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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jim Ed Rice

Baseball's Hall of Fame finally welcomes Jim Rice into its hallowed halls today and the event brings back memories of my all-time favorite Red Sox player.

First time I encountered Jim Rice was in 1973 when I attended an Eastern League AA game at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury between the Waterbury Dodgers and Bristol Red Sox. Fred Lynn was the big attraction for the Bristol team in 1973, but on that day, Mr. Rice slugged not one, but two home runs out of the unfriendly confines of Municipal Stadium. Municipal Stadium had the reputation as a lousy place to hit the baseball because it was built in a tight valley on the banks of a river; the air was always heavy with moisture and not conducive to hitting one out, but Mr. Rice hit two that evening.

On July 18, 1975, Pop and I attended a game at Fenway and sat in the "triangle" in the centerfield bleachers. During the game, Jim Rice hit a home run over our heads, as well as over the wall behind our heads. I was in awe. Mr. Rice accomplished the impossible before my eyes hitting a ball completely out of Fenway Park by clearing the back wall of the centerfield bleachers! Sox owner Tom Yawkey said it was the longest home run he ever saw hit in Fenway.

The fall of 1975 found me attending school in Springfield, Mass, but I was following the pennant race more closely than my studies. My roommate, Russ Schott, another diehard Sox fan, dubbed Mr. Rice "Jim Ed" that fall and that nickname has been stuck in my mind ever since.

Sidebar: When the Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, Russ Schott phoned me to celebrate that glorious event. I had not heard from Russ in years, but Red Sox blood is thicker than water, and that historic event was a cause to celebrate long distance.

In 1976 or 1977, Russ and I organized a bus trip for our classmates to Fenway for a Sox-Yankee game. We charged $12 for the outing and in addition to the bus ride to Fenway, the $12 included a bleacher seat ticket, a grinder (that Russ and I made), and access to two garbage cans (one at each end of the bus) full of ice cold canned beer. We filled the bus and got a free ride for our troubles.

Just to show you how the times have changed, we did not purchase tickets ahead of time. Instead, when the bus got to Fenway, Russ and I got out of the bus, ran to the ticket window and bought 42 bleacher tickets (at 50 cents each), then we ran back to the bus and handed out the tickets. You could not do that today.

The game was a typical Sox-Yankee barn-burner. We sat right behind the Yankee bullpen and I remember ragging Catfish Hunter so loudly that he glared at me while he was warming up. The Sox won and everyone had a great time despite the fact that we lost a few souls, who never showed up for the return trip to Springfield.

Back to 1975... Jim Rice and Fred Lynn were the "Gold Dust Twins" and led the Sox into first place, but at the end of the season, Jim Ed injured his wrist and had to sit out the playoffs and World Series. He did not play in one of the greatest World Series of all time and to this day, I think his absence was the difference between the Sox losing and winning that Series.

Hitting, rather than pitching, has always been my favorite part of the game and Jim Ed was the greatest slugger I had ever seen in a Sox uniform. Off the field, I loved the way he kept the press out of his business. Instead of kowtowing to the leeches that work for the Boston area media, he made it clear to them to stay out of his face. That probably cost him a few sportswriters' votes for various awards during his career and the Hall of Fame post-career, but he had more integrity than most ballplayers and stuck to his guns.

Did I mention that Jim Ed and I share the same birthday? He is a year younger, but I won't hold that against him.

Besides Red Sox yearbooks, scorecards, baseball cards, and spent Fenway tickets, I don't have much Jim Ed memorabilia. I do have some posters and his autograph on a 1978 team-signed baseball that now includes four Hall of Famers (Jim Ed, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, and Dennis Eckersley) along with other Sox stars of that era (Luis Tiant, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, George Scott, and Butch Hobson). That ball is one of my favorite Sox collectibles.

To tell you the truth, I was surprised Jim Ed made it into the Hall of Fame after being snubbed all these years and I was very happy he finally made it in. After all, we aren't getting any younger!!!

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