In April of 1983, I was eight years old. The 1983 baseball season would be the first I followed from Opening Day through the World Series.
Jim Rice was the best player on the Red Sox that year and was widely considered one of the best players in baseball.
That year, as a kid learning to love baseball, Jim Rice was my favorite player. Mr. Rice’s trips to the plate were must see TV for me. I never knew when he would launch one out of the park.
One afternoon, a neighbor of ours was talking with my parents. He started telling a story about meeting Jim Rice at a store. Hearing the name of my favorite player, I headed for the kitchen to listen.
Our neighbor told us that Jim Rice wanted to cut him in line. Rice, as he called him, said he was running late for the day’s game and he didn’t want to be late.
Our neighbor told my parents that he wouldn’t let Rice cut him in line. He added, “Who does that n****r think he is? He’s not better than me.”
That afternoon, I sat in my lucky spot listening to the game, but I couldn’t follow the action. I kept thinking about what our neighbor said about my favorite player. I had no idea what that word meant. I knew my neighbor thought it was something bad. From their laughs, I knew my parents agreed with our neighbor.
I wound up asking my dad what the word meant. That led to us having the first discussion about race I ever had. Let’s just say that as I write this now, I don’t agree with anything my dad told me or that he believed himself.
I thought about my conversation with my dad and about Mr. Rice for days. Listening to talk radio before the games, I noticed that many fans didn’t seem to like Jim Rice as much as I did. He was criticized at least as much as any player on the team. That seemed weird to me. He was the best player on the Red Sox.
As the summer of ’83 wore on and the Red Sox struggled, I became more aware of the comments and boos directed at Mr. Rice. That doesn’t mean all the fans were negative, but it does mean that more of them seemed negative than he deserved.
One afternoon, I asked my mobility instructor (a person who shows blind people how to navigate with a cane or a dog guide) about what was happening. He became the first person to discuss racism with me.
I’ll never forget saying to him, “I don’t understand. Who cares what color Mr. Rice’s skin is? He’s the best player on the team.”
My mobility instructor rested his hand on my shoulder and said, “I hope you always see it that way.”
From that day on, I’ve tried hard to always see each person as an individual. I wish I could say I’m free of prejudice and judgment, but I don’t believe any of us are. I can say without a bit of hesitation that ever since that day, I’ve done my best to trust my judgments of people as people, and not rely on the superficial.
My blindness and the discrimination I constantly must overcome may make my job easier. Still, I want to believe part of my openness stems from my days cheering for Mr. Rice and the realization that so many were so unfair to him solely because of something that didn’t register with me until an adult planted erroneous thoughts of racial difference in my young head.