When most baseball Hall-of-Famers are remembered by fans, it’s for their amazing performances on the field. Jim Rice, who spent his entire Major League Baseball career with the Boston Red Sox, certainly has a host of on-field achievements to celebrate, but it was another act of heroism that saw him become indelibly etched in Boston baseball legend. One fateful day, Jim Rice did what few people can claim to have done: he saved a life. Oh, and he did it right in the middle of Fenway Park! Allow us to explain.
A Hall of Fame career
During his 16-year tenure with the Red Sox, Rice’s stats were incredible. He hit an astounding 382 home runs, as well as 1,451 runs. In the three consecutive seasons between ‘77 and ’79 he had in excess of 35 homers and 200 hits, and in the ’78 season he won the MVP award.
By most metrics, he had earned a sure-fire ticket into the Hall of Fame, but there would be a significant delay in him actually attaining that honor. And many believe this was because of his less-than-friendly relationship with the media.
An antagonistic relationship with the press
The story goes that in 1976 a young Rice was lined up for a radio interview with Boston sportswriter Clif Keane, but he kept the veteran journalist waiting. When he finally turned up for the chat, Keane was incensed, and reportedly told Rice, “I can make you and I can break you!”
In Howard Bryant’s book Shut Out, Rice claimed he stood his ground, looked the old man right in the eye, and said, “You can't do anything to me.” In Rice’s opinion, “That was it. That was the beginning.”
A bad rep builds
For the rest of his career, Rice’s ornery reputation seemed to precede him, and the sports writers of America were far from his biggest fans. Or, at least, that’s the common perception of Rice’s character and career.
According to writer Joe Giuliotti, though, “He had a bad rep from people who really weren't around him enough to understand who he was. This was a very private guy from a small town in South Carolina who just wanted to play ball.”
What will he be remembered for?
Giuliotti continued, “At a time when he was the only black player on the team, he made it known that he was not getting into the black-white issues, but when he said he didn't want to talk about it, writers just kept coming after him.”
Significantly, though, while many may have bought into Rice’s reputation as an angry, unapproachable, intimidating presence, it was actually an act of quick-thinking heroism for which he will be most remembered when all is said and done.
The Keane family
On August 7, 1982, Tom Keane could barely contain his excitement as he and his sons — four-year-old Jonathan and two-year-old Matthew — jumped in the family car. They were about to drive from their home in Greenland, New Hampshire to watch a ball game at Boston’s iconic Fenway Park.
As a die-hard Red Sox fan, Tom absolutely revered the stadium, and he had been excited about managing to snag three tickets to watch his beloved team play the Chicago White Sox.
Close to the action
Tom hadn’t just got any tickets, though — thanks to a buddy who knew Red Sox Executive V.P. Haywood Sullivan, he’d nabbed seats in Field Box No.29’s second row. This put he and his boys slightly to the left of the Red Sox team dugout.
They were so close to the action that they could almost touch the grass! In 2009 Tom told ESPN, “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.”
Dave Stapleton steps up to bat
At the time, the Red Sox were in a tight race for the American League East crown with the Milwaukee Brewers. They needed to beat the White Sox to gain ground, but the game was a close affair.
By the fourth inning, the score was tied at 2-2 and this is when Dave Stapleton stepped up to the plate. The second-base man was four-year-old Jonathan’s favorite player on the team, so the youngster was hopeful of seeing him smash that ball high into the sky.
A terrible accident
Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened. Pitcher Richard Dotson hurled a fastball at Stapleton, and he didn’t connect with it cleanly, instead skewing a foul ball straight into the stands. Tom heard a noise that sounded like a crack and assumed the ball had simply struck the dugout.
But then he heard something that made his blood run cold: Jonathan was screaming. The frightened dad knew something was wrong. He remembered, “I immediately turned, and blood was coming down Jonathan's face.”
Rice hears the crack
Meanwhile, Rice had been standing in the dugout, waiting for his chance to get back in the game. He’d previously hit a two-run double and knew he had more to give — but any thoughts of baseball immediately left his mind as soon as he heard that awful crack
It was quickly followed by a shocked “Oooh” from the fans, and then an eerie silence. Rice told ESPN, “You try to raise up and see if it hits anyone, and then when it hits someone that's when you react, especially when blood is involved.”
Rice leaps into action
That’s right: Rice could see, even from the dugout, that Jonathan had been struck square in the face by the foul ball. Instinct took over and the pro athlete covered the distance to the second row in around ten seconds, scooping the injured little boy up into his arms.
The panicked Tom, who had been doing his best to see exactly where Jonathan had been hit, couldn’t quite believe what was happening. He told ESPN, “Jim Rice was right there with his arms immediately. I mean immediately.”
“If it was your kid, what would you do?”
To Rice, the situation was incredibly simple. He was a father of two kids himself, and he mentally put himself in Tom’s shoes. He admitted all he was thinking about was, “My child. Just someone, myself, just taking care of my child, picking my child up and taking him to the clubhouse.”
At the time, he even told the Boston Globe, “If it was your kid, what would you do? The baby was crying and there was a lot of blood. I think he was more in shock than anything.”
An heroic image
Rice quickly carried Jonathan’s limp body to the dugout to see the Red Sox doctor Arthur Pappas. Today, there is no video footage of the terrifying scene, but one Boston Herald photographer did manage to snap what became an iconic picture.
It showed a solemn-faced Rice carrying Jonathan in his strong arms, while blood streamed from a wound on the small boy’s face. It’s a remarkable image, and one which has immortalized Rice as hero in the eyes of baseball fans.
Jonathan is in a bad way
Rice then took Jonathan to the trainers’ room, where Pappas was able to get a good look at him. He told ESPN, “I saw a boy that was non-responsive. 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.”
When they rushed the child to a nearby Children’s Hospital, it was discovered the ball had fractured his little skull — and he needed to undergo emergency surgery to lessen the pressure caused by his brain swelling.
Did Rice make the right call?
As Jonathan’s life hung in the balance, Rice was actually scolded by trainer Charlie Moss for moving him when they didn’t know the extent of his injury. Moss believed it had only been through sheer luck that the sudden movement hadn’t caused the boy to have a seizure or, worse, a cardiac arrest.
Yet it soon became clear that, if they had waited for EMTs to arrive at the stadium and work on Jonathan there, he might have died. Getting him to the hospital as quickly as possible was ultimately the right call.
Saving the boy’s life
An adamant Tom later told Sports Illustrated magazine, “Jim Rice likely saved Jonathan’s life. If he hadn’t reacted so quickly, God knows what might have happened.”
To ESPN, he added, “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.” At the time, though, little was known about potential lasting effects. Tom told Sports Illustrated, “The doctors can’t tell you if there’s any permanent injury.”
A fairytale ending…or was it?
This meant Jonathan’s family had to endure an excruciating five days sitting by his bedside in Intensive Care, not knowing whether the little guy would fully recover. Thankfully, he rallied enough in those five days to be allowed to go home.
When the world saw Jonathan again eight months later throwing out the first pitch at Fenway, it seemed like a fairytale ending to the story. In 2022, though, an adult Jonathan admitted his recovery process had been far harder than people may have realized at the time.
A long road to recovery
“This is part of the story that hasn’t really been told,” Jonathan told website NC State News in 2022. “The reality is that it took me a long time to recover.” In truth, the most integral person in Jonathan’s slow road to recovery was his mom Carol, a special needs teacher.
He revealed, “My mom focused every day on that and was focused on making sure I was healing. She is the true unsung hero in all of this, even though she has always been behind the scenes when we talk about it.”
Thankfully, Jonathan didn’t suffer any long-term ill effects from that traumatic day. In fact, the only physical reminder is a fairly tiny scar above his left eyebrow. Yet while it may be hard for others to see, Jonathan knows exactly what the almost indiscernible mark means to him and his family. It’s a reminder of how lucky he was.
Fascinatingly, though, while he knows the story of Rice’s heroism and has seen the picture of him being carried by the ball player, Jonathan has no memory of the incident itself. In a way, perhaps that’s for the best.
To Jonathan, Rice was his guardian angel on that fateful day. He told ESPN, “He's a hero in my mind. He is somebody that saved my life, and I thank God for him being there.” But how does Rice himself feel about being labeled a hero?
Well, he’d probably challenge that designation, as he believed he simply did what any good father would do. But he will also admit that saving Jonathan’s life was something he will never, ever forget, and when he visits Fenway Park, it takes him right back to that day.
Bonded by a moment in time
In 2009 Rice told newspaper the Boston Herald, “That picture is in a collage upstairs. When I go upstairs, I see that picture. When I come to Fenway Park, every time I look at the park, that’s the thing I think about the most.”
Even though Rice and Jonathan don’t see each other regularly, they are bonded by that moment, and have had several points of contact through the years. For example, Jonathan wrote Rice a heartfelt letter when he successfully graduated from North Carolina State University.
The press finally give Rice his due
That same year, it was announced that Rice had been voted by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to join the Hall of Fame. The press had resisted it for 15 years, but they finally gave him what he deserved.
It felt like a win for the Keanes too; after all, they’d pulled for Rice to attain the honor for many years. Jonathan told the Boston Herald, “I think it’s about time. My whole family was hoping he would get in every year, and we never knew if it would happen. We’re really happy that it did.”
Jonathan establishes his own identity
As Jonathan grew up, he was always known in the neighborhood as the kid who got hit by the ball at Fenway Park. This reputation — which wasn’t inherently negative, by any means — eventually led to him choosing North Carolina State for his college education.
He felt the need to establish an identity for himself beyond that famous day, and he did it by graduating in 2000 with a degree in business management from the Poole College of Management.
A successful businessman
In 2017 Jonathan put his business degree to good use by partnering with a friend to launch CustomerHD, an outsourced staff agency. He owns and operates two call centers — one in Raleigh, North Carolina and one in Belize.
Together, they have more than 300 employees fielding calls for 200 client companies from all over the world. At the core of Jonathan’s company are two principles: the desire to help people in need, and a commitment to hiring employees with disabilities.
Helping people in need
Interestingly, Rice was vital in helping Jonathan develop his approach to business, at least indirectly. He instilled in him the value in helping and empowering people in need — so much so, that Jonathan revealed, “We started this company with the dream of creating a place that can treat people better.”
He therefore takes a keen interest in his employees. He said it’s to let them know, “You are needed on the team… your manager knows about you, whether it is what you want to do in your career, a little bit about your family or even what the name of your dog is.”
Mom knows best
The dedication to disabled employees — especially in their Belize location — is 100 percent a tribute to Jonathan’s mom, though. He revealed, “A lot of that comes from the time I spent with my mom. Teaching special education was her passion.”
He continued, “She’s been with me to Belize and has pushed me on doing some of the things we do there, making sure we are focused on it. She is going to hold us accountable for creating a quality atmosphere for our employees there. I love that.”
A dangerous game
These days, Jonathan holds no ill will toward MLB for his scary childhood injury — even though spectators being struck by baseballs is more common than people may want to believe. For instance, in 2014 a Bloomberg study revealed that an estimated 1,750 fans are injured by stray balls in U.S. ballparks every single year.
This is despite the fact there is protective netting behind home plate that covers both dugouts. Some have called for this netting’s area to be increased, but many stadiums don’t want to further obstruct the view from the seats.
A change of heart
Jonathan told Sports Illustrated that, for many years, he wouldn’t have advocated for extending the netting — despite what had happened to him. But after having children himself and taking his five-year-old son to MLB games, he began to have a change of heart.
He admitted, “It has become more real to me, knowing how fragile he is at that age. If you’d asked me five years ago, I think I’d probably have been more neutral. Having kids makes nets seem like a good idea.”
Refusing to play the blame game
One thing that Jonathan definitely doesn’t agree with, though, is placing any kind of blame on parents who choose to sit close to the action with their children. He certainly never held it against his dad for nabbing second-row seats.
He raged, “That drives me crazy. You’re trying to put your kids in good situations, to have a fulfilling life. You want to have good seats at the game, watch the game with your kids. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do.”
Remembering the day that changed two lives
All in all, it’s clear that day will forever connect Rice and Jonathan. When ESPN showed Rice the iconic photograph, it stirred a huge well of emotion, and he mused, “I see me carrying my kid. 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.” Poignantly, he added, “Playing baseball was more of a talent than a gift. The reaction to save somebody’s life? That's entirely different.”