I didn’t really think about baseball cards for a long time. They were an early obsession, but between the ages of about 12 to 26, they weren’t much of a thought. Sometimes I looked at the boxes I had stored in the closet, sometimes I flipped through the assembled binders and looked reverently on random images of Andre Dawson or Scott Cooper I’d accumulated. But otherwise, it was a past hobby, replaced by CDs and whatever else.
There were little flickers of that old impulse through that dormant period, though. I picked up a Pedro Martinez card in a cereal box while I was in college somehow, and I’ve hung onto that ever since. And one day while I was combing through a flea market looking for records, I came across two cards for a dollar each that caught my eye — Carl Yastrzemski’s 1981 card, and this one, of Jim Rice in 1977.
He’s smiling and happy to be posing for the photographer in this shot, likely before the Red Sox played the Yankees in some brutal division tilt. He looks like an easy going guy. And he was the most quietly terrifying dude in the game at the time.
By the time I started really watching baseball, Jim Ed was nearing the end of his ride. He wasn’t the living nightmare that resided in the middle of the Red Sox batting order anymore, but he was still a threat. He stood, arms tightly coiled to his body, all business and waiting for a mistake of a pitch to send 400 feet in the wrong direction at any moment. He didn’t look like he was going to waste any time clowning around or pulling pranks on his teammates, either. Mainly, he looked like a man who was not to be fucked with under any circumstance. And that’s how I approached him as a fan barely out of kindergarten.
The true appreciation for Rice came as I got older and started studying the game more. Of course he was one half of the Gold Dust Twins with Fred Lynn on the pennant-winning 1975 Red Sox, hitting 22 home runs and 102 RBI as a 22-year-old and the third in the Fenway Park left field chain that ran from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to him. And then there was his ridiculous 1978 season, where he played in 163 games (thanks to Boston’s slide and the Yankees’ rise to force a one-game playoff) and led the league in just about everything. He was tops in home runs (46), RBI (139), slugging percentage (.600), OPS (.970), OPS+ (57), hits (213), triples (15) and my favorite, total bases (406).
There have been greater seasons in terms of total bases, but those 406 have stood out to me for a long time. Of the 20 seasons with a greater total, just about all of them came before integration or at the height of the steroid era. He was a great hitter for his all-too-brief career, but that season he was a one man wrecking crew, just glaring at the opposition and raking whenever the pitcher left the ball anywhere near the plate.
And he was a model of consistency from there, averaging 30 home runs and 107 RBI with a .303 average and 134 OPS+ from 1976 to 86. And from 1979 to the end of his career, he cut his strikeouts down dramatically, only twice eclipsing 100 in a season — 1983 and ’84, when he struck out 102 times each. He was a practitioner of hitting, with the strength to spin it out of the right handed box over the left field wall with ease.
He wasn’t quite that guy anymore when I started watching baseball, but he still commanded respect, even from a seven-year-old who didn’t know a lot about the game yet. I remember seeing him on TV38, maybe hitting a little lower in the lineup, but still, that was Jim Rice up there. He meant business.
There’s a version of Rice that lingered for too long, the guy who’s reputation suffered because he was deemed to be short with the media. I wasn’t reading sports columns at the time, but I can imagine he got his share of nonsense from the collected talking heads of the time. Every star at Fenway has had to deal with that kind of nonsense — from Ted Williams on down to Nomar Garciaparra, Martinez and David Ortiz. He probably didn’t give the media the time or answers they wanted. But the Rice that appeared in the batters box, even as his gifts started to betray him, didn’t strike me as someone looking for a fight. He just had a job to do, and he was dead serious about it.
That’s the Jim Rice I always remember. I know there’s the gregarious commentator on NESN after Red Sox games now, and the patient teacher that Garciaparra called the greatest hitting coach he ever had, the smiling face looking back at a Topps photographer before the 1977 season. But there’s a part of my brain that will never let go of Jim Ed, a brooding hurricane ready to strike, a quiet monster patiently waiting for another mistake fastball that tailed just the right amount inside the plate, looking to spin around from that coiled stance and turn a baseball into 400 feet of regret without so much as a flinch.