Sunday, October 16, 2016

Red Sox in Cooperstown Pt. 26: Jim Rice

Years in Boston: 1974-1989 (.298/.352/.502, 382 home runs, 1,451 RBIs, 2,452 hits)
Best Year in Boston: 1978 (.315/.370/.600, 46 home runs, 139 RBIs, 213 hits)
Following in the footsteps of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski in left field could not have been easy, but Jim Rice was more than up to the task as he became the third Red Sox left-fielder in a row to eventually be named to the Hall of Fame.  Rice actually arrived when Yastrzemski was still active.  Rice and Yaz alternated between left field and designated hitter, with Yaz also spending time at first base.

Rice was the 15th overall pick in the 1971 draft out of high school in South Carolina where he also starred in football.  Rice was a big, strong power hitter who rose quickly through the Red Sox system, winning the Triple Crown for Pawtucket in 1974 before making his Major League debut that same season.  Rice hit reasonably well in 24 games, but really shined in 1975 when he joined up with fellow rookie center-fielder Fred Lynn to help lead Boston to the World Series.  Rice and Lynn were nicknamed the "Gold Dust Twins".  Lynn ended up taking home the Rookie of the Year and MVP but Rice was nearly as good.  Rice hit .309/.350/.491 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs and even stole 10 bases.  Rice finished second to Lynn in the Rookie of the Year and third in the MVP vote.  Unfortunately, Rice sustained a wrist injury at the end of the season after being hit by a pitch and missed the entire postseason.  

Rice slumped somewhat in 1976, but still managed 25 home runs.  However, in 1977 Rice embarked on a string of four straight years in which he was named to the All Star team.  He won his first home run title in 1977 with 39 and had his first of four 200 hit seasons.  He also led the league in slugging percentage.

1978 was Rice's best season, and one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time.  Rice hit .315/.370/.600 and led the league in games played, at bats, hits, triples, home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage while also accumulating 406 total bases.  It was the first time a player had more than 400 total bases since Joe DiMaggio in 1937.  For his efforts, Rice easily won the 1978 AL MVP Award.

Rice had another strong season in 1979, hitting 39 home runs with a .325/.381/.596 line with more than 200 hits for the third straight season.  In 1980, he slumped to .294/.336/.504 with just 24 home runs and 86 RBIs.  1981 was the strike-shortened season and Rice hit 17 home runs.  1982 saw his batting average increase, but his power was still around the same level.  It was in 1982 that Rice had what is likely his most noteworthy moment.  After a young boy in the stands was struck hard in the head by a foul ball off the bat of Dave Stapleton, Rice leapt into the stands, took the young boy in his arms and ran him to the clubhouse where the team physician was able to get him into an ambulance, likely saving his life.

1983 saw a resurgence by Jim Rice as he led the league in home runs with 39 and RBIs with 126 while hitting .305/.361/.550.  His numbers stayed relatively steady for a few years after that, until 1986 when he had his fourth 200 hit season, and his eighth and last 100-plus RBI season.  That was his last good season as he hit .324/.384/.490 with 20 home runs and 110 RBIs.  He also finally appeared in the postseason, hitting two home runs in the ALCS and batting .333 in the World Series.

Vision problems and injuries sapped his hitting ability in the three seasons following 1986 and Rice was a shell of his former self.  He retired in 1989 at the still-young age of 36.  If he had been able to play a little better for a few more years after 1986, his Hall of Fame case may have been a little clearer.  As it was, it took a full 15 years for Rice to eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame.  Rice is a somewhat controversial selection.  He was the fourth player elected to the Hall who spent his entire career with the Red Sox.

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