FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox have a 21-year-old rookie shortstop. They have another rookie hoping to someday take over in center field. They have a 25-year-old third baseman who has never played a full season in the bigs.
Just like 1975, when the Sox turned over the middle of their batting order to rookies Jim Rice and Fred Lynn . . . right?
There will never be another season like ’75, when the Gold Dust Twins (so named by then-Globe beat reporter Peter Gammons) took over the Boston baseball scene and pushed the Sox all the way to the seventh game of the World Series.
Baby Boomer New England fans can recite the Lynn-Rice deeds of 1975 the same way they know “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
Lynn hit .331 with 21 homers and 105 RBIs. He won a Gold Glove and was named American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. He led the league in runs, slugging, runs produced, and doubles. He remains the only player to win both in the same season, unless you count Ichiro Suzuki, who had already played nine professional seasons in Japan before bringing his talents to Seattle.
Rice hit .309 with 22 homers and 102 RBIs in 1975. He was eliminated from postseason play Sept. 22 when a Vern Ruhle fastball broke his left wrist.
Bolstered by the infusion of Lynn and Rice to a cast of young players including Dwight Evans, Rick Burleson, and Carlton Fisk, the Sox won the American League East, swept the three-time defending world champion Oakland A’s, then engaged the Cincinnati Reds in one of the greatest World Series ever played.
Fast-forward 39 years, and the Sox have Xander Bogaerts starting at short, Jackie Bradley Jr. pushing to play in center, and Will Middlebrooks (not a rookie) holding down third base as they prepare for Opening Day in Baltimore Monday.
“It was harder back then because the Sox hadn’t won a World Series,’’ said Rice, now a spring training coach and NESN commentator. “Now you’ve won three World Series, so it’s a little easier. It has a lot to do with the younger generation. Back when we came up, the Red Sox hadn’t won and everybody would say, ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ Now the Red Sox have won, so you don’t have that.’’
“The big difference now is that this club is coming off a World Series championship,’’ echoed Lynn, who plans to be at Fenway Friday when the Sox play the Brewers in the home opener.
“We were coming off a disaster. I don’t think anybody expected us to contend for the pennant.
“In those days, there was no ESPN and you didn’t really know about new players. Even though my résumé was pretty darned good, it wasn’t like there were great expectations.
“But it was unusual for two rookies to be hitting third and fourth in the lineup. I can’t remember that happening. Maybe one guy, but not two.’’
Indeed, the differences are striking. In the spring of 1975, the Red Sox were trying to win the franchise’s first championship since 1918 and hoping to make fans forget an epic fold in the autumn of 1974.
On Aug. 23, 1974, the first-place Sox were seven games ahead of the Orioles. They went 14-24 the rest of the way. When the season ended, the Sox were in third place, seven games behind Baltimore. Lynn and Rice were both called to the bigs during the collapse. Lynn hit .419 in 15 games. Rice hit .269 with 1 homer and 13 RBIs in 24 games.
They had credentials when they took over as starters in 1975. Lynn, a Southern California native, starred at the University of Southern California, and played on three teams representing the US in international competition.
Rice, a high school legend from Anderson, S.C., (folklore held that a school district line was altered to include Rice’s home) was the reigning Minor League Player of the Year after winning the Triple Crown in the International League.
Their images were quickly painted by a local media hungry for new stars. Lynn was portrayed as the cool Californian, carefree and loose. Rice was the brooder, silent and somewhat scary.
Boston was a racially charged city in 1975 (controversial school desegregation was in full bloom), and there’s an inescapable notion that life in the Hub was more comfortable for Lynn than Rice. Both rookies were having spectacular seasons, but veteran sports scribes clearly were more comfortable with Lynn.
“Maybe Freddie liked it that way,’’ said Rice, smiling. “He got the attention. I think, overall, I wish he and Fisk and Burleson had stayed and we might have had a dynasty, but there was nothing you could do about it. Maybe Freddie didn’t like the attention. He wanted to get out of Boston eventually. It didn’t bother me, I hope it didn’t bother him.’’
“Jimmy signed out of high school from South Carolina,’’ recalled Lynn. “That’s a big difference from coming out of USC. He was a shy kid. At least I had some exposure to it. Jimmy had no exposure whatsoever to that sort of thing.
“He was a great high school athlete down in the South. Coming to Boston can be overwhelming. Nobody tells you anything about that. There’s no symposium. The NFL has one for rookies. Baseball doesn’t have that. It should be something that they think about.
“The veterans helped us out. They’d say, ‘Watch out for this guy,’ or ‘This guy’s a good guy,’ or whatever. That’s all passed on down.’’
It would be difficult to replicate the experience of Lynn and Rice in that first year in Boston. They were carrying a team that hadn’t won a World Series in 57 years, and they were holding up the heart of the order on a team with future Hall of Famers in Carl Yastrzemski and Fisk. Both Lynn and Rice got off to good starts, but everything changed when Lynn hit three home runs and knocked in 10 runs in a single game in Detroit on June 18.
Third base coach Don Zimmer said, “In all of my 27 years in the game . . . I’ve never seen anyone do everything — hit, hit with power, field, throw — like this kid. Unbelievable.’’
There were comparisons to Joe DiMaggio. That’s how good Lynn was in his rookie season.
Lynn explains his easy assimilation to the majors, saying, “When I was a kid, I always played with older kids.
“When I was 15, I played on a team called the Pasadena Yankees. It was sponsored by the Yankees. We played near the Rose Bowl. The players were college players or minor league players. They were 24, 25 years old.
“So that part of the game was OK for me. Moving up just came naturally. The conditions in Pawtucket and some of the places we played in the minors were atrocious. When I got to the big leagues, everything was so good. The lights were great. The fields were great. Pitchers threw strikes.
“It just seemed like it was easier. I never felt intimidated by the whole thing.’’
Rice also was ready for the majors.
“I had been in big league camps for two years,’’ he said. “I had a pretty good high school coach and American Legion coach, and my dad was strong. It’s your upbringing. If you had a strong upbringing, you’re going to carry it on.
“I was taught at an early age to be a leader, not a follower, and I was lucky enough to be able to play high school ball when I was in the seventh grade.
“In ’75, they saw what I had done the previous year. I won the International League Triple Crown. Every level that I went, I had better production. I enjoy working. I don’t enjoy sitting around. That’s me.’’
They had help from the veterans.
“When Freddie and I came up, we were told to sit and listen,’’ said Rice. “Yaz was a very quiet guy. The things you heard about him — that he was a tough guy to get along with — were not true.
“He kept to himself. He read his paper and played the game of baseball. He never said anything harsh to us. I think he thought that some day the Boston Red Sox would be our team, me and Freddie. I guess he thought we could carry the torch that he and Ted Williams did.’’
All these years later, Rice works with the next generation of Sox stars. He sees Bogaerts, Bradley, and Middlebrooks up close, in the batting cage.
“You’ve got to do fundamentals,’’ he said. “They’ve got to think about one thing: line drives. It’s not any different than when Freddie and I came up. I think now it’s even better.
“Players are not the same. I think you have to go back and look at how much time they spend in the minor leagues. They’re not spending that much time in the minor leagues. Have they learned to play the game the right way? No. Agents tell them to hit home runs, and it doesn’t matter if you hit .230.
“It’s hard to put them in the same category as Freddie and I. I just want them to work on the things they are not as good at. They know they’ve made the team, so they have to ask themselves, ‘What is my role?’ They have to learn how to advance the runners, things like that.’’
“I saw them last year,’’ said Lynn. “I saw Bogaerts in Portland a couple of years ago while I was doing a promotion. You saw last year that he can hit right away. He had that approach. They’ve all got their feet wet at the big league level. They all know what it’s about. It think they’re going to do quite well.’’
Bradley someday soon could be walking on the ground Lynn patrolled.
“Center field at Fenway is really difficult,’’ said Lynn. “There’s so many things to think about. Now that scoreboard goes all the way to center field and you’ve got to play those dents off there. All those little angles.
“You have to be fast. I think it’s important for a center fielder in Boston to be fast. Right-center is a long way, and you’ve got to keep that guy off third base and keep the double plays in order. Those things are overlooked in today’s game, but it really helps to have a guy who can throw.
“I saw Bradley a few times. It’s hard to get a read on what kind of a hitter he will be. If they put him in the 8 or 9 spot, there’s not as much pressure. He can just get on base, move guys over, make contact, don’t strike out.
“And help your team in center field. In Fenway, you’re a defender first and a hitter second.’’
ESPN ranks Bogaerts as the second-best prospect in baseball. He could be a Rookie of the Year after winning a World Series. But he is not likely to be Rookie of the Year and MVP.
“I didn’t appreciate it until many years later,’’ said Lynn. “When you’re an athlete, you’re always looking forward. I’m not looking in the rear-view mirror. Yesterday’s gone.
“In ’75, there was just an avalanche of things happening, on and off the field. Everything was new.
“I appreciate what we did as a team more now. It was pretty doggone special what we did as a team and without Jimmy in the playoffs. It was really special to me and I appreciate it much more now than I did. If you start thinking about it while you’re doing it, you get overwhelmed.’’
Bogaerts, Bradley, and Middlebrooks have already been part of a championship team. Along with the 1967 Impossible Dreamers and the 2004 “Why Not Us?” curse-breakers, the 2013 Red Sox will always be remembered as one of the special teams in Boston sports history.
But 1975 was special. Because of the epic World Series. And because of the Gold Dust Twins.
“When you are 13, 14 years old, that’s when you form these impressions about just about everything in your life,’’ said Lynn. “It can be music or sports, everything.
“So when you’re looking at somebody 21, 22 years old, you can identify more with that than with a guy who is 37 or 38. And we had a whole team of those guys. Expectations were low, and then you had this magic happening. It’s pretty doggone special.
“I think a lot of people identified with the youth of that team. And that’s what’s going to happen this year.’’
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