tampabay.com

Boggs: No doubt, at least not now, among baseball's elite

By MARC TOPKIN
Published July 24, 2005


The speech is done, the Wednesday flight to upstate New York booked, the plans for the journey of a lifetime nearly complete. Wade Boggs will be the guest of honor at parties, receptions and dinners - and, of course, the formal induction ceremony one week from today as he officially cracks baseball's most elite lineup and enters the Hall of Fame.

But at some point during the six-day celebration in historic Cooperstown, Boggs would like to host a little dinner party, too.

Tracking down everyone who should be there might be hard. Finding a large enough room won't be easy. But Boggs knows exactly what will be on the menu.

"In the minor leagues, they said I was an inadequate third baseman. Then I didn't hit for power. I'll never play third in the big leagues. I'll never stay in the big leagues. I'm washed up," Boggs said.

"All of these things you keep telling me, I'm going to prove you wrong. Well, July 31, when I take that lid off, there's a lot of crow underneath for a lot of people to eat. All of these skeptics and nonbelievers and critics, I just hope they all look in the mirror because all of these people told me that I couldn't do something and wouldn't be very good at it."

There are numerous reasons why Boggs, the first product of the baseball-rich bay area to be elected as a player, is going into the Hall of Fame.

The 3,010 hits he compiled in a stellar 18-year career, including the dramatic home run for his milestone 3,000th while with the Devil Rays. The 12 consecutive All-Star Game selections.

The seven consecutive seasons of 200 or more hits for the Red Sox from 1983-89, which no one else has done since 1901.

The five American League batting titles in a six-year period.

The .328 career average, including a 162-game June-to-June stretch in which he hit .400, and a .415 on-base percentage.

The first of two Gold Gloves he earned at age 36, making him, excluding pitchers, the oldest first-time winner.

The World Series ring he won with the Yankees.

But really, there is one predominant reason why Boggs is going to the Hall.

Because he worked so hard - took so many extra ground balls and extra swings, spent so much time analyzing and visualizing - to get there.

"He worked as hard as anybody we've ever had here," said Johnny Pesky, the 85-year-old Red Sox special instructor who spent many afternoons hitting Boggs the extra ground balls he requested. "He was such a good kid, and he worked so hard to become the player he did. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. ... He got to where he should be."

At each stage of Boggs' career, there seem to be two common themes:

Someone doubted him. And he proved them wrong.

"He was just determined," said Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, a fellow Tampa product who played with and against Boggs. "He was determined to get 3,000 hits. He was determined to be in the Hall of Fame. And he would stop at nothing short of that. No matter what, he was not going to be denied."

Long road to majors

When Boggs came out of Tampa's Plant High in 1976, an all-everything shortstop, legendary Red Sox scout George Digby thought he had discovered a hot draft prospect.

But the Major League Scouting Bureau, a consortium that shares reports with all teams, thought so little that Boggs wasn't included on the list of draft prospects.

"The bureau took him out," Digby said last week from his Tennessee home. "And our scouting director, Haywood Sullivan, said, "We'll have to take him out.' But I said, "Don't take him out. I think he's got a pretty good bat."'

Digby prevailed. The Sox drafted Boggs in the seventh round and signed him for $7,500 plus some scholarship money. If Digby, whom Boggs now calls a visionary, hadn't spoken up?

"I don't know if anyone else would have drafted him or not," Digby said.

When Boggs went to Elmira, N.Y., to start his pro career, an 18-year-old away from home for the first time, he didn't exactly alleviate the skepticism.

He hit .263 with six doubles, no home runs and 15 RBIs in 57 games while learning to play third and said there was some talk in the front office of sending him home for good that August. Elmira manager Dick Berardino was a bit more optimistic, but his end-of-season report did not exactly predict a Hall of Fame career.

"Everything was pretty much average at the time; average speed, average power, average arm," Berardino said last week. "I said he had a great work ethic and he would improve, especially as a hitter. But I only projected him for Triple A. Maybe a fringe major-leaguer."

When Boggs was still in the minors five years later, having hit better than .300 each ensuing season, he had every reason to wonder if he ever would get the chance.

In 1981, he was on the way to leading the Triple-A International League with a .335 average and 41 doubles when Pawtucket manager Joe Morgan asked to see him.

Rather than announce a promotion, Morgan told Boggs he would be moved from third to first base or the outfield because "we don't feel as an organization you can play third in the big leagues."

When Boggs finally made the big-league team the next spring, it was as a backup. Only when regular third baseman Carney Lansford severely sprained his ankle did Boggs get a chance to play regularly, and his performance (hitting .349 in 104 games), prompted the Sox to trade Lansford.

Even when he starred for the Red Sox over the next 11 seasons, winning batting titles, piling up dazzling numbers, turning Fenway Park into his personal playground, the criticisms continued.

He didn't hit with enough power for a third baseman. He was too selfish a hitter. He didn't play good enough defense.

"He's a determined individual," said Rays coach Billy Hatcher, a former teammate, opponent and coaching colleague. "I think Wade thrived the most when people said he couldn't do something.

"The worst thing you could do as an opposing fan or player or anyone was to say he couldn't do something. Because he was going to prove to you that he could."

Physical and mental skills

If what set Boggs apart was his work ethic and resolve, what made him special was his physical skills and savvy at the plate.

Blessed with extraordinary 20/12 vision, Boggs claimed he could see the rotation of the ball quickly enough to recognize each pitch then decide what to do with it, determined, more than anything, to not be fooled.

At the insistence of his father, Win, he read Ted Williams' The Science of Hitting about a dozen times and quickly became a disciple. Boggs learned the strike zone, eventually earning the respect of even the most veteran umpires and the benefits that come with it.

He had tremendous hand-eye coordination and an ability to adapt his swing; first to Fenway Park, where he mastered the art of knocking the outside pitch off the leftfield wall, then to Yankee Stadium, where he hit liners to left and flies to right.

And he had the confidence in his ability to work deep into counts (adhering to a philosophy that the more pitches he saw the better chance he had to get one he liked) and excelling with two strikes. He didn't often swing and miss, and he rarely popped up - twice, for example, in the 1988 season.

"One of the most amazing things," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said, "was how often he let you have strike one and would get his base hits basically with two strikes. He is tied for first with the best two-strike hitters any of us have ever seen.

Boggs also was stubborn.

"A little bit of Ted Williams in him," Pesky said.

Boggs was criticized for his lack of power and production but - except for a 1987 season in which he hit 24 homers and claimed he didn't try to - stuck with what worked so well, taking walks and slapping base hits and doubles, usually to the opposite field.

"I was the person that invented Money Ball," Boggs said. "Now these guys make $15-, $18-, $20-million a year for doing the things that I did ... lead off, get on base and score runs."

Superstitions and controversy

Boggs' performance on the field was memorable enough. But it was the surrounding issues that made him even more fascinating. Superstitions? He had dozens, the result of a strict military upbringing, and didn't mind talking about them.

He became famous for eating chicken before every game. He based his entire game-day routine on a precise schedule, leaving home, running onto the field, doing drills at the exact same time. He would take the same number of ground balls, do specific things running on and off the field, store his bats a certain way, draw a Hebrew Chai sign in the batter's box.

Controversy? Nothing can match the public theater of having a multimillion-dollar palimony suit filed against him in 1988 by his former mistress, Margo Adams, which was settled out of court.

But Boggs made it interesting, sitting down with his wife, Debbie, for a tell-all Barbara Walters interview then later watching a Geraldo Rivera report on sex addiction and saying he had a similar condition.

He once claimed to escape a knife-wielding attacker by willing himself invisible and that Debbie ran him over when he fell out of their Jeep in a Winter Haven parking lot but was unhurt.

General oddness? He imitates voices from the Wizard of Oz. He has a tremendous fear of flying. He has been on The Simpsons. He was asked on national TV if it was true he once drank 64 beers on a cross-country flight (he said no). He hunts big game and climbs mountains. He does ads for a hair restoration company. He doesn't like to talk in front of groups.

That last one could be a problem as he steps to the microphone to make the speech he has been working on for months. He knows it's a little longer than the suggested eight or nine minutes and the delivery will be key. Actually, he isn't too worried.

"Pretty much, if I put my mind to something," he said, "I could always do it."