In Little League, I proudly wore the number 14 -- the dorsal digits of Jim Rice, slugging Red Sox left fielder of my childhood. I was the left fielder for the Farmington Braves. I didn't know then (as I definitely do now) that the kids who played left field in Little League were, for the most part, the hopeless cases. I couldn't hit particularly well, and I couldn't throw very far but had good accuracy. Afer my first season, my coach, seeing that I was bright enough and big enough, made me a catcher.
After my baseball playing days ended when I turned 13, I became a fan of the game. Living in New England, this meant following the Red Sox during those transitional years between what I think of as the Yaz-Fisk period (1967-1980) to the Boggs-Clemens period (1986-1992). Jim Rice, my hero, spans both those periods, as he played from 1974-1989, pretty much alongside the great and underappreciated Dwight Evans (my brother's childhood favorite) who played for Boston from 1972 to 1990. The early eighties Red Sox were sort of fun to watch, kind of, in a Ralph Houk-ishy way. Most of the time, it seemed to me they got the crap kicked out of them by the Brewers or the Orioles.
As with great players of the 70s and 80s whose statistics are now overshadowed by the players of the Juiced Era, Rice's election this year to the Hall of Fame will remain an apparently undeserved honor to fans under the age of 30. I've been the the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and it's a wonderful tourist attraction, but the history of that institution is filled with flim-flam and fundamental unfairness. I don't have much to offer on the Hall of Fame that hasn't already been said.
Looking back now, when I condsider the years during which Jim Rice played, I understand much more clearly why he kept had a quiet, intense persona in the midst of the Boston sports world. In 1974, the year Rice, a young man from South Carolina, broke into the majors, the Supreme Court also handed down its decision on the appropriateness of busing as a means to desegregating schools. In 1976, the year after Rice helped the Red Sox reach the World Series, Boston was one of the many cities in the United States struggling with civil unrest as it tried to integrate its schools. What's a guy like Rice to think when he opens his Globe in the morning and sees this image on the front page?
The Red Sox, of course, were the very last major league team to integrate in 1959, when they added Pumpsie Green to the roster and used him mostly as a pinch runner and give-the-regulars-a-day-off fielder. A dozen years later, the Sox drafted Rice, who, with the retirement of his number at Fenway on Tuesday night, is the only African-American player so honored by the team. Rice was the only guy on the list. As of today, there is no other black (or Latin player) who could meet Boston's requirements for number-retirement. If David Ortiz plays for Boston for eight more years and reaches the Hall of Fame, he'd get his number on the Fenway facade.
Later in the game, of course, the Red Sox lost, with Rice grounding into a double play as he so often did. He led the league in GIDP, and would again for three more years. And the Sox, finished not in first place that year, as they so often did. But both the man and the team in those days reminded us of what we were and what we hoped to be -- part human and part hero.