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The blessing fell with heavy irony on the lowered heads of the gentlemen from the Southern Bank & Trust Company of Greenville, S.C. "We are fortunate to have Jim Rice with us here today," the minister advised 250 diners at the Charleston Chamber of Commerce's Red Carpet Breakfast Meeting, "through the courtesy of Southern Bank & Trust." Only the blushing bankers knew at that moment just how unfortunate the chamber folks really were, because there would be no Rice at breakfast this day.
That melancholy intelligence had been conveyed to them the night before, smack in the middle of an impromptu party in the suite of Board Chairman Sam Hunt at the Kiawah Island Inn outside Charleston. They had been having a high time of it until then. Thomas (Nap) Vandiver, their fun-loving board chairman emeritus and spiritual leader, had been singing basso profundo and recounting convoluted anecdotes about his undergraduate years at The Citadel, while outside, the thumping January surf played timpani to the trumpeting laughter. They thought that Rice, the American League's Most Valuable Player and part-time Southern Bank public-relations man, would soon be with them to help out with a series of promotional events, the breakfast included. Then, just when the party was getting a glow on, the telephone rang.
Senior Vice-President Phil Southerland, hair slightly ruffled, spectacles fastened to the tip of his nose, answered. His countenance went slack. Rice, he was told, had that day signed a seven-year contract with the Red Sox worth approximately $5.4 million. Because of this epochal transaction, Rice could not get out of Boston that night and would not be in Carolina in the morning. Southern Bank this year is paying Rice $25,000 for his P.R. work, so the economic priorities were obvious enough, but the fact remained that the bankers were left holding, as it were, the bag.
"What'll we do at the chamber breakfast tomorrow?" a crestfallen Hunt asked Southerland.
"Maybe," the senior veep replied, "we could have Nap sing Amazing Grace."
As it developed, there was no need for that appalling alternative. Rice was not around for Jim Rice Day in Charleston, but the locals were able to hear his views expressed secondhand via a telephone-loudspeaker hookup with Tony Pennacchia, the slugger's attorney, agent, golfing buddy and, on this occasion, mouthpiece. "Tony, you're talking to about 250-300 people here in Charleston. South Carolina," Southerland began uncomfortably. "And you," replied Pennacchia, "are talking to a little Italian lawyer from Providence, Rhode Island."
It was a piece of cake from then on. Rice, tired but dead game, arrived later that afternoon, in time to play a few holes of golf with bank customers and to appear that evening at a dinner for bank directors. The golf was highlighted by some heroic Rice teeshots that flew off into distant treetops and various bodies of water thereabouts. At the banquet, the subject was, not unexpectedly, filthy lucre. For all of his protestations to the contrary, Rice is keenly interested in the stuff; in the company of men whose business is money, he was in his element. As a native South Carolinian, he was also on his home turf. Rice has a cannonade oratorical style, the words exploding in salvos. He is not always easy to follow, but he was in good form this night, although his attachment to the archaic suffix "wise" bordered on an addiction. The "wises" tumbled forth from him in amazing profusion—executivewise, salarywise, residencewise, investmentwise.... He was a replica, languagewise, of a 1960s advertising executive.
The bankers drank in the wises and the wisdom. Of his new riches, Rice remarked, "If someone gives you X amount of dollars, are you going to say, 'No, I don't want it'? This is the thing a player looks forward to—security.... It's not how much you make; it's how much you can keep for yourself. Instead of spending two pennies, I'm trying to save four. If I had gone to free agency, I could have made more, but I went this way because it's better for me and my family. And at age 32 [which is when his new contract expires], I can go through it all over again. Anytime you can get a contract the way you want it, you'd better take it."
Rice explained why he felt an obligation to come all the way down to South Carolina when his principal business that week was in Boston. "I have a contract with Southern Bank. I have an obligation to it. When I sign something, I live up to it."
This last declaration of loyalty moved a bank director, H. C. (Bunt) Fisk, to rise to his feet and, in a voice fairly quivering with emotion, inquire, "Jim, do you sense something here tonight? I do. I don't think you sense envy. I don't. I feel a sense of admiration."