Since the day Jim Rice arrived at Boston's Fenway Park, he has carried what he calls "the Book" with him everywhere.
For Cincinnati's George Foster that book would be the Bible, for New York's Reggie Jackson a little black book of phone numbers. However, for the Red Sox' Rice it is Ted Williams' autobiography, "My Turn At Bat."
Like Williams, Rice is one of those sternly self-motivated, easily insulted and moddy artists who has come to live for his turn at bat and wishes to be judged by his batting work alone.
"What I do here is what matters," said the forbiddingly handsome Rice recently, standing by his batting cage office. "Hitting is the most important thing in my life right now."
Rice no longer has to go by "The Book." When Williams signed as Boston's spring training batting coach, Rice was a constant pupil. The Williams canon is stamped all over the New Improved Rice.
"I'm more dedicated now," says Rice. "I want to get better every year. I'm studying how the pitchers work on me. I struck out too much in the past (365 times in three years). Now I'm being more selective. I'm concentrating on making contact, not on hitting homers."
Those sentences could be Williams' chapter headings. And they seem to be producing the sort if across-the-board statistics that have not been seen in the American League since Williams' prime.
Rice, whose 382 total bases last season were the most in the AL since 1940, has just completed a month of May in which he had 13 homers and 33 RBI giving him 18 hrs. and 50 RBI.
In addition to a power pace that would bring him 57 homers for the year and 158 RBI (previous highs 39 and 114 in '77), Rice is hitting a Williams-like .340.
Surely this connot continue. Or can it?
"I have no goals," says Rice. "The way I'm going right now, goals could only hold me back. Why put a limit in my own mind on what I can do?"
Then Rice smiles his mysterious gunfighter smile. "I haven't gotten in a good groove yet," he says, "I don't feel quite right at the plate.
"Last year (when Rice had a 29-for-54 June binge) hitting was with me all day.It actually started when I woke up in the morning. It's almost like trance, a total awareness."
What will happen if Rice rediscovers that groove?
"When I get my little act together," says the belter, "I could be tough to catch.
These are the self-delighting days when Rice lives in a world of constantly expanding expectations . . . his own. Rice, perhaps even more than workaholic Pete Rose, can't get enough batting practice.
"He just loves to drive the ball," laughs Bosox coach Johnny Pesky. "If I had his body, I could, too."
"You can't get the monster out of the cage," says teammate Fred Lynn.
Under the Fenway stands or on the field before or after games, day or night, off day or on, Rice is searching for the groove.
"What mystic level of baseball destructions is Rice reaching for? Only a few friends know just how ambitious Rice is really is.
One of Rice's old hometown friends and mentors, Wilfred Binette, got an earful last week is an after-midnight telephone call from the scalding-hot Rice.
"Jim Ed, What're you'all trying to do" drawled Binette.
"Willie I'm going for that .407," answered Rice.
It took Binette, former sports editor of the Anderson (S.C.) Mail, a minute to realize that Rice meant that he wanted to top Williams career-high batting average of .406.
"Wouldn't you rather hit 65 homers asked Binette, half joking.
"If I get that .407," responded Rice jovially, "I might hit 70."
The red Sox, who hit 213 homers last year and currently have the best record in baseball (36-15) no longer are shocked by any Rice feat. They just keep their eyes peeled.
When Rice crunches one in the cage or in a game, the mighty Bosox fall silent like astronauts when the count-down reaches zero.
"Blastoff," snickered Lynn, when Rice knocked a batting practice pitch over the old, unused bleachers behind the centerfield fence in Baltimore recently. "Alert tracking stations."
"Hey, Rice. Swing rigth, will ya," kidded Dwight Evans when the ball finally disappeared.
The Yankees park an ambulance at the back of their bullpen behind Death Valley in left center. Rice hit it. Fenway Park has a flag atop the deepest part of The Wall in center. Rice grazed it.
The apocryphal tales about Rice's 450-yard golf drives credibility. However, witnesses abound who saw Rice check his swing in Detroit two years ago with such sudden force that the bat snapped in two three inches above his hands.
Aside from the strength in his sculpted 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, Rice has two hidden allies intelligence and temper. Because Rice frequently gives a brusque cold shoulder to everyone, except teammates and old friends, most fans do not understand that he has been a William-style student of the game since his minor league days.
Every opponent, however, especially pitchers know about Rice's much feared short fuse. Rice once got in a shoving fight with his own teammate, Rich Burleson, after Burleson needled him about taking extra batting practice swings.
Last month Kansas City pitcher Jim Colburn hit Rice with a pitch. Rice, bat in hand, finger pointed, detoured toward the mound to give a lengthy lecture.
"I thought I was going to be "Riceroni," said Colburn.
Instead, Rice won the game with a home run in his next at-bat against Colburn.
One of the Rice's gifts is the knowledge that he must make his life simple and focused in order to perfect his art. Rice loves nothing better than a moment of silence. And he creates one every time the ball leaves his bat in a hurry.
However, Rice sometimes is surrounded by his own self-imposed wall of silence off the field. His relations with the Boston press have been frigid since his rookie year.
"Jim Ed was hurt that Fred Lynn got all the attention in 1975," explains Binette, whom Rice visits in the off season and calls for chats when he is depressed.
When Rice would not say a word to the Boston writers, he would phone the Anderson Mail so the home-folks could keep track of him.
"Jim Ed's still a bashful, small-town fellow in a lot of ways. He's easily hurt if he feels slighted," says Binette.
Red Sox teamates call Rice friendly, popular, a good needler and perhaps the cleanest-living player on the team. Nevertheless, a sullen image remains, one which Rice's wife Corrine tries to prod him out of.
After one standing ovation last September, Rice stood stolidly in right field without topping his cap. The next time an ovation came - for a three homer game - Rice's cap came off time and again.
Corrine told him she wouldn't let him back in the house if he didn't tip his hat to those nice people," laughs Binette. "She teases him about being too shy to 'act right.'"
Rice, one of only four blacks players in the Red Sox entire organization - major and minor league - does not feel entirely at home in Boston still known for its racial epithets at Fenway.
"I get the feeling there aren't too many people in Boston to help him when he's confused," sympathizes Binette. "He'll call my wife and say, 'I need to talk to Willie.'"
Just three months ago, Rice was telling friends he might play out his option this year and leave Boston, despite the fact that his batting stroke seems perfect for Fenway. In the last two years Rice has 127 RBI at home, 72 on the road.
Now, however, Rice says he never wants to leave Boston, so long as the Red Sox offer him a suitable multi-year, multi-million dollar contract that will be "the last I ever have to sign."
At last, Rice has the Boston fans love, the national media's attention and a passle of commercial endorsements.
Rice has even gotten to play left-field for the last seven weeks, because of a lingering injury to George Scott. "I haven't made a single error," points out Rice, whose pride in the past has been chaffed by being "a half-time player" as a DH.
Rice still gives himself over to the big city world with extreme caution. "My friends call em 'Ed.'" he says. "The people who only know me as a baseball player call me 'Jim.'"
Just to keep the world guessing, the way he likes to do in that moment of silence when no one knows where the ball will come to earth, Rice signs his autographs "Jim Ed Rice."
That signature now means a lot in the park that Bostonians have started calling the "Rice Paddy."