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His legacy set, Boggs embarks on retirement

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- For the first time in 36 years, Wade Boggs isn't preparing to play baseball. Since age 5, when his Tampa toddler hands first gripped a bat. Old Number Twelve sat Saturday, alongside his Tropicana Field locker. Alone, except for his memories.

As if by apropos magic, a TV set came crackling to life. Showing a video of a wondrous August 7, 1999, when Wade got his 3,000th hit, an uncharacteristic Boggs bazooka into the Trop's rightfield seats.

"I hope, if the world thinks again of Wade Boggs, that's the moment that first flashes to mind," he said. "Previously, the lasting image was probably me on that horse."

A milestone with the Devil Rays to supersede a frivolous 1996 moment when Boggs, as Yankees third baseman, celebrated his only World Series championship by hopping aboard a New York policeman's steed.

"I'm delighted No. 3,000 happened like it did," he said, "finishing off my career, playing in my home area. I never wanted to just hang on as a ballplayer. Sadly, my instant recollection of the great Willie Mays was him stumbling in the New York Mets outfield, trying with futility to go back for a fly ball, like the ones he once ate up. Willie stayed in the game too long."

Boggs looked up again at the TV. By now, a videotape showed him uncorking post-game champagne, about to spew teammates with an Aug. 7 toast. "A fantastic way to wind up 18 seasons in the big leagues," he said. "What a magical night. One-upping my horse in the Bronx."

At 41, the gifted hitter must address new challenges. An incoming freshman in the University of the Rest of My Life. Going from old jock to young retiree. Wade has plenty of money. Loads of time to travel, fish and improve his golf game. But is that enough?

"My burning desire for competition is still there," he said. "I am like a kid just going to college, trying to decide on a major. I don't want to dissolve from baseball.

"My time in the American League, it now seems like the blink of an eye. Can it be 18 years since my dad came running up at the end of 1982 spring training with the Red Sox, having gotten a scoop, that I'd made the Boston roster."

Wade has a new D-Rays deal. His title is no longer third baseman. Boggs is special assistant to the general manager, Chuck LaMar. Duties are varying. Not severely structured.

Saturday, the No. 12 duty was to sit at a table, on the dome's faux grass, signing thousands of autographs for FanFest patrons. These days, he's shaking a lot of hands. Kissing a few babies.

"You do what you must, but I'm an on-the-field guy," he said. "During spring training, I'll be watching our hitters. Analyzing. Making suggestions. Also checking out pitchers, looking for little things, like maybe some body twitch that can tip their throws to batters."

He'll wear the familiar, adroitly pressed uniform, but today's Boggs locker at Tampa Bay's camp is in a little room where coaches dress, not in the big space used by players. "I walk onto the field, there's an immediate urge to jump into a batting cage," he said. "To take some swings, like I've been doing for so many seasons."

It's not an easy adjustment. Not a snap. John Elway still thirsts to compete, but a beaten body demanded that he quarterback no more. Dan Marino will have a terrible time.

Michael Jordan watches NBA games and has pangs to play. Wayne Gretzky, coming down from a lifetime of NHL highs, has suffered everything but the bends.

"Instruction, that's what I now must lean on most heavily," Boggs said. "I'll be at all our home games. Another set of experienced eyes.

"When I see something in a hitter, I'll tell (batting coach) Leon Roberts. If it's a pitcher, I'll quietly deliver my thoughts to (pitcher coach) Rick Williams or (manager) Larry Rothschild.

"I'll make trips to check on each of our minor-league clubs. It would be a delight if some young player would one day say, "Wade Boggs helped me get to the big leagues.' I'll do anything to help the Devil Rays get better. I don't plan to step on anybody's toes. I'm not after anybody's job."

As with many outgoing athletes, broadcasting is an option. "I don't know how that might evolve," Boggs said. "Maybe I'll come in as another commentator, to see how it works. Like I said, I'm a college freshman searching for my major. Seeing what I can do; seeing what I most enjoy doing."

When the Rays are on the road this summer, Boggs will have unique flexibility in his schedule. "Playing the game demands eight or nine months every year," he said. "There's stuff you'd like to do, but the timing is always wrong. I plan to travel more with my family. Seeking new gratification.

"Maybe we can go to the Kentucky Derby or the Indianapolis 500. Wouldn't it be nice to take in a Masters golf tournament? That's now possible. I'll miss playing baseball, so it's vital to feed myself with the next-best alternatives."

He's now eating steak.

Chicken gets a partner.

When the 3,000th hit flew, it became a moment to forever replay in a splendid hitter's mind. "I remember the noise," Boggs said. "I've played in the Metrodome in Minneapolis and never have I heard louder noise than that magical night of Aug. 7.

"My next dream is to see our Tampa Bay area become as excited about the Rays as we are about the Bucs. It's really about ego; a community wanting to be proud to be among the best. We're feeling that with our NFL franchise, seeing the Bucs almost make the Super Bowl. What excitement it generated.

"When our ballclub starts to regularly beat the Yankees, Indians, Red Sox and other top organizations, I'm positive we'll see the same sort of rise in community pride and enjoyment. Causing sellouts at Tropicana Field. It's about competing. About winning.

"Being an area with many transplants, there is a special challenge. Always, the Bucs have seen many Packers fans, Bears fans, et cetera in their house. But they now bury cheers for visiting teams, because the home side is doing so well. Making our area proud.

"What we've seen in this baseball off-season, with the Rays bringing in Vinny Castilla, Greg Vaughn and other excellent talent, is an obvious commitment to win. To make our area baseball-proud. To excite people.

"I want us to get to the point where any cheers for the Yankees, Indians, Red Sox or whomever are drowned out at Tropicana Field, because of noise being made for the Devil Rays.

"When Derek Jeter comes to bat, we don't need 20,000 people cheering. Boos would be good. Winning will bring such attitude. That's when you know you're making it as a big-league franchise. It's going to be fun."

A lot like 8/7/99.

Boggs left the Rays clubhouse, going out to sign his name, slap some backs, kiss some babies. This weekend, he is being honored at the Ted Williams Hitter Museum in Citrus County. Easing into the role of noted, if still anxious, baseball retiree.

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