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If you really know The Wall—know how to use it to your advantage, appreciate its idiosyncrasies—it can be your friend. But since only a select few do know the leftfield wall at Boston's Fenway Park, it's called the Green Monster.
The same goes for Jim Rice, the Red Sox' leftfielder. There are friends who call Rice a warm, loving human being. If you don't know him, though, he can be as intimidating and inscrutable as a gargoyle. Says his friend, Ken Harrelson, who played and broadcast in Boston and currently works the mike for the White Sox, "Jim Ed is the most misunderstood person not just in baseball, but in my whole experience. I know Jekyll. A lot of people see Hyde."
This summer Red Sox fans are choosing up sides in The Great Debate: Can Boston afford to keep Rice, or can the franchise afford not to keep him? His contract will expire at the end of next year, but he wants a new one before the start of the '85 season, and he wants to be making about $2 million a year.
It's hard to believe the Bosox faithful would want to contemplate life without Rice, given his statistics and his age (31), but now on the various and voracious call-in radio shows in the Hub, they're saying that he doesn't hit in the clutch (although some of his 126 RBIs last year must have been important) and that the only major league record he'll break is for grounding into double plays (with 26 already, he should easily pass former Red Sox outfielder Jackie Jensen, who set the standard with 32 in 1954).
The love/hate relationship seems to come with the territory. Ted Williams had his splinter groups, and Carl Yastrzemski was alternately yazzed and razzed. Before Rice, they inhabited left-field for almost 40 years—interrupted only by two wars, two Conigliaros, Juan Beniquez and Tommy Harper. But talent also comes with the territory. Since Fenway Park opened in 1912, the composite batting average for regular leftfielders is an astounding .304. It's as if The Wall befriends them. The leftfielder in '18 and '19, by the way, was Babe Ruth.
Rice is a worthy successor, and an argument can be made that he is the most devastating hitter in baseball today. "He has done things I've only dreamed of," says Reggie Jackson, another friend. Rice has had at least four MVP-caliber years, although he won the award only in 1978. He is the only man ever to have 35 homers and 200 hits in three straight seasons—1977-79—and if his career stats were boiled down to one 600-at bat season, he would have 182 hits, 31 home runs, 108 RBIs, a .304 batting average and a .526 slugging average.
Yet he has remained lost in the shadows of Fred Lynn and Yaz on the Red Sox, and several lesser superstars in baseball. Part of that is his own doing, though. He gets an F in media relations. "I just put the numbers on the board," he says. "That should be enough."
Rice is having an off-year. He was slow getting out of the gate, he's had lower back pain, he's chasing bad pitches and his contact lenses have been irritating his eyes. Consequently, he's only batting .280, with 17 homers and 79 RBIs, which is third in the majors.
Friends also say the contract situation is bothering him, although, Rice says, "That has nothing to do with anything." When Rice signed his last contract in January of 1979, he became the highest-paid player in the American League. By next season the $650,000-a-year pact will make him only the fourth-highest-paid on the Red Sox, behind outfielders Dwight Evans and Tony Armas and first baseman Bill Buckner. George Kalafatis of the International Management Group represents Rice, and he's looking for something similar to the five-year deal George Brett signed with the Royals: $1.8 million per plus real estate and a job in the organization when his playing days are over.
"Until they come back with something relative to what we've asked for, I don't expect to talk until after the season," says Kalafatis. "I don't think we're that far apart," says Lou Gorman, Boston's vice-president of baseball operations. Rice has expressed concern that the Red Sox are going nowhere. "How can a guy feel good when his team is at least 10 games out every day of the season?" Rice said early this year. But that was before they acquired Buckner and before they ran off a 17-5 record from July 3 through last Saturday.