As Cleveland Pitcher Rick Wise made the cross-field walk from the visitors' dugout to the right-field bullpen in Fenway Park last Saturday, he looked about him. To his left he saw the green monster of a wall that seems to rise just behind shortstop. Up ahead were the bleachers, into which Wise had seen Jim Rice of the Sox deposit 14 baseballs in 20 batting practice swings the night before. "Then I started thinking how many times I'd seen him do that," says Wise. As he worriedly trudged on, Wise glanced up at the left-center-field scoreboard where the Boston lineup, which he would face as soon as he completed his warm-up throws in the bullpen, was posted. At the bottom of the list, in the spot that used to be reserved for pitchers, he saw the name of Butch Hobson, who last season had 30 homers and 112 RBIs. "It's bad enough to see a lineup that's so strong Butch hits ninth," says Wise, who was traded away from the Red Sox a month ago, "but it's another thing to have to pitch to it. I kept thinking, 'What was the line on the Christians against the lions?' "
That afternoon Wise kept the lions at bay, beating his old teammates 13-4 and thereby ending all discussion of whether the Red Sox might go 81-0 in their private artillery range. They had won their first seven games in Fenway, getting 93 hits and 60 runs in the process, and two weeks into the season they were batting .315 as a team, averaging seven runs a game and hitting homers at a pace that would equal last year's club record of 213. And they had done all this in April, when the gusts blow in from Mount Washington toward home plate. Come June, the month when last season's barrage really got under way, the Fenway winds blow straight out. "If people think this is something," says slugger George Scott, "wait until the home-run days. This place is going to look like Vietnam."
What made Wise's victory remarkable—and possible—was the fact that he was able to hold Rice and Hobson to one hit and one RBI between them. The two had combined for seven homers and 24 RBIs and accounted for 32 Sox runs in the previous seven games of the home stand. In a lineup that includes the likes of Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn and Scott, Rice and Hobson have become the muscle on top of the muscle.
When the Red Sox arrived in Boston for their home opener on April 14, there seemed to be someone on every street corner asking, "What's the maatah with the Sawx?" After a winter's buildup, they had begun the season by losing three of five on the road, and fans were already demanding Manager Don Zimmer's velour scalp. The future seemed clouded because of ailments afflicting Rice and Hobson. During spring training Rice had flown to Boston to have his eyes checked, found that they had "seriously deteriorated" in two years and had been fitted for contact lenses. The bone chips in Hobson's right elbow, which had apparently stabilized in late 1977, had started growing again and were now the size of thumbnails. The third baseman missed several spring-training games and began the season bandaged, hitting .156 without an RBI through those five away games. Finally, on a cold day in Cleveland, the elbow had locked up on him while he was walking down the street.
But Boston's dismay disappeared in the Fenway opener against Texas. With the Red Sox trailing 4-2 in the eighth inning, Hobson led off with a homer; soon thereafter Rice tied the score with a single. In the 10th, Hobson got his third hit of the day, and Rice singled him home—if you can call a rifle shot off the right-center-field bullpen wall a single—and the Red Sox won 5-4. The next day Rice had a two-run homer, a double and a single, and Hobson a three-run homer, a double and a single. And on it went. In a seven-run first inning against Milwaukee on April 17, Rice tripled in two runs, and Hobson doubled in two more. Behind 6-2 in the next day's game, Boston came back to win when Hobson tripled in two runs in the seventh inning and began the decisive ninth-inning rally with a single. Hobson's three-run homer broke a 1-1 tie in the next game, which the Sox won 10-4. To finish the streak, Rice first homered and later singled ahead of Carlton Fisk's game-winning home run in a 9-7 win over Cleveland.
And no sooner had Wise gotten the best of Rice, Hobson and the rest of the Red Sox, than the Boston boomers exploded again. In a doubleheader against the Indians on Sunday, in which the Sox won the opener 6-3 and lost the nightcap 10-7, Hobson hit a two-run shot in the first game and a three-run blast in the second. That raised his season's total to 21 runs batted in, good enough to lead the American League, and his batting average to .338. Rice homered with no one on in the second game to run his totals to five home runs, 14 RBIs and a .316 average.
If Rice is the strongest man in the American League, as his teammates insist, that does not mean Hobson is without a distinctive billing of his own. Boston fans now describe him as the Sox' best ninth-place hitter since Babe Ruth. "I'd bat 10th if they wanted me to," says Hobson. Typical. The problem for the newsmen who cover the Red Sox is that these two gentlemen just do not have enough Bill Lee or Reggie Jackson in them.
Both are from the South: Jim Ed Rice is from Anderson, S.C.; Clell Laverne Hobson and his pickup truck are from Bessemer, Ala. Both are quiet. Both spend hours in the batting cage and practicing in the field, though Rice for the time being is primarily a designated hitter. Both are strikingly handsome; teammates used to call Rice "Mandingo," while Hobson is Paul Newman with a Reggie Jackson body. Both are tough—"gamers" in baseball argot. "We're paid to play," says Rice, who makes 125,000 honest dollars. Says Zimmer, "Neither of them ever has a complaint or an excuse." But while Hobson's background is one of tradition—he was a quarterback under Bear Bryant, and his father was MVP on Bama's 1953 Orange Bowl winners—Rice created his own tradition. The city of Anderson altered its school integration plan just to get him into previously all-white Hannah High.
From the day he arrived in Boston in 1974, it was obvious that Rice, who was then only 21, had a chance to be that rare hitter who can combine brute force and finesse at the plate. And he has lived up to those expectations, batting .303 with 87 home runs in his three full major league seasons. It is no wonder Rice's eye problems were a considerable source of concern. He now wears contacts four hours a day, including during games. "They're supposed to stabilize my eyesight," he says. "Thus far I've had a little irritation, but no big trouble. I can't worry about them. I've got pitchers to worry about."
"If he can hit .320 with 39 homers without the lenses, as he did last season, maybe he'll hit .340 with them," says Zimmer, greedily. But Rice's condition continues to be a matter of concern to the Red Sox; only if his nearsightedness can be compensated for will he be able to continue his quest to become the game's best hitter. He's not far from that goal now. Asked what player he would take if all American Leaguers were made free agents, Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton said " Rice" without a hesitation. "I can't imagine another answer," said Dalton.