Up Against The Wall

Will Boston spring for the millions to keep Jim Rice, its Maestro of the Green Monster, playing in Fenway?
August 05, 1984

If you really know The Wall—know how to use it to your advantage, appreciate its idiosyncrasies—it can be your friend. But since only a select few do know the leftfield wall at Boston's Fenway Park, it's called the Green Monster.

The same goes for Jim Rice, the Red Sox' leftfielder. There are friends who call Rice a warm, loving human being. If you don't know him, though, he can be as intimidating and inscrutable as a gargoyle. Says his friend, Ken Harrelson, who played and broadcast in Boston and currently works the mike for the White Sox, "Jim Ed is the most misunderstood person not just in baseball, but in my whole experience. I know Jekyll. A lot of people see Hyde."

This summer Red Sox fans are choosing up sides in The Great Debate: Can Boston afford to keep Rice, or can the franchise afford not to keep him? His contract will expire at the end of next year, but he wants a new one before the start of the '85 season, and he wants to be making about $2 million a year.

It's hard to believe the Bosox faithful would want to contemplate life without Rice, given his statistics and his age (31), but now on the various and voracious call-in radio shows in the Hub, they're saying that he doesn't hit in the clutch (although some of his 126 RBIs last year must have been important) and that the only major league record he'll break is for grounding into double plays (with 26 already, he should easily pass former Red Sox outfielder Jackie Jensen, who set the standard with 32 in 1954).

The love/hate relationship seems to come with the territory. Ted Williams had his splinter groups, and Carl Yastrzemski was alternately yazzed and razzed. Before Rice, they inhabited left-field for almost 40 years—interrupted only by two wars, two Conigliaros, Juan Beniquez and Tommy Harper. But talent also comes with the territory. Since Fenway Park opened in 1912, the composite batting average for regular leftfielders is an astounding .304. It's as if The Wall befriends them. The leftfielder in '18 and '19, by the way, was Babe Ruth.

Rice is a worthy successor, and an argument can be made that he is the most devastating hitter in baseball today. "He has done things I've only dreamed of," says Reggie Jackson, another friend. Rice has had at least four MVP-caliber years, although he won the award only in 1978. He is the only man ever to have 35 homers and 200 hits in three straight seasons—1977-79—and if his career stats were boiled down to one 600-at bat season, he would have 182 hits, 31 home runs, 108 RBIs, a .304 batting average and a .526 slugging average.

Yet he has remained lost in the shadows of Fred Lynn and Yaz on the Red Sox, and several lesser superstars in baseball. Part of that is his own doing, though. He gets an F in media relations. "I just put the numbers on the board," he says. "That should be enough."

Rice is having an off-year. He was slow getting out of the gate, he's had lower back pain, he's chasing bad pitches and his contact lenses have been irritating his eyes. Consequently, he's only batting .280, with 17 homers and 79 RBIs, which is third in the majors.

Friends also say the contract situation is bothering him, although, Rice says, "That has nothing to do with anything." When Rice signed his last contract in January of 1979, he became the highest-paid player in the American League. By next season the $650,000-a-year pact will make him only the fourth-highest-paid on the Red Sox, behind outfielders Dwight Evans and Tony Armas and first baseman Bill Buckner. George Kalafatis of the International Management Group represents Rice, and he's looking for something similar to the five-year deal George Brett signed with the Royals: $1.8 million per plus real estate and a job in the organization when his playing days are over.

"Until they come back with something relative to what we've asked for, I don't expect to talk until after the season," says Kalafatis. "I don't think we're that far apart," says Lou Gorman, Boston's vice-president of baseball operations. Rice has expressed concern that the Red Sox are going nowhere. "How can a guy feel good when his team is at least 10 games out every day of the season?" Rice said early this year. But that was before they acquired Buckner and before they ran off a 17-5 record from July 3 through last Saturday.

Meanwhile, the debate rages on. Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe brought it out in the open in a controversial column that appeared on July 4. Ryan got out his own personal scorebook, covering 83 games, 44 of which were in 1978, Rice's MVP year. He noted that Rice batted .354 in the first six innings and .269 from the seventh inning on, and that 20 of his 25 homers and 66 of his 85 RBIs came in the first two-thirds of games. Ryan also pointed out Rice's penchant for strikeouts (105.7 per season) and double plays (19.9). But Ryan also wrote, "Even if he is not what people want him to be, he is apparently better than almost everything else out there." He concluded, "As far as signing him goes, it's like Ann Landers always says to a woman wondering whether or not she should leave her husband: 'Will your life be better off with him, or without him?' "

On the day the column appeared. Rice hit a grand slam homer in the 10th inning to beat Oakland 13-9. "A wind-blown fly ball," says Ryan in defense. "Anyway, complaining about your slugger is a great pastime. Phillie fans bitch about Mike Schmidt, Brewer fans about Cecil Cooper, and I'm sure a lot of people in the Bronx mutter about how Ruth struck out against Urban Faber."

Rice says, "It's tough enough playing every day, worrying about who's pitching and everything, so why worry about what's being written about you?" But he is getting sensitive about the double play business. After his double in the 10th beat California 4-3 on July 20, Rice brushed off reporters by saying, "Why talk to me, I'm always hitting into double plays. What do I have now, 90?"

It's lack of recognition that really stings Rice. He was such a good athlete that the Anderson, S.C. school board redrew its district line so that Rice could attend Hanna High School, which had more affluent students. His senior year Rice batted over .450, but the team's MVP award went to Steve Whitfield, who also batted over .400.

Rice had a sensational rookie year with the Sox in 1975, but so did Lynn, who was voted Rookie of the Year and MVP, and when Detroit's Vern Ruhle broke Rice's left hand with a pitch in September, he missed out on all the exposure the Red Sox' classic seven-game World Series with the Reds would have given him. In '77 he hit .320 with 39 homers and 114 RBIs, but Rod Carew happened to hit .388 that year. Rice was justly rewarded in '78 with the MVP (.315, 46 HRs, 139 RBIs, .600 slugging average), but he finished fifth in the MVP balloting in '79, behind Don Baylor and three others, even though he hit .325 with 39 homers and 130 ribbies. With any luck he could have been the first player to win three straight MVPs.

Last year Rice had another monster season (.305, 39, 126) and finished fourth in the MVP voting, behind Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and Carlton Fisk. "The guy [Ripken] outhit me by 13 points, but I had 12 more homers and 24 more RBIs," Rice says. "Is the MVP for the best player, or for the best player on a first-place team?" Boston finished sixth.

The biggest shadow Rice has played in has been that of Yastrzemski, but that was lifted on the final day of the 1983 season. The game was Yaz's last, and everything he did was greeted with a standing ovation. But in the eighth inning, Rice walked to the plate, and the fans were on their feet again, changing the guard, crowning a new hero. Yaz was leading the cheers. "That felt very good," says Rice, who says no more about it.

"I wish I had a hundred dollars for every time I've talked to Jim about dealing with the press," says Harrelson. "I want the press to see what he's really like, to see him around children. Kids know better than anyone else if someone is good or bad, and kids love Jim Rice."

"I know you guys can't see it," says Jackson, "but he's one of the best men I know. A friend is someone who makes you feel good just by being with them, and Jim Rice makes me feel good.

"Here's a black man from South Carolina, thrown into a city like Boston. Talk about cultural, sociological shock. But don't try to tell that to anyone, because they'll tell you the man makes all that money, why can't he deal with it?"

Ask Rice if the fans have been warmer to him this year, and he says, "I don't think about things like that." Ask him about his contract, and he says, "I've got one year left on it, that's all." Ask him about his lack of recognition, and he says, "Why should it puzzle me? I've been doing a job for 10 years. I don't know what goes on in writers' minds."

Here's what goes on in a writer's mind while talking to Rice: "I'm trying to interview you while you're reading a classified ad journal for cars. I ask you a question, and instead of answering, you ask the clubhouse boy about a Ferrari. You want to be given your due, you want to make as much as Carter and Brett and Winfield and Murphy, then you might want to give something back to the public. I'm leaving to go bang my head against a wall."

In every other aspect. Rice is a model ballplayer. He's a leading advocate of "playing hurt." Says Red Sox manager Ralph Houk, "I cannot get him out of the lineup." Earlier this season in Yankee Stadium, Rice crashed into a wall, lay motionless for a few minutes, shook away the cobwebs and resumed play.

Rice works as hard as anyone on the team, veteran or rookie, and never ducks a workout or spring training road trip. Last week in Fenway, after driving in his 15th RBI in 16 games, he worked on his swing after a game with batting coach Walt Hriniak. The only special treatment he gets is the right to take his golf clubs on the road with him.

He was not a very good fielder when he first came up, but now he plays The Wall almost as well as Yastrzemski did in his prime. His arm is as good as any left-fielder's in the league, and he routinely holds balls off The Big Green Thing to singles.

Oddly enough. Rice is much more available to the press when he's a goat than when he's a hero. If he makes an error, he'll be sitting in front of his locker, ready to face the music. If he hits a home run to win a game, he'll be in the trainer's room, sitting out the dance.

By now his feats of physical strength should be legend, but they're not. Rice may be the strongest man in the world who has never lifted a weight. He has broken three bats by checking his swing. "Bad wood, that's all," he says. His golf drives strain both credibility and physics.

"Me and Bob Montgomery and Jim were on the 14th at Grenelefe in Haines City, Florida," Harrelson says. "It's one of the great par 4s, 505 yards. On this day, the wind is at our backs and the fairway is hard, so we're bound to get some distance. Monty gets up and cracks one 300 yards. Then I get up and I kill it, 365 yards down the fairway. Then Jim gets up, and he catches it so hard it doesn't make a sound. One hundred yards out, it looks like someone's kicked the ball in the ass, because it takes off. I get to my ball and can't even see Jim's. We find it behind a little knoll in front of the green and pace it off from my ball. He's hit it 95 yards beyond me, which means his drive went 460 yards."

If Rice had a title, it might be The Man Who Carries The Red Sox. Not only do they depend on his hitting, but they also use him as a stretcher. In 1979, Jerry Remy tore up his knee in Yankee Stadium, and Rice just lifted him up and took him into the trainer's room. "He picked me up like I was a child," says Remy. In 1977, Rick Miller and Evans collided in the outfield, and Rice carried Miller off the field. "He picked me up like I was a baby," says Miller.

There are times when Rice's strength of character matches his physical strength. In August of 1982, a line drive off the bat of Dave Stapleton went screaming into the box seats at Fenway next to the Red Sox dugout. The people in the first few rows ducked down, and the ball hit a five-year-old boy, Jonathan Keane, in the head, fracturing his skull and drawing blood. For a few horrifying moments nobody could do anything. Rice poked his head out of the dugout, saw what had happened, and leaped into the stands. He carried the child in his arms down the runway to the clubhouse, where team physician Arthur Pappas took over. Doctors credit Rice and Pappas with saving the boy's life.

The Rice most people know is the one who hits a home run and coolly trots around the bases, hardly acknowledging the cheers. Houk knows a different Rice. "He gets excited, all right," says the manager. "The one way you can tell is by shaking his hand after a big home run. You really have to be careful he doesn't break your fingers. All his emotion, all his excitement is in that handshake."

And no matter how far he hits the home run, Rice will invariably tell his teammates, "I didn't get all of it."

Until the walls come tumbling down. Rice will never get all of it. Most of it. But not all of it.

TWO PHOTOSNever one to waste words, Rice prefers to have his clamorous bat do the talking. PHOTOJackson is one of Rice's big supporters. PHOTO"I don't know what's in writers' minds," says Rice, who peeks at papers all the same. PHOTOThough he had just driven in his 15th run in 16 games, Rice got a pointer from Hriniak. PHOTOHow did Rice become proficient playing the Monster? Practice, practice, practice.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)