the majors again with 369 total bases, and he finished in the top four in the American League in hits, RBI, home runs, runs scored, batting average and slugging average. That season he was selected to his third straight American League All-Star team and along with Yaz and Dwight Evans, he was part of an all-Boston Red Sox starting outfield.
When the 1979 season came to a close he had become the first player in major league history to put together three consecutive seasons with over 200 hits and 35 home runs. No other major league player has ever matched this achievement.
Over the next six seasons, Rice maintained his standard as one of the top hitters in major league baseball. He was an American League All-Star in four of those seasons. In 1983 he led the American League with 126 RBI and 39 home runs, and the Boston Baseball Writers Association selected him as the team’s Most Valuable Player. His composite batting average during those six seasons exceeded .300. He was clearly at the elite level among major league players.
Long-time major league manager Ralph Houk piloted the Boston Red Sox from 1981 to 1984, and he still raves about Rice’s offensive skills. “Jim Rice may have been the strongest player I ever managed. And I managed some of the great ones. He powered our offense the whole time I was there. He was one of the hardest working players you will ever see.”
At the height of his offensive prowess Kansas City manager Whitey Herzog once deployed four fielders in the outfield in effort to thwart Rice. Asked about his unorthodox strategy, Herzog replied, “What I would really like to do is put two guys on top of the CITGO sign and two guys in the net.”
In 1986, Rice put together yet another extraordinary season. He batted .324 and amassed exactly 200 hits. Rice was fourth in batting and RBI (110) in the American League, and his 39 doubles placed him third in the league. He finished third in the balloting for the Most Valuable Player in the American League, the sixth time he had finished in the top five in that category. And most importantly, he was a major factor in the Red Sox first place finish in the Eastern Division.
The Red Sox’ dramatic American League Championship Series win over the California Angels was his first trip to the postseason. Rice contributed two home runs and scored eight runs as the team overcame a three-games-to-one deficit to earn their first trip to the World Series in 11 years.
Jim Rice batted .333 against the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series. He was on base 15 times in 7 games, but it wasn’t enough. “We came awfully close to the World Championship, but we couldn’t get it done. It wasn’t meant to be. Things happen.”
From 1987 to 1989 Jim Rice’s offensive production dipped from major league leader to merely above average. When he retired after the 1989 season he had accumulated 382 lifetime home runs. At the end of the 2004 season this total placed him 48th in the history of major league baseball. Most of the players above him on the home run list played more seasons and had more at-bats to reach their totals.
PROFESSOR JIM ED
Jim Rice rejoined the Red Sox as their roving minor league hitting instructor in 1992. He traveled throughout the team’s farm system for three seasons working with players at all levels.
In1995, he joined the big league team as hitting coach under then manager Kevin Kennedy. Throughout his six years with the club, Red Sox hitters fared very well. In his first year with the team, Red Sox hitters led the major leagues with 286 doubles, and placed second in the American League with a slugging average of .455. In 1999 the team was second in the American League in doubles and triples and had the fewest strikeouts in the league.
Jim Rice is passionate on the subject of hitting. “A hitter needs to adjust after every pitch,” Rice offers with intensity. “You’ll hear some guys talking about adjusting from one at-bat to the next, but if you don’t get around on a fastball on one pitch you have to make an adjustment before the very next pitch.”
When he is told that former teammate Rick Burleson is quoted as saying, “If the hitter is going good he gets the credit, but if the hitter is bad the hitting coach gets the blame,” Rice just laughs. “It goes with the territory.”
In 1999, the Boston Red Sox, along with Major League Baseball, constructed a replica of Fenway Park at the corner of Washington and Ball Street in Roxbury. The facility is for the use by the community, and it was funded from ticket sales to the 1999 All-Star Workout Day. The park is named “Jim Rice Field” in honor of the former Red Sox slugger.
In July 2000, Jim Rice, Red Sox manager Jimy Williams and a number of other Red Sox personnel took part in a tribute to the former Negro League players in a ceremony at Jim Rice Field. The event celebrated the arrival of the Negro League Baseball exhibit that was on display at the Reggie Lewis Track & Athletic Center from July 22-28, 2000.
A PLAYER FOR THE AGES
In addition to his rank of 69 on the all-time home run list, Jim Rice ranks in the major league top-150 in four other important offensive categories at the end of the 2022 season. Among Red Sox players, Rice ranks in the top five in nine lifetime offensive categories. But statistics tell only a part of the Jim Rice story.
Asked where he would place Jim Rice among the Red Sox all-time great hitters, Johnny Pesky responded, “Of course Ted Williams is in a class by himself. He is above every major league hitter I have ever seen. But Jim Rice is near the top of the next tier. He is right up there with Yaz and Bobby Doerr. He used the whole field,” Pesky remembers. “Obviously he had tremendous power to left, but he used the power alleys in left center and right center as well. If the pitch was outside he would drive it to right. He used the whole field as well as any power hitter I have ever seen.
“And you talk about strong hitters. I saw him check his swing in Detroit and snap the bat in half and then I saw him do it again in Boston later in his career. I have been in baseball for over 60 years and I’ve never seen another hitter do that, and I saw Jim Rice do it twice,” Pesky marvels. “He compares with any other outstanding hitter who has ever played the game. He certainly belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
Former Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley echoes Johnny Pesky’s support for Rice’s contributions to the Red Sox over the years. “He always played hurt. He never complained,” says Stanley who played with Jim from 1976 to 1989. “He earned his right to that spot in Cooperstown. He was amazing.”
The number 406 has a nice symmetry when applied to former Red Sox players Jim Rice and Ted Williams. In 1941 Ted hit .406 to become the last .400 hitter in baseball. In 1978 Jim Rice accumulated 406 total bases to become the last American Leaguer to exceed 400 total bases for the next 44 seasons years. Jim Rice: a baseball player for the ages.
|Jim Rice’s Rank
In Major League Baseball History
SOURCE: 2022 baseball-reference.com