Boggs steps up to Wharton plate
By RICK GERSHMAN
NEW TAMPA -- Life goes on in all directions at Wharton High School, paying this amazing scene no mind. The girls soccer team prepares for a game. Softball players take infield.
In the baseball stands, a guy eating pizza watches the team practice. He is the only spectator.
On this sunny February afternoon, does anyone realize that one of the best professional baseball players of the past 20 years is coaching these kids?
Check out that coach running defensive drills. As he hits grounders to infielders, consider that distinctive left-handed swing. It can only belong to one guy: Wade Boggs.
Slim, trim and strong at 43, the 12-time All-Star and Tampa Palms resident looks remarkably close to how he did through the 1980s, when he was the game's best hitter.
He looks like the same guy who grew up in Tampa and went on to become one of the most prolific hitters of the past 50 years. The former Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays star set records left and right, and up the gap. So what is Wade Boggs doing coaching a high school team? As an unpaid assistant, no less?
One of only 25 major-leaguers to produce 3,000 hits over the course of a career, he is here to help shepherd the development of a freshman named Brett. A 15-year-old kid who happens to be Boggs' son.
Boggs wants to see Brett realize his potential. He also just wants to spend more time with the youngest of two children who missed their dad while he played pro ball.
"As a professional baseball player, you're away from your family a lot," Boggs said. "You miss their first steps, their first words. Now I get the enjoyment of watching (Brett) play. This is an influential time in his career. I want to dedicate my time to him now."
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Imagine you're a teenage boy playing baseball for Wharton. Next thing you know, you're fielding grounders from a modern legend.
A little intimidating, right? Turns out these guys are pretty cool with it. Most have known Wade Boggs, at least to say hi, for years. Several played with Brett at Northeast (now New Tampa) Little League, or their little brothers did.
Boggs, whose parents moved to Tampa when he was 11, acknowledged that some players seemed "a little bit" intimidated at first, "but now it's like I'm just one of the guys."
"I wasn't apprehensive at all; I was excited," said senior Matt Young. "He's such a good player. He's shown us all the different stuff he's learned."
Ron Brown is entering his third year as Wharton's head coach. When Brett was flagged for varsity, Boggs told Brown he'd like to help out.
"I'm learning baseball every day," said Brown, a Jesuit graduate who reached the Triple-A level in his playing days. "I'm just thrilled to have him out here."
"You definitely get the feeling he's studied the whole game. He's brought an aspect to our team ... the kids really want to perform for him."
They have a hard act to follow. Boggs remains the only major-leaguer to smack a homerun for his 3,000th hit. He did it as a Devil Ray, before a hometown crowd in August 1999. He retired soon after and is considered a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame in 2004.
No wonder the Wharton administration was thrilled to have Boggs on the team.
"I think it's really awesome," principal Mitch Muley said. "What a great opportunity it is to have someone of Wade Boggs' stature to help my kids."
Said athletic director Lanness Robinson: "The attention kids pay to him when he speaks, speaks volumes. They're hanging on every word he says."
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Boggs hit grounders to reserve shortstop Ryan Katulich at a recent practice. The freshman had mixed results. Boggs wanted Katulich to come to the ball, but also not overcharge it.
"You lay back on it, it will eat you up," Boggs instructed the rookie. "Ryan, you see that ball coming at you, don't back up on it."
Boggs knows the power of practice. Considered a mediocre third baseman fielder early in his career, he kept drilling and improving, and eventually earned Gold Gloves in 1994 and 1995 with the Yankees. The next year, he helped lead the Yanks to a World Series title.
Katulich adapted well, but some balls still squirted through, mostly because he was too straight-legged.
"Once you get in position to field it, get down," Boggs told him, demonstrating the proper position. "Don't just lean down."
"Thomas, hit me one," Boggs commanded. The grounder zipped toward him and popped in his glove, and Boggs showed how to get in position to make the throw after fielding the ball. "You have to get down and ready to field it."
Katulich followed in grand style, eliciting Boggs' praise: "There you go, square up to it. Good job. See the way you're bending down on it? That way it won't scoot by you."
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Boggs also has more time these days with daughter Meagann, 23, who is in graduate school at the University of South Florida. She and her husband, Leo, live with Boggs, mother Debbie and Brett in their home in the Reserve. They moved there from Carrollwood in 1991.
The family weighed its options -- such as private schools with elite programs -- before deciding that Brett should go to Wharton.
In the end, Boggs said, "We thought Wharton was a good school academically and it gave my son an opportunity to have a real good coach."
Coach Brown was so impressed by Brett, he made him the leadoff hitter and starter in leftfield. Brown said he knew that some outside the team might question Brett's speedy arrival.
"Some people are going to think he's in the lineup because he's Wade Boggs' son," Brown said. "But unless he's going to change his name, he's going to have to get used to it."
Brett, a true lefthander, earned his spot by playing hard and hitting .385 in summer league, Brown said.
"He's a good player, and he's earned the respect of his teammates. The way he was hitting, everybody knew he was going to be on the varsity club."
Brett is happy to have his dad around.
"He makes it seem fun to practice, showing us new drills and stuff," Brett said. "And I like him being here, because when he was playing (pro) baseball, I never got to see him."
If Brett puts in the effort, Boggs said, he has a shot to walk in his father's footsteps.
As for Brett's potential, "I hate to say unlimited," Boggs said, smiling, "but he's got the genes."
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