By Seth Daniel
It wasn’t so much a disciplined eye, a smooth swing, or exhaustive off-season workouts that kept former Red Sox Jim Rice in right field for 15 years and gave him a place setting in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but rather, he told a group of young baseball players from Boston last Friday, it was his personal drive and ability to change that made him the player he once was at Fenway Park.
Just in time for Opening Day at Fenway Park, Rice and former Red Sox Lou Merloni hosted a meet and greet with kids from The Base – an after school and baseball program with deep roots in the South End – at the new AT&T Store in Back Bay.
“In 1975, we went to the World Series and I didn’t get to play because I had broken my hand,” he told the kids. “Fred Lynn and I were competing for Rookie of the Year and MVP and then we also had old #8 Carl Yastrzemski I had to deal with. But then I broke my hand and I missed all of that. In 1976 I came back and didn’t even start. A lot of people would give up or ask to go somewhere else. I didn’t. I worked harder to change things in my game. I came back that year and I played and I stayed 15 years.”
He credited that change to his hitting coach and former Red Sox, the late Johnny Pesky. Rice said Pesky played with Ted Williams, and brought the experience of having been taught by Red Sox legends like Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and all the other great players.
Rice told the young players that respect for those who know more, and a drive to get better, are the keys to success in baseball and life.
“I was drafted right out of high school ahead of college players like George Brett and Mike Schmidt, both Hall of Famers,” he recalled. “I must have had talent, but I didn’t know that. Baseball is the only job in the world where you can fail seven out of 10 times and make $20 million. That’s because you’re hitting .300. It takes work to get to the big leagues, but it also takes luck. When I was drafted, there must have been 50 players on my team trying to make it. I was lucky enough to get there. Once you’re there, though, you have to work harder than ever every day. The other teams will read the scouting reports and make a change on you and so you have to make a change too – constantly make a change – or you suddenly won’t be successful.”
That’s something Merloni affirmed as well, saying that whether in life or in baseball, one has to remain open to changing and humble.
“Baseball is the best life lesson going,” he said. “When you get older and you continue to play baseball, you find out more about yourself. You learn who you are because you fail so often. Even the best players fail most of the time. That’s why baseball humbles you. We call it the Baseball Gods and they work on you – where you’re way up riding a high and then just when you think you’re doing great, they bring you way down. You have to figure out what you’re going to be like when things aren’t going well.”
Merloni shared how he was not doing well in the Minor Leagues, and he would often stare out the window on long bus trips from Syracuse to Ottawa – wondering what in the world he was doing there.
“I would ask, ‘What am I doing here?’” he said. “At some point, I stopped caring about that. I felt like if I was just going to make it to AA, that was fine. I went out and had fun, worked on getting better, and that’s when things got better for me.”
Rice shared stories about growing up in South Carolina, playing baseball, basketball and horseshoes all day long every day at his house with the neighborhood kids. He also shared how he had a full-ride scholarship to play football at the University of Nebraska – saying he was a much better football player than a baseball player.
He also relayed lighthearted moments with the kids from The Base, which was founded originally in the South End at Villa Victoria Development by former South End baseball official Robert Lewis Jr.
One of those funny vignettes was when Rice was called in 2009 by the Baseball Hall of Fame, informing him that he’d been chosen. He said that before they could get the news out, Rice told them to call back later.
“They called me at 12:30 in the afternoon to tell me I’d made it and I told them they were bothering me,” he said. “I told them I would call them back at 1:30 p.m. Why? Because the ‘Young and the Restless’ was on. I haven’t missed a day of the ‘Young and the Restless’ for years. I’ve been watching it since I was playing ball. That’s what I did when I played and that’s how I spent my time on the road. I didn’t smoke or drink and I only played a little bit of golf. The ‘Young and the Restless’ was my time to chill. You couldn’t go to the ballpark early in those days. You had to find something to do. That’s what I did. And I still do that.”
Lewis said that the talk was great for the kids, and while The Base has produced great baseball players over the years, the goal is to more than baseball – noting that they’ve taken some of their seniors on as many as 23 college campus visits.
“What we want to do using baseball as a vehicle is to make sure college is available, accessible and that these kids should be a part of it,” he said. “The goal is to create good citizens, honestly.”
Most of the kids in the program have come up through the South End baseball program (where the scoreboard is still named after Lewis) and have moved up through The Base and its team.
Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T New England, said she was excited to support The Base and to bring Rice and Merloni for the meet and greet.