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The grandest of them all
By GARY SHELTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 8, 1999
ST. PETERSBURG -- It was the stuff of legend. And it was by a legend.
This was the final brushstroke of a masterpiece. The artist known as Wade Boggs swung the bat, and the ball flew into the air, long and low, and it sailed toward forever. This is how a man becomes immortal. This is how a player in the twilight of a career makes it last until the end of time.
Boggs entered the history books Saturday night, and he allowed the rest of Tampa Bay to parade in with him. His two-run homer in the sixth inning made him the 22nd man in baseball history to reach the 3,000-hit level. But it also was the grandest three grand of them all: Boggs is the first hitter to get No. 3,000 on a home run.
For Boggs, it was the exclamation point on a weekend when America noticed him again, a memorable final step to a journey that has taken him the better part of 1
It was 9:08 p.m., and it seemed his first 2,999 hits were all to set up this moment. In front of so many popping flashbulbs, it seemed as if he were hitting in front of a strobe light. Boggs turned on a 2-2 curveball off Cleveland's Chris Haney, setting up an incredible victory lap beneath cheers and tears and the memories of all those other years. He circled the bases smiling, pumping his fist, letting the moment pour over him. As he approached home, and security guards tackled a fan from the stands, he looked skyward, speaking silently to his late mother. Then he fell to his knees, flopped over and kissed the plate.
All the years. All the hits. All the memories. This was the summation. To Boggs, the scrappy man with the ruddy complexion, engulfed by his teammates, embraced by his family. This is the way we will remember him, spinning at the plate, holding his helmet in the air. His wife wept. His father beamed. His son smiled. This was one of those magnificent slices of time, where the accomplishment is the same size as the emotion. That is the reason we watch sports.
These were the feelings Boggs so steadfastedly refused to anticipate. He has spent his career visualizing success, but not this time. This time, he refused to think how the hit might come, how it might feel, lest his imagination get in the way of his emotions.
"You couldn't imagine the feeling," Boggs said. "You run around the bases, and your feet aren't even touching the ground. It's like you're floating around there. You can't imagine what goes through your mind, because this has been building for 18 years. I finally put my flag in the mountain."
A home run? Who would have believed this? Supposedly, it was Boggs' inability to hit home runs that left him in the minor leagues for six seasons. No one thought he could jerk one out at the major-league level, let alone for such a milestone. But Boggs drove himself beyond his lack of power and speed, beyond players more gifted, and into something special.
In the days of million-dollar contracts and billion-dollar industries, perhaps 3,000 hits does not sound like a lot to you. It is. It is a monument carved by chipping away a little bit at a time, a desert crossed when only a few steps are allowed per day. It is a number of endurance and obsession, a goal not so much pursued as outlasted. After last season, the Baseball Encyclopedia registered 14,661 hitters in the history of the game. Of those, 14,639 failed to collect 3,000 hits.
To understand how many hits 3,000 really is, you have to start simply, with the sheer difficulty of getting one. You chisel your way into the minor leagues, and then onto the other side. You walk to the plate and see a man standing 20 yards away and throwing heartbeats. He can make it curve, or he can make it slide, or he can throw it with bone-breaking speed. He can be an inch off the plate, or an inch over it, and you have a finger-snap in which to determine the difference. And if you finally do hit the ball, no matter how sharply, there are eight world-class athletes, all with leather trapper's mitts, ready to chase it down and take something away from you. This is why it is called the single most difficult feat in sports.
Now, imagine that you play every day, every game, and every time, you get such hits.
Do that, and in only 181/2 years, you will reach 3,000.
How many is 3,000? Joe DiMaggio had only 2,214. Joe Jackson had only 1,772. Babe Ruth didn't get 3,000. Nor did Ted Williams or Wee Willie Keeler or Rogers Hornsby or Mickey Mantle or most of the rest of the Hall of Fame. But Boggs has 3,000. It is a number that summons forth the legends. Boggs speaks, and suddenly Williams is in the conversation, or Pete Rose or George Brett or Rod Carew. Three-thousand. It is a number for all time by a player who has earned his place.
This is what Boggs has done. He has lasted. He has survived. He has been through stardom and scandal, through frustration and celebration. He has wept in a dugout over defeat, and he has ridden a white horse across an outfield to rejoice in winning a world championship. Through it all, he has remained in love with the singular joy of meeting a ball with a bat and driving it into an open space.
He is fueled by regiment and routine, by superstition and stubbornness. He has gotten here with chicken, beer and determination. The chicken before the game, the beer after, and the determination every second in between. When future generations talk about Boggs, he likely will come across as something of an odd duck, what with the dozens of superstitions, with the way he can be a slave to the clock. But what else should be remembered was his obsession with putting wood to horsehide.
How many is 3,000? It's 929 pitchers, and hits off 722 of them. It's 26 ballparks. It's forgetting about great defensive plays and debatable scoring calls and questionable strikes. It's playing when the back is stiff and the legs are tired. It's facing seven Hall of Fame pitchers and batting .371 against them. It is surviving 665 games without a hit -- essentially, oh-for-four years -- and coming back at them the next day. After, of course, taking your cap and T-shirt and socks and batting gloves and underwear, for goodness' sakes, and throwing them into the trash.
This is Boggs, relentless, driven, captivated by this game and this goal. He has always treated every hit the way a starving man treats a dollar found in the street, and the result is a richness that defines him, that validates him.
"No one wrote anything about (the great seasons)," Boggs said. "It was like I landed on the moon, and no one knows about it. I finally have some meaning in my career. I'm doing something that means something. Not to take away from 200 hits or 100 walks, but this is finally something they can write on the final resting place.
"It gives (my career) substance. It's like "Oh, yeah, you made some All-Star teams. Oh, yeah, you won batting titles. Oh yeah, you won golden gloves.' But "Wow, you had 3,000 damn hits!' "
Frank Howard, the crusty old coach of the Rays, grins whenever he talks about Boggs. There is something about Boggs that fits into all eras. Squint, and you can see him in the yellowing films with the baggy uniforms, back when the game was more about hustle than muscle.
"In my mind, Wade Boggs doesn't have to take a back seat to anyone who's ever played the game," Howard said. "People think power comes in four bases, but look how many doubles this guy has had (575, 13th all time)."
Most of what Boggs had, though, was fierceness in this all-consuming drive to add one more hit to his total. He has never been the biggest guy in the clubhouse, or the fastest. What he had was will.
"I had determination and drive as good as anybody," Boggs said. "There have been so many players who are way better than I ever thought about being, but if you bust your butt, you can be one step better."
And so he clung to every indignity, never forgetting how long it took him to get to the bigs, treating every at-bat as if it were a golden coin. Who knew it would turn out to be a treasure chest?
"Now I can eat steak," Boggs said. "The poultry industry just took a dive."
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