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Ask Rice if the fans have been warmer to him this year, and he says, "I don't think about things like that." Ask him about his contract, and he says, "I've got one year left on it, that's all." Ask him about his lack of recognition, and he says, "Why should it puzzle me? I've been doing a job for 10 years. I don't know what goes on in writers' minds."
Here's what goes on in a writer's mind while talking to Rice: "I'm trying to interview you while you're reading a classified ad journal for cars. I ask you a question, and instead of answering, you ask the clubhouse boy about a Ferrari. You want to be given your due, you want to make as much as Carter and Brett and Winfield and Murphy, then you might want to give something back to the public. I'm leaving to go bang my head against a wall."
In every other aspect. Rice is a model ballplayer. He's a leading advocate of "playing hurt." Says Red Sox manager Ralph Houk, "I cannot get him out of the lineup." Earlier this season in Yankee Stadium, Rice crashed into a wall, lay motionless for a few minutes, shook away the cobwebs and resumed play.
Rice works as hard as anyone on the team, veteran or rookie, and never ducks a workout or spring training road trip. Last week in Fenway, after driving in his 15th RBI in 16 games, he worked on his swing after a game with batting coach Walt Hriniak. The only special treatment he gets is the right to take his golf clubs on the road with him.
He was not a very good fielder when he first came up, but now he plays The Wall almost as well as Yastrzemski did in his prime. His arm is as good as any left-fielder's in the league, and he routinely holds balls off The Big Green Thing to singles.
Oddly enough. Rice is much more available to the press when he's a goat than when he's a hero. If he makes an error, he'll be sitting in front of his locker, ready to face the music. If he hits a home run to win a game, he'll be in the trainer's room, sitting out the dance.
By now his feats of physical strength should be legend, but they're not. Rice may be the strongest man in the world who has never lifted a weight. He has broken three bats by checking his swing. "Bad wood, that's all," he says. His golf drives strain both credibility and physics.
"Me and Bob Montgomery and Jim were on the 14th at Grenelefe in Haines City, Florida," Harrelson says. "It's one of the great par 4s, 505 yards. On this day, the wind is at our backs and the fairway is hard, so we're bound to get some distance. Monty gets up and cracks one 300 yards. Then I get up and I kill it, 365 yards down the fairway. Then Jim gets up, and he catches it so hard it doesn't make a sound. One hundred yards out, it looks like someone's kicked the ball in the ass, because it takes off. I get to my ball and can't even see Jim's. We find it behind a little knoll in front of the green and pace it off from my ball. He's hit it 95 yards beyond me, which means his drive went 460 yards."
If Rice had a title, it might be The Man Who Carries The Red Sox. Not only do they depend on his hitting, but they also use him as a stretcher. In 1979, Jerry Remy tore up his knee in Yankee Stadium, and Rice just lifted him up and took him into the trainer's room. "He picked me up like I was a child," says Remy. In 1977, Rick Miller and Evans collided in the outfield, and Rice carried Miller off the field. "He picked me up like I was a baby," says Miller.
There are times when Rice's strength of character matches his physical strength. In August of 1982, a line drive off the bat of Dave Stapleton went screaming into the box seats at Fenway next to the Red Sox dugout. The people in the first few rows ducked down, and the ball hit a five-year-old boy, Jonathan Keane, in the head, fracturing his skull and drawing blood. For a few horrifying moments nobody could do anything. Rice poked his head out of the dugout, saw what had happened, and leaped into the stands. He carried the child in his arms down the runway to the clubhouse, where team physician Arthur Pappas took over. Doctors credit Rice and Pappas with saving the boy's life.