Rice was a “borderline” candidate, a sub-obvious selection. There are a lot of those. Among those I’ve cared about (and there are few), Brett Butler comes to mind. I cared about Brett because he started his pro career in 1980 with my minor league team, the Durham Bulls. (Yes, that Duham Bulls, years before the movie was made.) He was too good to stay with an A-league (lowest in the farm caste) team, so he skipped AA Hampton and went straight to Richmond and played AAA for a short while before the Atlanta Braves brought him up as a leadoff batter. His career continued for 16 years, with the Indians, Giants, Dodgers and Mets. He was a great fielder and one of those reliable leadoff guys who scatters ten fouls then hits a single. His career batting average was .290, but during his best years he stayed within a few points of .300. (His top year was .311, with the Indians.) He also had 2,375 hits and 558 stolen bases. And he was a quotable guy. One line I remember was, “Jeff Leonard is a good player having a great year. Will Clark is a great baseball player.” It was true, too.
Anyway, I actually met another borderline player when I was a kid visiting my cousins in North Carolina. I think I was about nine years old when this older guy sits down next to me in my cousins’ back yard and says, “You like baseball?” It was a tough question, because I liked the game, but couldn’t play it for shit. I could hit and run well enough, but in my one summer in Little League I did something to my shoulder that limited my ability to throw the ball a long way.
“Yes,” I said.
“What’s your favorite team?”
“The Dodgers.” Which were still in Brooklyn then. My father was a Dodger fan, and it pissed us both off hugely when they left town. Although the Mets later made up for the loss.
“What about the Yankees.”
“I hate the Yankees.”
“You know who Babe Ruth is?”
“How many home runs did he hit?”
“Do you know who pitched his 60th home run?”
The old dude was Tom Zachary, who in fact had sold the land I was sitting on to my cousins’ family in the early 50s. Tom still lived next door, in fact.
I guess he wasn’t borderline, since he lost more games than he won. But he had a long and good career, and was a fine source of baseball stories.
Of course, there’s only one I remember.
At least he’s in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
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