"Jim Rice always knew he wanted to be exactly what he is-the most intimidating hitter in baseball. But now that he's gotten there, its almost like he doesn't know what to do with it . . ."
-Carlton Fisk, Boston Red Sox
Of all baseball's stars, none can approach Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox for being deliberately double-edged and perplexing.
With the volcanic, moody Rice, whose changes of temper are as sudden and unpredictable as New England's summer weather, the confusing questions start at the beginning, then get harder.
Is this man's name Jim, or Ed, or Jim Ed?
Actually, as he explains, it is all three; a sort of three faces of Rice.
"My friends call me Ed," says Rice, who still lives in his native small town of Anderson, S.C. "It's the people who only know me as a baseball player who call me Jim.
"My real name," he says defiantly, making it clear that only he is allowed to know the true Rice, "is Jim Ed."
Thus, the American League's MVP divides the world, as though he had his own personal Green Monster Wall-on one grassy side of which stand his family, friends and some players, while the rest of mankind is left outside in the street.
Those who stand in good graces with Rice think that MVP stands for most valuable player-an honor Rice won with 46 homers, 139 RBIs and 406 total bases last year.
Those who receive Rice's baleful looks, his arrogant silences and abrupt insults, think that MVP stands for most vain player. They point with a wink at the wall beside his locker-the only one in baseball covered with posters, magazine covers and photographs of himself.
Rice is that oddity-a low-profile star who does not seek attention, yet arouses strong likes and dislikes.
No facet of Rice is beyond debate. Is he a great hitter or a monster created by Fenway Park? Is he a good outfielder or a bad one? Is he the heart of the Sox team or a divisive clubhouse element with his $5.4-million, seven-year contract?
Above all, to the character-curious fans at least, is Rice a clean-cut, intelligent, dedicated athlete who simply insists on maintaining his own pride and privacy, or is he a spoiled bore, pampered from adolescence, who respects no one but himself?
"He's Jack Armstrong come to life," said Baltimore Coach Jim Frey, who managed Rice in Venezuela in winter ball in 1973.
"Rice is one of the finest young men I've ever been around. Above all, even when he was that young (20), I trusted him completely. He never does or says anything to hurt anybody on the club.
"He's completely honest about himself," says Frey. "His approach to the game has total integrity-he never complains, alibis or fools himself.
"Other yound players in Venezuela gripped about the fields, the lights, the food, the people. Not Rice. He just worked."
A fanatical worker, Rice has also proved that he is not a grouser. He hates splitting time between left field and designated hitter since it is a basic affront to his huge athletic self-esteem. Yet he utterly respects manager Don Zimmer, who belongs to the same fundamentalist baseball school, and never complains about the loathsome DH role.
"Every player works like a dog to get to the majors, said Carlton Fist. "Plenty have worked as hard as Rice. Some people, like Jim, are just more gifted. But what sets Jimmy apart is that he's worked just as hard to keep improving since he got to the top. Now that's unusual.
"It seems that some guys don't like, or maybe don't even want to be exceptional. They say, 'I've made it to the majors. That's enough.'
"Maybe there's nothing so terrible as an achievable goal," said Fisk. "Rice will never suffer from that. His sights are on the horizon. Other guys work hard in the batting cage, and they get tired. The harder Rice works, the stronger he gets.
"He's been blessed with the opposite of a vicious circle."
To see Rice at his best, catch him leaning against the pillar in the Bosox dugout-relaxed, happy, at ease.
He is handsome, direct, a magnetic talker with a well-practiced piercing look and a wealth of analytical theories about hitting. As long as the conversation is technical, full of club-house inside lingo, he is in heaven-like a physicist talking about molecular structure.
Here, on his own terms in the world where he is a reigning expert, all the hostility toward a probing publis and press disappears. He falls under his own critical, unblinking stare.
"I'm struggling at the plate. I'm not hitting well, not doing much at all," he says. "I don't have the plate covered the way I did by the lase month of last season. There are ways to pitch me right now."
Rice, in his terrible slump, is batting .345 and slugging .560. Yet he is not kidding, not engaging in some reverse ego-tripping.
"These pitchers aren't dumb. They're not going to let you beat them forever. Sonner or later, they're going to say, 'Not this guy again. Somebody else may beat me, but not him.'
"Anybody can be pitched to, if the pitcher is willing to throw nothing but perfect pitches to perfect spots. Then, if he walks you, he says, 'So what?'
"The way they're pitching me now, the only mistakes I see are pitches six inches off the plate, not six inches over it. If this keeps up, I'll be doing well if I can hit .300 with 100 RBI and 25 to 30 homers.
"That'll be a good year, and I'll have to accept it. Right now, I'm just trying to get a piece of the ball, take my walks, not strike out too much and drive the ball once in a while when I get a pitch to hit.
"You see, in our lineup it doesn't matter. If they pitch around me, somebody else will kill them."
Perhaps Rice - who once said, "I have no goals . . . goals can only hold me back"-talks of lowered statistics in order to relieve the pressure of his $750,000-a-year contract. Nobody since Joe DiMaggio in 1937 has had 400 total bases and Rice is baseball-wise enough to know the odds against any human repeating the feat.
More to the point, it is Rice's infinite patience in these invisible "slumps" that distinguishes him as a hitter.
"He's amazing," said teammate Rick Burleson, not always a Rice fan. "It doesn't seem like he's doing much, then you look up and he's hitting .340. When he goes on a tear, there's no such thing as a strike that he can't drive with authority."
"Several hitters 'cover the plate'-that is, they have no known weakness," said catcher Fisk, naming Rod Carew, George Brett and Al Oliver.
"You tell your pitcher to just fire it up there and hope they hit it at somebody.Jimmy, however, is different. He doesn't just cover the entire plate, he covers it with intimidation, with extra-base power on all pitches in all directions. That makes him unique in baseball," Fisk said.
"Unlike Carew, Rice is subject to mechanical flaws that he has to struggle against," added Fisk. "But even there he's different because of raw power.If I don't swing properly, for instance, I just don't hit the ball. But Jimmy can flinch, move away, lunge and still muscle the ball for hits."
The truth about Rice is that he is obsessed with greatness-totally captured by the hitting crusade.
"Hitting is my life now," he said. "Just ask the about hitting."
"You can only compare him to the real greats," said Frey. "The ball just flies off his bat. It's a totally different sound.
"He can wait, wait, wait for the pitch and still be frighteningly quick with that short stride and short stroke-like Ted Williams. He stance and hitting position are a lot like Frank Robinson - that's who his swing most resembles. As for power, you're talking about Jimmy Foxx."
Since Williams, Robinson and Foxx all hit more than 500 homers, and are or will be in the Hall of Fame, it is safe to assume where Rice, with 133 homers at age 26, will end up.
Especially in Fenway Park.
That is the only nag against Rice. Last year, he hit .361 with 28 homers at home but a mediocre .269 with 18 homers away. The season before, he had 26 homers and 76 RBI on the road.
Any student of the game knows the historical answer to this argument: bah, humbug. One crucial reason that Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron hit more than 700 homers, while Willie Mays did not, is that Ruth and Aaron played in homer heavens that were perfect for their swings. Mays did'nt. Rice is simply one of the lucky ones-and was smart enough to sign for seven Fenway seasons. It was like adding a hundred bonus homers to his career total.
If Rice has knocked many a baseball lopsided, then the game has returned the compliment; baseball has unquestionably knocked Rice's life-perspective lopsided.
At his worst, storming out of interviews, gratuitously insulting any fan, player or media person who offends him, Rice carries the athletic pose of power to its ultimate absurdity. He risks being a caricature of a bluffing tough guy.
Hardly a regular baseball beat writer exists who has not been non-plussed, and perhaps amused, by Rice's belligerent and defensive responses to even the most fawning questions.
This is all part of a compulsive, walled-in personality. "I don't owe the public anything," said Rice, who has insulated himself with conservative investments that make him secure for life.
To those who approach him as a hero-"Please, Jim can I have your autograph"-he is a big pussy cat, a tiger allowing himself to be petted, as long as the fur is stroked the right way.
A stern man-of-his-word, Rice will honor appointments or interminable hand-shaking sessions-but only if there is a financial benefit to himself. The rules are severe: something for something, strictly business.
"Like most great athletes, Jim hates situations where he is out of control. That's what you try to avoid," said Frey. "He wants to dominate the pitcher, dictate to him. He doesn't like being a DH, and he shouldn't. It hurts his pride. And I suspect he feels out of-control in interviews and doesn't like that, either. It's easy to understand."
Most of the world learns to compromise, to endure the indignity of being at the mercy of others or of circumstance. It is generally called growing up.
Rice, however, swathed in his athletic cocoon, has never had to bend, never had to abandon the absolutism of the child who holds his breath.
"I want to say this carefully and in the right way," said Fisk. "Jim Rice always knew he wanted to be exactly what he is - the most intimidating hitter in baseball. But now that he's gotten there, it's almost like he doesn't know what to do with it.
"It's like he's asking himself, 'Should I play it up, or play it down?" He wants to be left alone, he doesn't want to be fawned over or pestered-neither one."
Fisk gives a veteran's knowing smile. "He wants life to be as simple as baseball. It's hitting that interests him-nothing else. He doesn't want to have to explain his position in the world of sports.
"He doesn't want to exploit his name or be known as a whore of the profession. He just wants to be left alone."
With the years, Rice will learn how to roll with the world's punches, just as Williams and Carl Yastrzemski have. He may then be a more conprehensible, and perhaps even a better man.
But it is unlikely then that he will be so fascinating, so full of power and pride bursting to express itself in that distinctive Jim Ed Rice crack of the bat that sounds like no other, and in his ears, at least, that settles all arguments. CAPTION: Picture, Jim Rice: On his own terms . . . all the hostility. . . disappears. UPI