- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
- 0 Shares
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's not yet 9 a.m., but already there are signs this will be an uncommonly pleasant March day at City of Palms Park.
It's sunny and 70 degrees, birds are singing, flowers blooming and Jim Ed Rice is, inexplicably, smiling.
Holding a steaming cup of coffee, he saunters into the expansive locker room that is the home of the Boston Red Sox during spring training.
"Morning," the former Red Sox slugger says, seeming to mean it. "How you all doing?"
Rice, 56, is often described by the media as standoffish, even sullen. He doesn't relish interviews, but he's agreed to sit down with an ESPN feature crew to discuss a single, cathartic day in his career that had little to do with baseball.
Six months ago, it was announced that Rice had been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his 15th and final appearance on the ballot.
A total of 412 of the 539 voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America voted for Rice, some 76.4 percent -- 1.4 percent, or seven votes, more than the minimum required for enshrinement in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"If it hadn't been for the 15th time, in the back of my head I probably would have said, 'Hey, my numbers weren't good enough,'" Rice said. "And I think in certain situations where you look at guys who are in the Hall of Fame, well, some guys in the Hall of Fame shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame.
"Your numbers are better, but you can't go back and think about that because you are not voting. You can't cry over spilt milk, you just let it go. It's not in your hands."
When the bat -- most often a R206, 35-inch, 32-ounce unfinished hickory Louisville Slugger -- was in his hands, Rice was a terrific hitter. In 16 seasons with the Red Sox, he hit 382 home runs, drove in 1,451 runs and hit. 298. For three straight seasons (1977-79), he had more than 35 home runs and 200 hits. In his American League MVP season of '78, he hit .315, produced 46 home runs and 139 RBIs and slugged .600 -- numbers that look larger in the rearview mirror of recent steroids revelations.
Six times, Rice was among the top five vote-getters in the AL MVP race.
Rice said he is honored by his part in the now certifiably Hall of Fame-ous Red Sox triumvirate that also includes Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski.
"I look at the history of the Red Sox, that you have three left fielders in the Hall of Fame," Rice said. "That's what I look at more than anything else. And I look at that no one in the big leagues in the Red Sox has worn my number. So eventually my number will be retired with the other two guys [the Red Sox plan to retire Rice's No. 14 jersey on Tuesday at Fenway Park]. When you talk about the history of the Red Sox, and you had three Hall of Famers playing left field, that's not too bad."
All the numbers and the honors are fine in their way, Rice said. But when he thinks back on his baseball career, the moment of which he is most proud is not a blast over the fence or a game-saving catch or a pennant-clinching victory.
No, the moment that stands out in his memory was formed nearly 27 years ago, a long-forgotten time and place when he simply did the right thing -- and may have saved a young boy's life in the process.
An Ideal Seat
Tom Keane, like so many New Englanders, liked baseball but truly adored the Red Sox. He coached his kids through Little League and, occasionally, took them to one of his favorite places on earth, Fenway Park.
On Aug. 7, 1982, Keane drove from Greenland, N.H., with his sons Jonathan, 4, and Matthew, 2, for a game against the Chicago White Sox. Through a friend, he had gotten three tickets from Red Sox executive vice president Haywood Sullivan. When the usher showed them their seats, in the second row of Field Box No. 29, just to the left of the Red Sox dugout, Keane was amazed. The lush lawn, the Green Monster -- they were so close.
"You were actually right there," Keane remembered recently. "It was a seat that everybody would dream of when they had little kids and you wanted to get them close to the action. It was just ideal."
Obviously, as we sit here today, what [Jim Rice] did saved [Jonathan's] life. I mean you had a young child, his left skull is fractured open, it is bleeding profusely. If it continued to bleed, God knows what would have happened.
”-- Tom Keane, Jonathan's father
The Red Sox, in the heat of a spirited pennant race, were 2½ games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League East. Earlier in the game, Rice had hit a two-run double and the score was tied at 2-2 in the fourth inning. Second baseman Dave Stapleton -- Jonathan's favorite player -- came to the plate against Chicago pitcher Richard Dotson. Stapleton swung late and slashed a foul ball into the stands to the right of home plate.
Keane didn't see the ball, but heard a cracking sound. He thought the ball had hit the side of the dugout.
Until he heard the slightly delayed scream from his son.
"I immediately turned and blood was coming down Jonathan's face," Keane said, tearing up at the memory.
Rice, standing with his left foot on the top stair of the dugout, couldn't see exactly where the ball had gone but he heard the sickening crack, the "oooh" of the crowd -- and the awful silence that followed.
"You try to raise up and see if it hits anyone," Rice said, "and then when it hits someone that's when you react, especially when blood is involved."
In retrospect, Rice believes, he negotiated the distance in about one dozen steps and less than 10 seconds.
"Jim Rice was right there with his arms immediately," Keane said, "I mean immediately."
Rice, a father of two young children, was thinking of one thing.
"My child," he said. "Just someone, myself, just taking care of my child, picking my child up and taking him to the clubhouse."
Rice, without hesitation, scooped up Jonathan and carried him briskly into the dugout. Red Sox team doctor Arthur Pappas, who was sitting on the other side of the dugout, rushed from his seat to the trainers room, where he met Rice.
"I saw a boy that was nonresponsive," Pappas remembers. "There was blood on his face, his head, there was blood coming from his nose and his mouth, so these are all indicative of a significant head injury."
Within minutes, Jonathan was taken by ambulance to Children's Hospital -- only a mile away. His skull was fractured and he had lost a lot of blood. Jonathan underwent delicate surgery and was released five days later after visits from Stapleton and Tony La Russa, who was then the White Sox manager.
In today's litigious world, Rice might not have acted so quickly. In fact, he was later chastised by trainer Charlie Moss, who feared Jonathan might have suffered cardiac arrest and believed that any sudden movement might have brought on seizures. By the time emergency medical technicians or ambulance attendants arrived at the scene and worked through their protocols, it might have been too late.
"Obviously, as we sit here today, what [Rice] did saved [Jonathan's] life," Keane said. "I mean you had a young child, his left skull is fractured open, it is bleeding profusely. If it continued to bleed, God knows what would have happened.
"The worst could have happened."
Eight months later, Jonathan was reunited with Rice. On April 5, he threw out the first pitch at Fenway to open the 1983 season.
More Than Talent
Jonathan Keane is 31 years old now. He is an engaging fellow, lives in an airy townhouse in Raleigh, N.C., and works for an Internet concern. He says there are no lingering effects from the accident.
Playing baseball was more of a talent than a gift. The reaction to save somebody's life, that's entirely different.
”-- Jim Rice
Ask him if there is any evidence of the ball that split his skull and he leans forward and pulls back his light brown bangs. There, barely visible just above his left eye, is a slight smudge of a scar.
"He's a hero in my mind," Jonathan said of Rice, though he admits that he does not remember anything of that August day 27 years ago. "He is somebody that saved my life, and I thank God for him being there."
Which begs the question: With more than 32,000 people in attendance -- fans, players, Red Sox employees -- why was it that Rice alone responded? What is strewn through his DNA that he would thrust himself into that dreadful circumstance?
If you are looking for some context, consider this: During his career, Rice twice picked up fallen teammate Jerry Remy after he suffered a knee injury -- after sliding into home plate at Yankee Stadium and playing right field against the Cleveland Indians -- and carried him to medical attention.
No video exists of Rice's rescue of Jonathan and only a single image has survived; an enterprising photographer for the Boston Herald caught the grisly-but-poignant moment. Rice, cradling little Jonathan in his big arms, carries him toward the dugout.
The look on Rice's face is sad, but determined. This, his demeanor suggests, is what must be done.
These days, Rice is employed as an analyst by NESN, the flagship station of the Red Sox. When he returns to Fenway Park, Rice almost always remembers to visit the home dugout, where the photograph hangs. He never fails to be moved.
In Florida, he was shown the photo again.
"I see me carrying my kid," he said softly. "I see me being a parent, being a father, being someone that is able to think about others. If that was my child, I would want somebody to react the same way.
"Playing baseball was more of a talent than a gift. The reaction to save somebody's life, that's entirely different."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
4hJohn Fisher, ESPN Stats & Information