BOSTON – For stoking the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, this was almost too good to be true: Jim Rice, the former Boston slugger newly minted as a Hall of Famer, taking a shot at Derek Jeter(notes), paragon of pinstriped purity, as a "bad example.''
To a bunch of Little Leaguers.
For his part, Rice is flabbergasted at the outcry, saying he was unaware of the fuss he'd caused until reached by Yahoo! Sports while waiting for a flight in Philadelphia on Friday night. His words could not have been more miscast, he said. The rivalry was to blame.
"What do you expect?'' he said. "Who are the Red Sox playing? The Yankees. What else do you expect but some controversy involving the Red Sox and Yankees? I was misquoted.''
But his response was too late to stem the reaction that greeted reporting of his speech Friday to players before the start of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
"You see a Manny Ramirez(notes), you see an A-Rod, you see [Derek] Jeter … Guys that I played against and with, these guys you're talking about cannot compare," said Rice, who coincidentally or not mentioned the three highest paid players in the game today.
If that wasn't enough, Rice also said, "We didn't have the baggy uniforms. We didn't have the dreadlocks. It was a clean game, and now they're setting a bad example for the young guys."
Well, now. Rodriguez and Ramirez have weathered steroid-induced storms in recent months, but no dirt has ever stuck on Jeter, not even under his fingernails. No sooner had the doors to the visitors' clubhouse opened than reporters clamored for a reaction from the Yankees' shortstop, who was furious, according to one clubhouse source, but tempered his remarks.
"I didn't know I was like that," the Yankees' captain told reporters. "That would be a first for me."
The New York Times weighed in with a story headlined, "Rice Puts Jeter in Dubious Company." The tabloids had a field day. The chat rooms were abuzz with inflammatory comments, most directed at Rice. Even in Boston, the bull's-eye was on the Hall of Famer. "Jim Rice rips into Manny, A-Rod, Jeter,'' was the headline Friday night on Boston.com.
Rice, who retired as a player in 1989, has worked as a hitting coach and currently is an analyst on NESN, the regional television network that carries Red Sox games (Disclaimer: I have also appeared on NESN at times with Rice). He denied that he'd lumped Jeter – or Rodriguez, for that matter – with Ramirez, whom he has frequently knocked for his seeming indifference.
"Anybody who reads that story knows I wasn't talking about Jeter or Rodriguez,'' he said. "Look at them. Do you see any baggy pants? Do you see any dreadlocks?
"When you think of the Yankees, who do you think of? Him [Jeter] and Rodriguez. Anyone who knows the game, anyone with any common sense knows which players give you leadership. And think about the way they play every day. Can you see either A-Rod or Jeter going into the manager's office and saying, 'Skip, I don't feel like playing today.' ''?
Rice insisted he did not single out Jeter and Rodriguez as examples of me-first players. "I said, 'The guys who play right, you know who they are, and they know in the clubhouse, too. You can't fool your teammates.' I mentioned 'guys,' not those guys.''
He laughed incredulously when told that some construed his remarks as jealousy toward today's high-salaried players.
"You ask anyone who was at that speech, they'll tell you that I talked about how we were the ones who helped those guys get the money they're getting today. I went through three strikes. I was once one of the highest paid guys (as late as 1987, his $2.1 million salary ranked No. 1 in the majors).
"I don't resent that. The money has gone up, and it's still going up.''
After the game, a 20-11 Yankees rout in which Jeter had three hits and Rodriguez went 4 for 4, Rodriguez acknowledged he'd learned of Rice's comments.
"I heard he buried me,'' Rodriguez said.
He nodded as he listened to a reporter relay Rice's claims that he had been misquoted.
"Tell him,'' he said, gesturing to Jeter.
The Yankees' captain wasn't buying Rice's explanation.
"Misquoted?'' Jeter said. "How was he misquoted?''