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Trophy dad

Though he left baseball in 2001, Wade Boggs still lives for the big game ... as a hunter, fisherman and high school coach.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published January 2, 2005


TAMPA - Wade Boggs opens the door for some visitors at his spacious stone home in a secluded nook of North Tampa, with the family's two Yorkshire terriers, Chewbacca and Krystal, yipping at his feet.

He looks good and surprisingly youthful, three years removed from parting with baseball to become a full-time family man and private citizen.

The familiar red goatee on his square jaw is still there. But now the top of his head, growing bald when the world last got a look, has filled in with a stylishly brushed-back wave of new red hair - the result of three transplants.

"And it grows, that's the miracle of it," he says with a smile minutes later, sitting on a couch in his den. "It's like sodding an old yard."

His life is anchored here in the vaulted-ceiling, lavish abode - not in the ballparks from his stellar 18-year playing career with the Red Sox, Yankees and Devil Rays, not in his work as a special assistant and hitting instructor for the Rays for two seasons after retiring in 1999.

But in two days, this is where he will suddenly be thrust back onto the game's center stage.

He will gather in the house with wife Debbie, their children Meagann, 26, and Brett, 18, his father Win and a small group of close friends to await a noon phone call. The news he hopes to hear would represent the realization of a dream: his induction into the Hall of Fame, in his first year of eligibility no less.

If Boggs makes it - and chances are excellent based on feats that include a lifetime .328 batting average and membership in the exclusive 3,000-hits club - the graduate of Plant High School will become the first Tampa Bay product elected to Cooperstown for his accomplishments as a player.

"It's starting to snowball," says Boggs, 46. "All the people I've known and grown up with, and all the family and friends are talking about it. It's in the Christmas cards. It's in the phone calls. These five years have gone so fast that now you're sitting here and Tuesday is the day. It's on the doorstep, and the light at the end of the tunnel is bright and brilliant now that it's finally arrived."

But what has Boggs been doing all this time while waiting for the moment to get here? He's still eating a lot of chicken, though not seven days a week as he did as a player in one of the many pre-game superstitions and routines for which he was famous.

And he's still been living for the big game.

This time, though, it's the kind that adorns the walls of a large downstairs room and another one upstairs, with more than 140 large and exotic taxidermy trophies from his adventures as an expert big-game hunter and fisherman from the woods of Western Canada to the plains of Tanzania.

Boggs also has been passionately involved in a smaller game of sorts - as assistant coach and involved dad on his son Brett's high school baseball team, devoting the type of quality time he never could find while in the majors.

For Boggs, each game has been rich in rewards, turning retirement into one more win for the likely new Hall of Famer.

* * *

When he finally walked away from the game, following the 2001 season as Tampa Bay hitting coach, there was one thing that Boggs missed most.

"Naturally, you miss the camaraderie that you have with your teammates," he says. "But the biggest thing you miss is the roar of the crowd. When you're out fishing or going to the grocery store with your wife, you don't hear that roar like you heard every day of the season. That's the aspect of the game you're so conditioned to and makes you go, "Man, I just want to wake up today and hear a whole bunch of people cheering.' And it's not there anymore. You have to find something to replace that feeling.' "

Boggs did. He found a new, attention-getting roar on his first African safari in September 2002.

"The roar of a lion is absolutely something that will wake you up in the middle of the night," he says. "It scares you to death."

Boggs, who went with brother-in-law David Bertuccelli, found the intensity from the safari just the right therapy for a guy craving a new mental and physical challenge.

"When you get to a point where you're hunting animals that can hunt you, it puts a different element into the game," he says. "It's not just like deer hunting anymore. Something different happens every day. You experience black mambas, Cape Buffaloes and things of that nature. You're staying in tents for 24 days, which gives you an appreciation of getting back home."

Each day, Boggs and Bertuccelli, who took the photos and video, would eat only what they caught. They hunted from sunrise to sundown, accompanied by trackers and animal skinners, and slept in tents. They mingled with Masai warriors and villagers who had never heard of baseball, let alone Wade Boggs.

"It gives you a chance to reflect on a lot of things and when you get into a tough situation, whether it's with a lion or an elephant, your life sort of Roladexes through your head, with all your thoughts spinning," he says. "Every day, there's a chance you're not going to come home. But that's the adrenaline rush I needed once I got out of baseball."

Boggs took up big-game hunting when he was 24. Not surprisingly, the eye-hand-coordination and focus that helped make him a rare baseball player served him well in the wild. "It's shot placement - if you don't have it, you don't have the animal," he says. In fact, he says he became a celebrity on a return trip to Africa, where he killed a lion, leopard, buffalo, hippo and crocodile in Mozambique.

"The hippo had killed three villagers and the crocodile had killed two kids, so I was sort of the Great White Hunter who came in and saved the village," he says. "They had a big party for me and they put you on a chair and carry you around like you're the king. It was a moving experience. In Tanzania, I was chasing a lion that was killing cattle, and they wanted me to kill the lion. So I was doing a service for these people and getting these animals out of there that they're not allowed to touch."

Many animals Boggs has bagged wind up in Tampa on the walls, floors and even atop the big-screen TV of his downstairs trophy room, which could easily pass for a hunting lodge. There are dozens of framed photos of Boggs posing with big-game catches from the past decade. There are zebra and bear skin rugs.

But mostly, there's a capacity crowd of lifesize taxidermy prizes: a Rocky Mountain billy goat, a mountain lion from British Columbia mounted on a faux rocky ledge on a wall, a black bear from Vancouver Island, a cinnamon black bear from Saskatchewan, a bison head mounted on a stone fireplace, and all manner of deer.

His prized addition to the menagerie will arrive in three months, the lion he shot from his last safari, which will go on the room's landing.

"Wade is the same in everything he does, whether it's hunting or fishing or baseball," Debbie says. "He just works so hard and refuses to fail at things."

* * *

He definitely did not want to fail his son.

Brett Boggs had grown up loving to watch his father play ball, but the demands of being a big leaguer had kept his father on the road constantly. With Brett entering high school in 2001, and looking like a good baseball prospect in the making, his dad made a decision.

"I decided to get out of baseball and devote four years to him," Boggs says. "I didn't want to be on the road when he calls and says, "Dad, I need some help.' I sat down with Debbie and said, "I've got to be around him the whole time and help him out, because there are so many ups and downs at that age you go through. And I couldn't really help him if I'm on a 10-day road trip, and he's going through some struggles. It's been so rewarding."

Boggs has served the past three seasons as an unpaid assistant coach at Wharton High in North Tampa. His presence has elevated not only the play of his son, a standout centerfielder heading into his senior season this month, but of the whole team.

He coaches first base, runs the defensive drills, hits fungos, throws batting practice in the cage and handles other duties as needed.

"It took some time for the kids to warm up," he says. "I wouldn't say they were intimidated, but they got to the point where they were trying too hard to impress me. I just had to say, "Hey, sit down and just play your game.' I think they thought if they impressed me they were going to the big leagues. Once we got that out of the way, things got a lot easier."

Wharton doesn't have a huge pool of players to draw from and has finished mostly in the middle of the pack. "But we've got a solid nucleus with six or seven returning starters, and last year was our best season," says Boggs. "So hopefully we can top that."

It may not be Yankee Stadium, but Boggs still gets a big charge from his new go-round with baseball. "Oh yeah," he says. "My heart pounds. I'm out there and the kids can tell I'm fired up, and it sort of jazzes them up a little."

No, Boggs doesn't follow any of the dozens of rigid, minute-by-minute routines he adhered to as a player (like batting cage at 5:17 p.m. or windsprints at 7:17 p.m.). "I've dropped just about every one of them I've had," he says with a chuckle. "Other than if my son has a good day, I might wear the same T-shirt or something. But it's not like where I was consumed with 80 superstitions that I had to do before I got to the ballpark and had another 50 at the ballpark."

Boggs is consumed now with helping the team and furthering his son's progress.

"Thank goodness the acorn didn't fall too far from the tree," he says. "He's watched me since he was born. He can close his eyes and see his dad swing."

* * *

Debbie Boggs remembers how retirement was initially a struggle for her husband.

"The first two years were tough, even though he was in the front office and the hitting coach," she says. "Honestly, he could probably have played another year or two and that's kind of what he wanted to do. You go from 40,000 or 50,000 people cheering for you every day to suddenly there's nobody there. But as soon as he got over that, he's been very happy."

In addition to coaching Brett and hunting, fishing has been a huge part of the Boggs' post-baseball life. He and Debbie go on frequent fishing trips. They're preparing for a trip to Costa Rica to spend five days billfishing (yes, there are several of those mounted on the walls). Boggs has turned into a first-rate fly fisherman, following in the footsteps of late Red Sox great and master fisherman Ted Williams.

"I've done a few TV shows down there in the Bahamas and now my big challenge is catching billfish on fly," he says. "I mean, that's a big rush. You might fight this fish for 10 minutes or two hours. It's a lot like baseball - you have good days and bad."

Boggs did have to curtail one fishing pursuit, selling his bass camp in Lochloosa, named Yankee Landing, seven months ago. His father, who oversaw the place, had lung cancer surgery. He's doing well, Boggs says, but running the business after 18 years became too hard.

Meanwhile, Debbie can hardly keep track of all the invitations to celebrity fishing tourneys her husband has received the past few years. Ditto for golf.

"We probably get 25 invitations to fishing tournaments every month and more than 30 invitations a month to golf events," she says. "Literally, Wade could be going somewhere to fish or golf every day of the year. But we pick and choose."

Boggs, whose sister Ann has multiple sclerosis, makes a special point of participating in charity fishing events for the cystic fibrosis foundation and for children with cancer.

"That's what gives me a sense of accomplishment," he says. "You see these sick kids and that their quality of life is not what you're accustomed to. No matter how bad you think your day is going, you see them and go, "Oh my God, how strong and brave they are to deal with this and still have smiles.' "

He remembers helping one ailing child catch a fish on the dock. "He said to me, "I never thought I'd catch a fish in my life' and he gave me a hug," Boggs says. "You just start crying. You have to."

Mostly, Boggs is smiling these days. He's enjoying time with his kids (Meagann, a USF grad, works security at the Seminole Hard Rock casino in Tampa and wants to go into crime-scene investigation). He feels good. He looks 10 years younger with the rejuvenated 'do, the result of the Medical Hair Restoration procedure Boggs has talked about in TV ads.

His eyesight isn't the 20/12 of his early career, but it's not too shabby following the Lasik surgery he had in 1999 before embarking on his quest for 70 more hits with the Rays to reach 3,000.

The bat he used for No. 3,000, not to mention the ball he hit, are among countless keepsakes from Boggs' career in his other big-game trophy room.

It is a shrine worthy of the Hall of Fame itself: a lighted cabinet housing his two gold glove trophies with the Yankees, his gold replica of the World Series trophy with the Yankees in 1996, a glass case holding five silver bats for each batting title he won, dozens of balls (including his 200th hit ball in each of his seven seasons reaching that milestone), a wall of shimmering Silver Slugger bats from Louisville Slugger, his all-star rings from 1985-96, a plaque for his induction into the Red Sox Hall of Fame, and much more.

Dominating another wall is one of his most proud possessions: a huge LeRoy Neiman painting of Joe DiMaggio, signed by the slugger. The inscription: "Presented to Wade Boggs on the occasion of his 3,000th major league hit - by George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees, Aug. 7, 1999."

"Time is speeding up like crazy," Boggs says, eyeing the awards. "I can't believe it's been five years since I retired. But that's the thing. Life's too short. You have to enjoy it."

Come Tuesday at about noon, he should have a new reason to do just that.