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The star his team gave up on

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Wade Boggs hit his first homer on this Davis Island Little League field, where he played eight hours a day. [Times photo: Tony L. Sandys]

The Red Sox showed little faith in a minor-leaguer named Wade Boggs, whose hard work has him on the verge of a hitter's greatest milestone.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 6, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- From what the guys in the Red Sox organization were saying back then, Wade Boggs was never supposed to be here.

Not still in the major leagues.

Not putting the finishing touches on a storied 18-year career.

And certainly not on the precipice of history, three hits from joining baseball's elite 3,000-hit club.

Follow Wade Boggs on his quest for 3,000 career hits in Wade Watch.
"It sounds kind of strange today," says Dick Berardino, Boggs' manager during his first year of pro ball in 1976, "but we had our winter meetings and we went over all the players that year and I evaluated Wade. I said he will be a better hitter because he has good work habits and he will be a better defensive player because he works hard, and I projected him and said that his highest level was Triple A. Maybe a fringe major-leaguer.

"I didn't see the great tools at that time. I knew he'd work at it and I knew he'd become better, but I didn't know how much. I'd be lying if I said I thought Wade was a can't-miss guy.

"If you told me then he'd be a Hall of Famer I would've said, "No way.' But it shows you what you can do with hard work and determination."

Boggs had talent -- he hit .522 as a junior at Tampa's Plant High and .485 as a senior, finishing on a 26-for-33 tear -- but he was going to need something else to make it.

The scrawny kid wasn't considered much of a prospect by the Major League Scouting Bureau (reportedly graded a 25 on a scale of 20-80) and -- despite his expectations of being selected in the first or second round by the New York Mets -- was taken as high as the seventh round by the Red Sox apparently only on the insistence of scout George Digby.

Boggs, who also was a star kicker and could have played college football, signed for $7,500, plus another $7,500 in incentives and some money for college. He then spent 5 1/2 seasons in Boston's minor-league system, winning one batting title (for Triple-A Pawtucket in 1981) and finishing in the top four four other times, but garnering little acclaim.

There were some in the Boston organization, according to longtime Sox minor-league manager Joe Morgan, who were ready to give up on Boggs. "I know there was someone down in the lower leagues who wanted to release him," Morgan said.

Even after a 1980 season when Boggs hit .306 for Pawtucket (falling .0007 shy of the batting title), the Sox didn't invite him to spring training or even consider him worthy of a spot on their 40-man roster, leaving him available to any other team that was willing to pay the $25,000 claiming fee. None did. In a further show of disbelief, the Sox went out and acquired third baseman Carney Lansford from California.

"I was never told I was a prospect," Boggs said. "I was always second or third on the depth chart. I always had people starting in front of me and for some reason after a week or 10 days they'd get hurt or something like that and, bang, there I am playing every day."

Why didn't the Boston minor-league people see a bright future for Boggs? "Because," he said pointedly, "they're the smartest people in the world."

Actually, they had their reasons.

Or at least two of them.

The feeling was that Boggs was not a good enough defensive player to make it as a third baseman and that he didn't hit with enough power for a corner infield position. Labels tend to stick, and Boggs wore those for years.

The doubt, the skepticism, the criticism all would seem to be rallying cries, but Boggs says he was driven by something deeper -- an insatiable internal drive and motivation to succeed.

"That's probably the big thing that kept me going. It's not something I just developed," Boggs said. "I never gave up. I knew what I believed and I just continued to play. I didn't listen to them. If that was the case I would have gone home a long time ago."

And when he does reflect? "I just laugh at them," Boggs said. "I've accomplished a lot in this game and it's not from the motivation of having somebody tell me I can't do something. That doesn't motivate me. After I do accomplish something I chuckle and laugh at them, but that's not my driving force. It just makes all of them look silly."

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The 18-month-old Wade Boggs, above, hadn't quite mastered the art of contact hitting that led to five batting titles with the Red Sox. Yet even at that young an age, Boggs' swing was described as "perfect" by no less an authority than Ted Williams. [Family photo]

Boggs got where he wanted to go by working hard. "No one worked any harder than Wade," said Johnny Pesky, the 79-year-old zen master of the Sox organization. "He came in here kind of unnoticed and he worked himself into being a good player and an exceptionally good hitter. He made himself an All-Star."

Not enough power? Boggs worked at driving the ball hard, ultimately parlaying his inside-out swing into a tremendous weapon to attack the idiosyncrasies of Fenway Park, a match that seemed made in baseball heaven.

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As a teen at Tampa's Plant High. [Family photo]
Not a good enough defensive player? He has spent hours taking ground balls, developing his skills and learning the art of playing the position.

Despite hitting .311 the previous year, Boggs was playing what would become a second full season at Double-A Bristol in 1979 when his father, Win, went to check on his progress. "Boston was notoriously slow but they had the best minor-league system in baseball, so I wasn't concerned," Win Boggs said. "He was hitting .300 every year, but it was his fielding. At that time he didn't dive for balls.

"I borrowed my boss' car and drove up to Bristol to watch a ballgame, and two or three balls went by him that he should have dove for but didn't. I said, "Look, you've got to start diving for the balls you can't get to, dive and knock 'em down.' So during that winter he'd go out to Plant High and had guys hitting balls to him and kept diving and diving to where it came naturally."

A big part of Wade Boggs' success is because of his father -- the skills, the work ethic, the love of the game, the internal drive, the regimentation, even some of his myriad superstitions.

Win Boggs was a standout fast-pitch softball player in the military and quickly recognized that his youngest son had the right stuff, especially extraordinary hand-eye coordination.

"Somebody showed a picture to Ted Williams during a game of the week broadcast and he said that was a perfect swing," Wade Boggs said, "and that was me at 18 months."

Father and son started with a plastic ball, then moved to a tennis ball and a baseball -- a gradual process to allay fears of the ball -- and Wade continued to get better. "Everything pretty much came naturally to him," Win said. The father's only regret? Not taking full advantage of Wade's ambidextrous abilities. "I should have made him a switch-hitter," Win said.

By 4 or 5, Wade was playing pepper with the grown men on his father's teams. By 10, he was holding his own with older kids. When Wade got to his early teens, with his father now coaching him, a career in baseball seemed like a possibility.

"I saw several guys in Little League who had more talent than Wade did, but they didn't have the determination that Wade did," Win said. "Wade wanted to play professional baseball, and that's all he wanted to do. He worked hard and he made himself a ballplayer."

A ballplayer. That's him.

Ask Boggs what he is most proud of, and he says it is the 1996 World Series ring he won with the Yankees. "I wear it every day," he said.

His biggest satisfaction? "Winning the two Gold Gloves and finally becoming more than a one-dimensional type of player."

His greatest accomplishment? Reeling off seven straight seasons of 200 or more hits, the only player this century to do so. It was a streak that started in 1983, the season after he finally made it to the majors as a utility player, a couple of years after the Red Sox nearly gave up on him.

"When you're the first person to ever do something like land on the moon, when you're the person to do what no one else has ever done, then that has got to be your greatest accomplishment," Boggs said.

And now, tonight, Saturday, sometime soon, he is about to reach the pinnacle of offensive success, a 3,000th hit that should forever preserve his legacy and guarantee his admittance to baseball's Hall of Fame.

"It's the last piece of the puzzle, the last piece I need to fulfill my career that I have control over," Boggs said.

"It's where all hitters try to get to. It's an elite class. Few are fortunate enough to get there, and when you do it's very special and something that you take a lot of pride in. It's not something that happens just in one year; it takes almost a lifetime to accomplish.

"I think it will finally give me the inner peace that you finally made it to the pinnacle, where you keep climbing this mountain and climbing this mountain and all the pain that you go through to get there and then finally you get there, and stick your flag in it, and say, "Well, now I've arrived.' "

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