Jim RiceJanuary 10, 2007
At the time this picture was taken, Jim Rice had just surpassed his excellent first two full seasons in the major leagues with a third season that established him as the scariest hitter in baseball, bar none. Some players of his day could match his ability to hit for power and some could match his ability to hit for a high average, but nobody in the Cardboard God era could produce in both areas the way James Edward Rice produced. Jim Rice didn’t just hit, he mangled. He punished. He destroyed.
In the 1977 season, which perhaps produced the good feelings evident in this photo, Rice led the American League in home runs and slugging percentage, hit .320, drove in 114 runs, and just for good measure ripped 15 triples. And in the season to follow he authored numbers that taken together comprise one of the best single season offensive explosions ever produced: a .315 batting average, 46 home runs, 15 triples, 139 RBI, and 406 total bases, the latter total the best mark in the category in 41 years. He kept at it in 1979, hitting .325 with 39 homers and 130 RBI, and continued producing at a high level throughout the early and mid-’80s. By the time he called it quits, he had compiled, in all, eight all-star appearances, six top-five finishes in MVP voting, and eight seasons with 100-plus RBI.
As newly-minted Hall of Fame inductee Cal Ripken put it yesterday, suggesting that a third player besides himself and fellow inductee Tony Gwynn belonged on the podium in Cooperstown this summer, “Jim Rice was the man.”
Some point out that Jim Rice’s numbers were inflated by playing in hitter-friendly Fenway Park, an argument aided by the discrepancy between Jim Rice’s incredible home numbers and his merely very good road totals. I have to acknowledge this argument, but I also feel inclined to give Rice credit for putting up his outstanding totals in an era that by and large favored the pitchers, especially when compared to the more recent epoch involving baseballs with superballs inside them, a proliferation of homer-friendly ballparks, and, of course, thick-necked pimple-backed men sinking syringes into the asses of other thick-necked pimple-backed men.
Jim Rice played his position well, if not spectacularly, and Jim Rice, named captain of the Red Sox upon Carl Yastrzemski’s retirement, was a quiet but powerful leader of a team that for most of his time in the majors was among the best in baseball. His work ethic was exemplary and his physical strength–most often attested to in stories of him breaking his bat merely by checking his swing–was the kind of legendary attribute that instills confidence in teammates and fear in the opposition. For several seasons, the Boston Red Sox knew they were going to contend if for no other reason than that they had Jim Ed Rice and nobody else did.
I’m biased, of course. I was nine years old at the time I got this card, and if there’s any better age to be worshipful, I’m not sure what it is. A year later, on a school trip to Boston, I saw Jim Rice get out of a car inside the cramped Fenway Park player parking area. I pressed my face against the chain link fence that separated us. He was no more than twenty feet away.
“Jim Ed!” I shouted.
He turned toward me. I was too shocked to say anything. I could not believe that a God would be able to hear me, that a God could look me straight in the eye. Moreover, I sensed that there was in Jim Rice’s quick, almost flinching, squint-eyed glance toward the caller of his name a suggestion that he was haunted by a nervous, even paranoid unease with the world around him. This may have contributed to my silence as well, the possibility that Jim Rice not only was able to hear us mortals but was mortal himself. I could not think of a single thing to say. Words had been uninvented. I stood there gulping at the changed air. Jim Rice turned away and continued on into the ballpark.
Life got more complicated after that. The school trip to Boston occurred during my last days of elementary school. The following year I’d be starting junior high. On the ride home from Boston to Vermont I sat with two other boys and three girls in the roofed back of a pickup truck and refused to participate in a game of Truth or Dare that mostly amounted to taking turns kissing. I couldn’t do it, could not kiss a girl. I don’t know why I was so terrified of it, but I was. In fact, it would be many long years before I kissed a girl, the threshold not crossed until my freshman year in college, when grain-alcohol-spiked punch enabled me to drunkenly mash faces with and grope the right boob of a plastered coed majoring in hotel and hospitality management. Thank god for alcohol. But I digress from my digression, so allow me to return to the back of the truck in 1978, where my terror at being kissed actually drove the three girls crazy, and by the time we got back to our town all three of them were begging to “go” with me. It was a moment of popularity which I would neither capitalize on (“Go” where? I screamed in abject terror to myself) nor ever come even the slightest bit close to matching.
Several years later, in 1986, when grain alcohol finally enabled me to kiss the hotel and hospitality management major, Jim Rice put up one last ass-kicking season, batting .324 with 110 RBIs, totals good enough to place him third in MVP voting for the year. The Red Sox of course made it to the World Series that October. By then the girl I’d kissed had responded to my clumsy sex-wanting pawings by telling me that her ex-boyfriend, a rugby player named Neil, was probably going to rip me limb from limb when he found out about us. She might have been saying that to gauge my willingness to stick with her through thick and thin, i.e., even after she allowed me to release myself from the crushing bonds of virginity. I didn’t want to be ripped limb from limb, however, and so I gave up trying to get her clothes off and in fact began avoiding her altogether.
I retreated to the fetid comfort of the bongwater-scented room I shared with my friend John. The two of us had plastered our pale yellow cinderblock walls with crooked posters of Boston sports legends, the biggest poster being one of Jim Rice smashing a baseball into the stratosphere. There he was, big as life, towering above our flimsy entropic fortress against encroaching adulthood. We rarely left our room, but did go next door to watch Game Six of the World Series with two fellow Red Sox fans who had a television. All four of us had different reactions to the infamous events that concluded that awful evening. Steve from Peterborough, New Hampshire, wept and swore. His roommate, Tom, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who when the second out of the 10th inning was recorded had wondered aloud where we could get our hands on champagne, smashed empty beer bottle after empty beer bottle against the concrete wall in our suite. John returned to our room and climbed under his covers, where he remained, corpselike, for several days. As for me, I had this painful, utterly joyless, skeletal grin on my face that I couldn’t get rid of. God exists, I had realized, and he hates me.
John, Tom, and Steve all dropped out of that college within the year. I stuck around and eventually spent my second-to-last semester before graduation in China, where I finally lost my virginity to a Chinese student who was looking to better her English. Jim Rice played his final game that year. By then Fenway fans had taken to mockingly chanting “6-4-3″ whenever he came to the plate, a reference to the scorecard shorthand for the most common variety of a double play, which Rice had, near the end of his career, begun hitting into at league-leading rates. I’d joined in the chant myself once or twice. We mortals seem to enjoy welcoming former Gods down into the familiar muck.