In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to write a piece on some of baseball’s biggest stars of color. Was I to start reminiscing about Willie Mays’ basket catch, or maybe Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey desegregating baseball in its biggest market? Perhaps, I could do another piece on Yankee Captain Derek Jeter, reflect on Hank Aaron’s chase for The Babe, or even write about Harold Baines’ 25th inning walkoff. The lopsided, legendary Frank Robinson trade and Kirby Puckett’s 1991 gamewinner that sent the Twin Cities into a frenzy. I could’ve been in awe of an Ozzie Smith backflip or the base stealing prowess of Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. Needless to say, the Nation’s pastime is loaded with history to reflect upon, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of the Hall of Fame alone.
While I’ll never be able to do justice to the history brought to our great game, I can always tell the stories of days gone by one at a time, starting with a different Hall of Fame ballplayer: Jim Rice. Rice, an excellent left-fielder for one of baseball’s most beloved franchises, was enshrined into Cooperstown in 2009 on his 15th and final year of eligibility through the BBWAA writers ballot. Finally getting elected with a mere 76.4% of the vote, Rice hit .298/.352/.502 over 16 big league seasons, posting a 47.7 WAR. He totaled 382 HR, 2452 hits, and 1451 RBI, winning an MVP in 1978 when he posted a league-leading .970 OPS. He was an 8x All Star and one of MLBs premiere sluggers of the 1980s in its most rigorous market.
But this story isn’t about the career of Jim Rice, no. Being that he’s in the baseball Hall of Fame, he’s obviously part of an elusive less than 1% that make the Hall of Fame as a player. That means Jim Rice is greatness that needs no explanation. I wanted to share a story that could be relevant in today’s atmosphere. This story is about the human being that is Jim Rice and takes place about halfway through his career.
During his tenure as a Major League ballplayer, Rice worked and donated to dozens of charities in the New England area, including becoming an honorary Chariman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Fund in 1979 based out of Boston. In 1999, The Red Sox Foundation’s “RBI” (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) named their new youth facility in Roxbury, Massachusetts after Rice. In his hometown of Anderson, SC, there is a youth recreation center named in his honor. Rice’s crowning achievement in the eyes of the public, however, came during a ballgame. On August 7th, 1982, the Red Sox squared off against the Chicago White Sox on a nationally televised broadcast. It was on this broadcast that Red Sox infielder Dave Stapleton was at the plate when he ripped a line drive behind the Boston dugout, striking a 4-year old boy (Jonathan Keane) in the skull. With blood pouring out of Keane’s head, everybody sat there in deafening silence, observing what had happened, when Jim Rice emerged from the dugout and ran into the stands. Rice grabbed the boy and cradled him, until they got to the field, where the Red Sox medical staff attended to the boys wounds. Jim Rice being the only person able to respond at the blink of an eye saved the life of the 4 year old lad. Keane’s father commented on it in 2009 after Rice’s Hall of Fame induction announcement, to WMUR9, Boston’s local ABC news station.
After the medical staff finished up with the boy, he was rushed to the local children’s hospital and at the snap of a finger was under the knife for emergency surgery, to relieve swelling from his brain. He would’ve never gotten there if it wasn’t for Rice. He spent 5 days in the hospital post-operation in critical condition, but ended up throwing out the first pitch to Rice at a Sox game during the 1983 season.
36 years later, in late 2018, Jonathan was asked about the incident and said “everyone else didn’t do anything and he had that reaction, instinctively, lifted me out of the stands and carrying me to the paramedics.”
The reason this is the first story I decided to share was that it not only has it become a picture synonymous with baseball, bigger than the game, after it was published in every major newspaper around the country in the early ’80s while giving Rice a signature defining moment in a Hall of Fame career, but it’s also relevant to today. In May of last year, Albert Almora Jr., Cubs centerfielder, hit a rocket foul ball that ricocheted off the head of a little girl at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Almora was rocked at the plate, sitting on the ground with his hands on his head for a number of minutes. Later in the game, he went to the section down the third baseline where the child was struck and wept in the arms of a security guard.
In response to that, MLB has officially decided to extend the netting from foul pole to foul pole at all 30 stadiums, causing a divide between baseball fans. The purists argue that the number isn’t that large (less than 1% of fans) and that it takes the fun out of ballgames, such as interacting with players or potentially getting a foul ball. Others argue that seeing as up to 1,750 people get hurt attending a game annually, the more baseball can reduce that number the better off it will be, because you don’t want to see anybody get hurt. With everything, there’s benefits, and there’s drawbacks. But, this story of Jim Rice is an extreme worst-case-scenario that is really all too real. What if the players react more like an Albert Almora than a Jim Rice? You can’t fault the player for not taking action, which makes Rice’s snappy response all the more praised.
I sent the photograph to my friend David a couple days ago, and his response was so spot-on accurate and eloquent that I feel obliged to include it in this piece:
“This is my favorite baseball picture of all time. It’s a visual reminder that these players are human, we watch them on a screen or from a distance all the time, and we forget the humanity in them. We often forget they are people. It’s a visual reminder that that humanity is bigger than the game. It tells the story of a man coming to help a stranger in a time of need, and saving that strangers life. This image captures the most beautiful side of baseball, one that we seldom see on TV. “-David Suggs
Jim Rice is one of baseball’s biggest colored stars ever, but he’s by far an even better human being. He may be an MVP on the diamond, but he’s also an MVP in life; and I think we can all agree that entirely outweighs his on-field accolades.
Is extending the netting the right move? Sound off on my Twitter, @TheJameus!