It is not quite noon on the day of a 7 p.m. game at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine, and sweat is already gleaming from Jason Rice’s forehead. He has not yet begun his game-day workout routine, nor has he thrown a single pitch.
What he has done is taught nearly 100 young ballplayers from the local area how to field ground balls and work together to turn double plays. It’s all in a days’ work for the Portland Sea Dogs’ reliever.
Since Rice arrived in Portland at the start of the 2010 Eastern League season, it has been standard procedure for him to reach out to the community. He has visited elementary schools, birthday parties, summer camps and the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center to deliver advice, stories and smiles to the youth.
“Honestly, I love being part of the community,” said the 24-year-old after the Sea Dogs’ Free Kids Clinic on June 19. “As a kid growing up, I wish somebody in my position [as a professional baseball player] would take the time out of their day to talk to me.”
Rice is particularly pleased that the community he enjoys giving back to is one that can be found along the prospect pipeline that is the Boston Red Sox’ farm system. Previously, Rice was a member of the Chicago White Sox organization, but was acquired by the Red Sox in 2008 in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 Draft.
“I had to do some research on [the Rule 5 Draft] when I first found out what it was,” admits Rice, a native of San Bernadino, Calif. “I saw a lot of guys from Dan Uggla to Johan Santana to Roberto Clemente were Rule 5 guys as well.
“For the Rule 5, basically other teams get a chance to get you if they think they can work with you. A lot of guys get drafted to a certain team and a lot of times you don’t even make it to the big leagues with that team.”
Since joining the Red Sox organization, Rice’s numbers have improved dramatically. In 2009, the righty made his debut out of the bullpen with the High-A Salem Red Sox and lowered his previous season’s ERA by exactly two runs per game, registering a 2.44 ERA in 41 appearances.
“It’s a blessing,” said Rice about being a part of a Boston farm system that he credits with transforming him from just a thrower to a pitcher. “I’ve learned so much since joining the Boston Red Sox organization. How they do things here is unbelievable.”
The success down in Salem has translated to the Double-A level in Portland this season. Rice was recently named to the Eastern League All-Star team after converting a perfect nine saves in nine opportunities to accompany a 3.15 ERA and 41 strikeouts over 34 1/3 innings pitched as of July 5 [update stats].
“I feel confident, to the highest level,” said Rice. “It is Double-A here, so you know you are just a phone call away if those guys up in Pawtucket or Boston need your services. You got to come in here with confidence through the roof, and know that you can’t be beat in between those lines.”
As a Rule 5 draft pick and now a minor league All-Star, Rice could persuade the Red Sox to protect him on their 40-man roster if he has a strong second half of the season.
Rice would be more than pleased if Boston were to hold him in such high regard. However, he refuses to look too deeply into what he cannot control.
“I pray that my future is here [in the Boston organization],” said Rice, “Like I said, just to be here is a blessing, and I have high hopes that I’ll stay here. But you can only take it one day at a time, you know.
“You can never get comfortable in this game because you never know what will happen. There are trades and all kinds of stuff that you just never know. Shoot, I could get converted to a catcher. It’s unlikely, but you just never know.”
With the increased successes that have come his way since joining the Boston organization, it seems more and more unlikely that Rice will be converted to a catcher, and more and more likely he will continue his ascent to Fenway Park.
For now, his home is Portland, where he vows to continue to work hard and elevate his game. You can also be sure that Jason Rice will continue to do what he does off the field, giving back to the community and putting smiles on the faces of fans young and old.
“Now that I have this chance, I want to go out there and show these kids that they can do anything they put their mind to because it’s been a tough road for me, but I’m still here plugging away.”