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New job, but same ol' batty Boggs

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001

VIERA -- This is more mirage than town. Viera? It's the Florida outback with baseball diamonds. A world away from the beaches, Disney, tall condos, aromatic orange groves and smoky interstates.

Space Coast Stadium, not quite the Field of Dreams, is a cute cow-pasture ballpark offering 7,000 seats and enough scruffy land to park 200,000 cars.

Wide-open ... nothingness.

But how sweet the Friday sounds of ash bat whacks, leather glove pops and the learned, line-driving voice of Wade Boggs, old hitting master and new Rays coach.

Spring in bloom.

"I love it," said the 42-year-old batting guru. "Beyond me playing the game, I've found what I want to do. I once said I'd never coach, but now it enthuses me. You feel substance and self-worth."

Ninety minutes before Tampa Bay's scrimmage with the Florida Marlins, the famous No. 12 camped behind a batting cage, stroking his goatee, peering through stylish shades as Rays batters took practice swings.

"Nice, C.C.," Boggs cooed as kid prospect Carl Crawford stroked a shot to rightfield. Moments later, Ben Grieve blistered one, bringing an "Oh, yeah!" from Coach Wade, punctuated by a short whistle of satisfaction.

Boggs has fresh fire in a graybeard belly. He's into it. Bouncing around, checking a clipboard, encouraging and correcting. Being a Rays hitter, with Wade analyzing, could be a bit like having Bill Gates peer over a student's shoulder in computer class.

But when, from a source so renowned, it is caring counsel delivered more with professorial sensitivity, guidance and purpose than know-it-all arrogance, chances for pupil benefits intensify.

"I'm not around to try cloning everybody to hit like I did," Boggs said. "You take what you see and try to improve it. When the season begins, I figure our batters will be like 15 prize fighters and I'm their corner man. Between rounds, as they rest on a stool, it's time to talk pluses, minuses and adjustments.

Boggs arose from Tampa sandlots to become, with Tony Gwynn and George Brett, one of his generation's boss hitters. An artist with five batting championships, a .328 career average and four of his 11 Boston seasons in the .360s.

On Aug. 7 1999, Boggs mashed an uncharacteristic home run into the bleachers at Tropicana Field, his 3,000th hit in 18 summers with the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays.

Seven weeks later, he retired, finishing with 3,010 hits, trailing just 22 icons in major-league history. Boggs spent last season as assistant to Rays general manager Chuck LaMar and part-time broadcaster.

"What fun to put the uniform back on," Wade said, standing in blinding Brevard County sunshine. "Wonderful to be around the guys, talking baseball, working every day to make the Rays better. Above all, we must hit more consistently and score more runs."

His class is listening.

"Our players have been fabulous with their attention, desire and tail-busting attitudes," Boggs said. "My comments to hitters are intended to help them focus better; to think more about each situation.

"Listening is a great quality. That's why the lord gave us two ears but just one tongue. I want every one of them to hit .300. It's a daily grind, a war, demanding dedication and drive."

Even in his sleep, Wade thinks Rays hitting. "Earlier this week, I needed time off to attend my grandmother's funeral," he said. "That night, our first spring game was in my dreams. It became a nightmare.

"I dreamed of returning to camp after the funeral, running into (manager) Larry Rothschild who told me, "We got no-hit by Notre Dame.' Fortunately, I did wake up."

Thursday reality was the Rays were anything but hitless against a collegiate challenger, giving Notre Dame a 17-4 battering. "Good start," he said, getting 20 hits, scoring 17 runs."

Reminded it'd been boyish amateurs from South Bend who were pulverized, Boggs shook his head, saying, "I don't care if it's a Little League opponent, when you're hitting lots of baseballs solidly and pushing home bunches of runs, it's a good sign.

"Success breeds confidence ... confidence breeds success," said the kid coach. "I want our hitters to always be fully aware of what kind of pitcher they're facing. If it's a sinkerballer and the first throw comes in knee level, understand that it will drop out of the strike zone. Don't help the pitcher by beating it harmlessly into the ground.

"It's good when a batter can extend the count, making the pitcher throw more. Not only does that help tire your adversary, if gets you looks at five or six pitches instead of one or two, your chances escalate of getting one that's really good to smack."

Facing big-league pitching Friday, the Rays popped 16 hits against the Marlins, each one bringing joy to Boggs, even if the Viera afternoon was to be signed off with a frown, their 6-0 lead evolving into a 7-6 loss.

More grinding due today for Boggs and bats, testing against the Atlanta Braves and Greg Maddux in St. Petersburg.

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