Yankee Stadium has its monuments, but no baseball ground is more hallowed than left field in Fenway Park. It's been the field of Williams and Yastrzemski, and virtually theirs alone spanning a time that encompassed three wars. Williams and Yastrzemski -- and now Jim Rice.
Playing left field for Boston, given people's expectations, is like being a Kennedy.
To know wherein Rice fits the succession, to chart his progress on the journey, one might recall that John Updike termed Williams' Boston career, "a marriage composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, towards the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories," and divided it into three stages, "Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor."
Now, what was said of Williams could be said of the retired Yaz. In Boston, it was ever thus. How could Yaz have been booed? Rice has followed the triumphs and setbacks of youth made familiar by his predecessors. Now, at 32, like them scathed but still swinging, Rice is firmly established in his second epoch. Press clips show the first to have been a mix of lusty legend -- a man so strong he actually broke two bats trying to check his swing -- and mortal ache. He heard boos, he clashed with the press. It's a scrutinized, publicized, pressurized job out there in the shadow of The Wall.
Appropriately for a Boston left fielder, Rice has posted big lifetime numbers -- a career average of .303 with 1,804 hits and 1,076 RBI coming into this season -- and has time to enlarge them. With the numbers has come a sense of where he fits in Red Sox history. Well into a conversation, he happened to say, "The Red Sox have had three left fielders, and all three have hit over 300 home runs." (Actually, Babe Ruth played some left field for Boston in 1918 and 1919, but Rice was talking modern history). He joined company with Williams and Yaz last year. It's a fact that makes him smile broadly.
Like Odysseus, Rice has claimed his rightful place -- team leader -- only after his own kind of journey, now in its 11th Boston year. He's been the clear leader since before Yastrzemski retired in 1983. This April it became official, company certified. Rice accepted Manager John McNamara's offer to become team captain. The designation can be a reminder of the task it is trying to lead the Red Sox to a world title; Williams and Yaz never could.
Rice walks into the Fenway clubhouse, across its brown-carpeted floor to his corner locker, with a quick stride. There's an intensity about him, as when he stands at the plate, leaning over it, big gloved hands engulfing the bat handle, right elbow cocked, ready to take a short, explosive swing propelled by forearms as thick at least as small tree trunks.
He's late for an interview. Traffic, he says, and he apologizes. Rice has always liked to say the only thing that matters is the numbers he puts up on the board. He would like them to speak for themselves. Over the years, this tack has resulted in an uneasy relationship with the press. Physically imposing, a highly muscular 6 feet 2, 205 pounds, wary, often stern-visaged, his thoughts frequently circumscribed by the batter's box, Rice has never been an easy interview. Some writers have found him silent, others have charged him with being rude.
He doesn't like discussing incidentals -- to him, mostly anything other than bashing a baseball -- or the game itself. Sometimes not that, if he thinks what's wanted is self-praise. Media relations, it's called; he's never been at the head of the class. But on his terms, accenting the numbers, his class is the honors program. Over three seasons in the late '70s, for example, he averaged .320, 41 home runs and 129 RBI. In his '78 MVP season, he became the first American Leaguer to get 400 total bases since Joe DiMaggio in 1937.
With Rice, opening gambits don't guarantee expected responses -- although this day he talks for more than an hour at his locker. Rice, it is suggested, has been hitting well recently -- eight hits in his last 15 at bats. But, no, he's not hitting well.
"It's rough, it's rough," he says. "We've got to get some more runs. When you're scoring one or two runs, you put a lot of pressure on your pitching. We're not hitting. My teammate, Dwight Evans, is struggling. I'm struggling. I'm not hitting home runs. A lot of singles, but that's not me."
Of small imprecisions sluggers' moods can be shaped: he's been hitting the ball tiny parts of an inch above where he'd like to be, with the result, "I'm not getting the ball up in the air. I'm hitting into a lot of double plays. Swinging at bad pitches."
When he speaks of hitting, Rice talks in bursts and with the same vehemence as Williams; Rice used to carry Williams' "The Science of Hitting" with him in the minor leagues. Hitting is what Williams first noticed about Yastrzemski, the way he "positively quivered" waiting for a pitch. Hitting is what binds Fenway's left fielders. Hitting, and The Wall.
In discouraging times as these, a 1985 average of .311 notwithstanding, Rice repairs with his hitting mentor, Johnny Pesky, to a cage set up under Fenway's center field bleachers. Rice put together three straight 200-hit seasons in the late '70s, the first American Leaguer to do it since Pesky, in the '40s. This afternoon, Rice plans to take 200 or more swings, with Pesky peering into the nets at him. "He's the hardest-working guy on the team," Pesky, Red Man stuffing his jaw, would say later.
With similar determination, Rice made himself a worthy successor to Yastrzemski defensively as well. Originally, he was a designated hitter. He's in favor of the DH -- "Pitchers are paid to pitch; hitters are paid to hit." But it's never been for him. "It's very difficult keeping your mind in the game."
Eagerly, he learned the caroms from the 37-foot Green Monster with the help, again, of Pesky. Pesky has been associated for 40 years with the Red Sox as player, coach, manager, broadcaster, even advertising salesman and currently "special assistant" to the general manager. He still has a locker and his uniform. Pesky rapped more balls off The Wall to Rice than anybody kept count of. Now, Rice plays The Wall almost as well as Yastrzemski, who was the master of it. And, Pesky says, "He has a little stronger arm than Yaz."
"It's just a matter of going out there and working," Rice says. "You've got to go out there and play it." Work -- it's a traditional value Rice believes in. As a result, "I enjoy seeing the ball coming off The Wall because I know I'm going to hold the guy to a single."
In 1983, Rice made 21 assists, more than Yastrzemski or Williams ever had in one season, the most by a Red Sox outfielder since 1944. Odysseus had reached home.
"A lot of people are afraid of The Wall," Rice adds, but one in particular whom he admires isn't, the Yankees' huge Dave Winfield. Says Rice, "Winfield plays The Wall like it's afraid of him."
On the last day of the '83 season, Yastrzemski's last game, Rice says, "Yaz came to me and said, 'Is it okay if I play left field today?' I told him he could do anything he wanted to."
Rice meant it. In a photograph of Yastrzemski making his farewell address at Fenway, the figure in the background is Rice, dabbing at his eye. Wiping a tear or not, he was moved by Yastrzemski's remarks. "We played together for nine years," Rice says. "He played left field. I played left field. He's going to be in the Hall of Fame."
Rice was moved, too, by sustained applause that day when he came to bat. The torch was being passed; Boston fans recognized an era ending and another beginning. "They knew I was going to be a free agent," Rice says. "I think they were telling me they wanted me to stay."
He wanted to stay. He put his faith in his numbers, figuring them worth certain other numbers behind a dollar sign. "If you're worth X amount of dollars," he says, "you'll get X amount of dollars. It all depends on who you want to play for."
He had his reasons for wanting to stay in Boston, for tidying up contract business before this season. Had he made 1985 a banner year and entered the free-agent market, he might have ignited a bidding war that would have made him baseball's first $3 million man. Instead, he signed a new Red Sox contract in February reportedly worth about $10 million over four years.
One reason for staying was another traditional value Rice espouses: family. Rice came from Anderson, S.C., one of nine children, the winner of 10 high school letters in baseball, football, basketball and track. His wife Corrine came from Anderson. Every offseason, they'd return to Anderson to live. Only now, with his first of two children having begun school, has Rice decided to remain in the Boston area year around, though he points out he'll be keeping up visits to Anderson. For now, the Rices live in Peabody, Mass. "You call it Peabody. I call it Peabody. Everybody laughs at me. It's Pea-buddy."
His wife takes courses at Salem State. She likes the area and wanted to stay. Rice says, "You play ball for somebody, for your family. That's what you play ball for."
Rice had another reason. He'd like to complete his career with the same team; he has a feeling about it.
"In the Red Sox' history," he says, "the Red Sox have only had three guys, maybe four, who have been in the organization and retired from the organization. Williams, Yaz . . . "Actually, only seven players have played complete careers of 10 years or more with Boston in the club's 85-year existence.
"I've been here for 10 years, but I've also been associated with the club in the minors." Pride sounds when he says, "This is my 15th year in the organization. I probably could have gotten more, but I stayed here. I probably took less money."
He surveys the room, filling now with teammates. "I know what potential everybody in here has," he says.
But can he pick them up and carry them -- literally, he has lifted injured teammates from the field in his arms -- when pitching could be, as ever, Boston's burden? Is he lacking the supporting cast to enjoy ultimate victory, which eluded Williams and Yastrzemski? Williams showed the way to the '46 Series, but then hit .200. As if fated, Yaz made the last outs of the '67 Series and the '75 Series -- and the '78 playoff game with the Yankees, at which moment a stillness settled over the city.
Did Rice's last chance for a Series come and go in '75, when a broken hand from a pitched ball in September kept him out?
Yet in staying in Boston, Rice had to note the fates of high-priced teammates the Red Sox had let get away. Fred Lynn, especially. In Anaheim, Lynn got rich but slid toward oblivion. Says Bob Montgomery, the Red Sox TV broadcaster, former teammate of Rice and his regular golfing partner, "I don't know any player who left here who didn't want to come back."
Montgomery was standing next to the batting cage, looking out toward The Wall. The big Citgo sign in Kenmore Square towered in the background. It's a Victorian field of strange measurement and projecting corners. With the red seats and the lush grass and the biting, spring wind blowing in from right field, Fenway felt as fresh as Christmas morning. Montgomery says of Rice, "I think he realizes how nice it is to play here."
Lynn may be gone, but not quite forgotten. Above his locker, Rice keeps a color photo of Lynn and him, taken before the 1983 All-Star Game in Chicago's Comiskey Park. A third party, Milwaukee's Robin Yount, is in the picture, but Rice has Yount covered with a Jim Rice baseball card, stats side out, making it a Lynn-Rice twosome. An odd couple, some would say.
Accounts of chilly relations between Rice and Lynn could fill a tome. One theory: Rice, bent on playing every game no matter what, took a dim view of Lynn benching himself because of injuries. Another: Rice -- "He's really a shy person," Montgomery was saying out on the field -- turned all the more inward because of the 1975 season; his spectacular rookie year was shaded by Lynn, who made AL most valuable player and rookie of the year, and got far more attention from the Boston press. Rice will say only that none of this is so.
"I have nothing against Freddy," says Rice. "He's a good ballplayer." If that puts a good face on their relationship, the picture above Rice's locker also does. It shows the onetime most dynamic rookie duo in the game's history, the two who took the Red Sox to the 1975 pennant, looking pleased to be together again, even if only for one game.
Batting behind him, Lynn had been a major asset to Rice. "The big thing is having someone hit behind you," home run champion Hank Aaron said recently, "because if you don't they're just not going to pitch to you. I had Eddie Mathews behind me for 12 years. He had 500-and-some home runs. We complemented each other very well."
Little wonder Rice has been so happy the last two-plus seasons to have Tony Armas, obtained from Oakland, batting cleanup. Associating with Rice -- hitting behind him, playing in the outfield next to him, housed at the next locker, Armas, at 31, is thriving, too. Last year he led the American League in home runs and RBI.
"He's a good guy, a good person," Armas says. "We get along well. One time I was having trouble (hitting), and he let me know what I was doing. I use his bat. He uses my bat."
The previous night, Armas hit a ball with one of Rice's bats that struck a light tower high above the net atop The Wall. The ball still was rising when it smacked to a halt, one of those shots into the night that Boston broadcasters like to say was headed for the Mass Pike. This season, Armas has 14 home runs, Rice 10. Just friendly competition.
"In the spring," Pesky says of Rice, "he's so strong he gets there" -- bat to ball -- "too quick. He tops the ball. He's trying to get the ball to lift up. All he has to do is get under the ball and it's gone."
Pesky is sitting at the end of the dugout, spitting streams of tobacco juice. "Of course, I want him to hit a home run every day. He's such a good hitter, one of those guys who won't give in to anything. Such a compact, quick swing. He's so quick he can adjust -- he hits an offspeed pitch. He keeps himself in top condition. Good habits. One of the best attitudes in the game. He can play until he's 40, unless something drastic happens to him."
Pesky says he'd like to see Rice end up with 40, even 50, home runs a season. Even Rice's guru has his expectations.
Fan expectations sometimes can cause unpleasantness. But Rice says being a black athlete in Boston (a city Bill Russell said in his 1979 book "Second Wind" was "a flea market of racism . . . all varieties . . . ") has never been a problem for him.
"The fans are going to love you if you're green, if you can play," Rice says. "I haven't had any experience here. Everybody gets hate mail. A lot of players. If I'm reading something I don't like, I stop reading it."
If Rice's popularity stems largely from his numbers, part of it comes from the image he projects. It's one of reserve, control, confidence. "First of all, he's a very proud man," says Aaron. "He's proud of the fact he can hit. And he goes about his business, trying to improve himself."
Rice is, like Yastrzemski, more a workingman of a hero than Williams. But if the Red Sox are every New Englander's team, they have their Brahmin side too. A plaque to the club's late owner, Tom Yawkey, kindly patriarch, is affixed next to a door to the club's offices, a plain, polished hardwood door of the sort that may be seen on Beacon Hill. Williams epitomized that side of the Sox; he owned all the gifts -- the eyesight, the swing, a grace that hid his struggles, longevity. The San Diego "Kid," a loner, was the consummate New England Yankee.
Williams said, "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' "
Rice says of himself and the game, "I just wanted to play ball, that's all. I love the game. Coming to the ball park and knowing you're going to be in the lineup . . . a starting player, regardless of how bad you're going, knowing what you mean to the ball club."
Williams was volatile, Yastrzemski constant, and he had that wondrous season, 1967. Rice's poetry is his power.
All three have that quality of heroes that is inexplainable, that can in a second separate men, an instinct to rush forward when all others stand flat-footed. In August 1982 in Boston, when a 5-year-old boy was struck in the head by a vicious foul line drive that transfixed almost an entire stadium, Rice bolted from the Red Sox dugout into the Fenway seats, picked up the badly bleeding boy and cradled him against his massive chest as he carried him down the runway to the clubhouse. He may have saved his life.
Late this May afternoon, after a long time in the batting cage under the bleachers, Rice came out a door and walked across the windy field, alone with his thoughts. At the bottom of the dugout steps he slid his bat into the rack, dipped his head and started down the runway. You couldn't help noticing, big beads of sweat covered the back of his neck.