ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- At first, you don't believe it. Jim Rice in the Senior Professional Association. How can this be?
If you want proof that there's no telling the lengths to which a man will go if he truly loves his profession, consider the gamble Rice is taking in the 2-year-old league. The fact that Rice is a former Boston Red Sox superstar and a Hall of Fame candidate makes no difference. He says there are some things you can't accomplish sitting on the outside looking in.
"It's my life," Rice says when asked why he's playing baseball when he could be enjoying the "retirement" forced upon him in November 1989 when the Red Sox decided not to retain him. "I've played it all my life. I'm not necessarily here to get back in the big leagues. If I do, fine. If I don't, I don't.
"The whole thing here is to see if the last two operations I had were successful. The first two weren't. Besides, I enjoy playing. It's fun. This was the first chance I got. Nobody else even gave me a chance to swing a bat."
The St. Petersburg Pelicans do that every night. They issued Rice his familiar No. 14, and told him if he wanted a laboratory to find out if he had anything left, why not the six-team senior circuit? Rice, 37, feels comfortable in this atmosphere, and does not consider it a haven for the Over-the-Hill Gang. It's baseball, and he plays left field and is the designated hitter for a ballclub that won the league title a year ago and is off to a fast start in 1990. It could be the end of the line -- or the rebirth of a legendary career.
There's nothing written in concrete about Rice's venture. Retirement isn't the end of the world, and one thing he will decide in the next three months is whether he really
wants to return to the profession in which he starred for 15 years.
He must test the elbow and knee that went through four operations in 1989. If they don't hold up under daily stress, he will pull the plug.
Even if he is 100 percent healthy and does well this winter, Rice says, there is another possibility. He fancies himself as a teacher, and wouldn't mind returning to his roots in the minor leagues as a hitting instructor. Bob Watson and Don Baylor have done very well as special assistants, and Rice is cut from the same mold.
Rice does not even rule out a return to the Red Sox organization, if they should want him in some capacity. After three months in the Senior League, the picture should be clear, and he will act accordingly.
"I haven't thought about it," Rice says when asked whether the Red Sox are a high priority. "If they wanted me to do so, I would. Again, this is not an attempt to come back.It's an attempt to find out if I can play again. At least I know can still swing a bat."
When you look at Rice these days, it is clear he is not the All-Star who patrolled left field at Fenway Park after rising out of the shadow of Carl Yastrzemski. This is not the man who was one of the game's most devastating hitters for more than a decade. But he can still play.
His decision to sign with St. Petersburg came late, but was no spur-of-the-moment whim. Truthfully, it was the first phone call Rice got, and he feels he did the right thing in answering. The 50-mile commute from his winter residence in Winter Haven isn't bad.
Rice missed the two weeks of fall practice for Senior League regulars, but it hardly matters. While Rice may be closer to 230 pounds than his Red Sox playing weight of 215, the important thing is that the ball still jumps off his bat, and his cranky elbow and knee are holding up.Whether it is the Red Sox or St. Petersburg, Rice looks and feels very comfortable wearing No. 14 again.
Rice was drafted by the Pelicans upon the recommendation of manager Bobby Tolan. "They said, 'If you think you want to play baseball, or just see if the operation is successful, call us,' " Rice said. "I knew I couldn't just determine those things by throwing baseballs or take batting practice. I needed a chance to find out in competition, and this is it."
Fun is one of the few joys of the Senior Professional Association. The money is short, roughly $12,000 for the top players. Crowds are small but noisy. St. Petersburg is the champion, but nobody knew the Pelicans were in town until Rice arrived. Recently, the ++ club held an autograph night, with Rice as the drawing card. When he hit a double in the game against Daytona Beach, it was almost like old times in Winter Haven.
"He gives us credibility," Tolan says. "That's what we need a few more people like him to come in and be a factor in our league. I'm sure Jim is not playing for the money. I'm sure baseball is still in his blood.
"A lot of superstars are snobs. Jim is loose. He teases everybody. That's good. We don't want anybody to think that anybody is better than anybody else on this team. We all played the game. We're all out here again to do well and have some fun, and do well for the people."