BOSTON — In his prime, Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice was one of the most dominating and feared hitters in the American League, posting some of the most formidable numbers of the late '70s and early '80s. Tuesday night, though, it was his jersey No. 14 that was posted — on Fenway Park's right-field façade.
In a pregame ceremony, with his family, former teammates and coaches looking on — and current Sox and Oakland A's players lining the railings of their respective dugouts — the Red Sox retired the number Rice wore for 16 seasons with the only team for which he ever played.
Rice joins Bobby Doerr (1), Joe Cronin (4), Johnny Pesky (6), Carl Yastrzemski (8), Ted Williams (9) and Carlton Fisk (27) as the only Sox players to have their numbers retired, along with Jackie Robinson's 42, which was retired throughout baseball.
Ex-Sox teammates Dwight Evans, fellow Hall of Famer Fisk, Bob Stanley, Bob Montgomery and fellow "Gold Dust Twin" Fred Lynn joined Rice on the field. Pesky, sitting in the seats at Fenway behind the retired numbers, lifted a maroon sheet to reveal Rice's 14, between Williams' 9 and Fisk's 27. At the end of the ceremony, pitcher Tim Wakefield and catcher Jason Varitek presented Rice with a duplicate of the number plaque signed by the members of the current team.
"I find it meaningful," Rice said of his number's retirement. "But, when you think about being in the same category with Williams and Yaz … in [the same] city and being in the Hall of Fame with two other left fielders, that's a lot. I think once you accept your credentials of being a Hall of Famer, you expect your number to be retired.
"To be in the Hall of Fame and to be able to have played for an organization like the Red Sox … with the Yawkey tradition and … with the owners you have today. It still remains a family.
"And to have your number retired, like I said, 'Why didn't you guys give my number away?' Because '89 was the last year I played and normally when someone leaves, they give someone their number and I expected someone to have my number. But they didn't give it out. I knew I had good numbers, but I didn't think my numbers were going to be good enough as far as the Red Sox retiring my number. It was left up to the owners."
It was an easy decision for the owners to make.
"As a fan of the game and a steward of this great franchise, it is an honor to be a part of the Red Sox during this special moment in the team's history," said Sox principal owner John Henry in a statement. "The retirement of his number will be a fitting way to honor one of the most dominant hitters to ever wear a Red Sox uniform."
The Sox selected Rice in the first round (15th overall pick) of the 1971 draft out of Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C. He made his big league debut on Aug. 19, 1974 and played his final game on Aug. 3, 1989. Upon his induction into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, he became just the 48th inductee who spent his entire career with one team.
"I'd like to say I predicted him to be a Hall of Famer," laughed Dick Berardino, Rice's first professional manager with Single-A Williamsport in 1971. "But I knew he was going to be a major leaguer. The thing about Jimmy that year was, he was 18 and he didn't have a great year. He hit maybe six home runs. But he was a good fastball hitter. It was hard to throw a fastball by him. He struggled with the breaking ball, like a lot of young hitters do with the off-speed stuff. But knowing how good he could hit a fastball at such a young age, I knew he'd be a major leaguer. But I didn't know he was going to be a Hall of Famer. But I'm so happy for him."
Governor Deval Patrick proclaimed Tuesday as "Jim Rice Day" in the commonwealth. Boston mayor Tom Menino, who was also in attendance for the ceremony, issued a proclamation naming Tuesday "Jim Rice Day" in the city, citing the former left fielder's 1978 AL MVP season, when he hit .315 with a league-leading 213 hits, .600 slugging percentage, 46 home runs and 139 RBIs — numbers that still give pause.
"I think it's great," Mike Lowell said of Rice's number retirement. "I actually read the transcript of [his] speech. I thought it was very good … and well deserved. If you look at his numbers, they always show that 11-year span — for a power-hitting right-hander to lead the league in hits, it's pretty amazing. The home runs and RBIs I think we all knew about, but the hits are pretty unbelievable."
Sox team historian Dick Bresciani, whom Rice thanked in his speech in Cooperstown on Sunday, was responsible for keeping the slugger's stats and accomplishments alive in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters.
"What we tried to do in the last five years was make the media aware of what he did in the context of his era and what he did compared to his peers and other great players who were in the Hall of Fame already," Bresciani said. "And I certainly had help. … It really feels good that it all came to fruition."
It is often said that Rice's sometimes frosty relationship with the media delayed his entrance into the Hall.
"I called him once in Kansas City, must have been '82 or '83, about one in the afternoon," said longtime WBZ radio reporter John Miller, smiling, "and he hung up on me and he was really upset. But the people who were here every day, he had no problem with. But other people who came in, he had trouble with. One time he ripped [Steve] Fainaru's shirt off in Oakland. But if you picked your spots, he gave great answers."
"He was a powerful man," said Lenny Megliola, who covered Rice's career for the MetroWest Daily News. "His glare in the batter's box must have shaken more than a few pitchers. He never took an at-bat off, and if hitting came relatively easy, his glove work needed an upgrade. So he'd show up early at the park and Johnny Pesky would hit him hard grounders and stroke fly balls off the Green Monster, which he learned to play very capably. He was never afraid of hard work. Extra work.
"To be the most feared hitter for five, six years, that's pretty heady stuff. The payoff was Cooperstown, because after they dusted off his numbers again, they looked much better, much brighter in the Steroid Era.
"He did it clean, and this week he's taking his bows."
Rice was generally respected by those who dealt with him on a daily basis.
"Rice was one of the most standup players I ever covered," said Boston Globe writer Nick Cafardo. "If he messed up, he was always standing at his locker waiting for reporters so he could lay complete blame for the loss on himself. If he went 4-for-4 and drove in five runs, he was nowhere to be found, feeling it was his responsibility to lead the team to a win.
"He hated talking about teammates. He was the consummate captain in that he was a loyal teammate who helped young guys blend in and adapt to their new surroundings. He helped Ellis Burks tremendously with dealing with being black in Boston. He was a menacing hitter, and at times, he had a menacing look on his face. I once wrote, 'Rice could not be approached for comment.'"
"He was one of the hardest workers on the team," Miller said. "He was always in the cage in spring training. He was always there early working with his hitting coaches and Pesky. He was always taking balls in the outfield trying to improve. … He was a feared right-handed hitter, especially in this ballpark. And I think if they didn't make the Lynn, [Rick] Burleson [and] Fisk deals at the end of the '79 season, they would have won at least one, maybe two world championships in the '80s."
Rice's reputation was as formidable as his stats — until you get to know him.
"I had the [idea] that he was kind of a tough personality," Lowell said. "But he's been absolutely the exact opposite. He likes to call me 'Old Man' because I have more gray hair than him. He's actually been very outgoing.
"I think he's done a really good job of being friendly with the guys and helpful, but not in a [bad] way. A lot of guys are like, 'Well, when I was playing.' Well, you're not playing now. There were a lot of times when you guys popped up. And he's definitely not like that. He's more just like, 'Hey, how you doing? You feeling good? Keep rolling.' Which is not easy for someone [like Rice]. I've always said that the best players, it's not easy for them to be the best coaches or managers."
Pretty good attribute, and pretty good numbers. One of which will forever hang above Fenway's right field.
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