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Boggs delivers hit for the ages

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 1998


ST. PETERSBURG -- For the longest of moments, he stood still as a photograph, as if to allow history to take a good look.

photo
With a tip of his helmet, Wade Boggs acknowledges the cheers and his place in history. [Times photo: Jonathan Newton]
Wade Boggs, hitter, stood with one foot atop first base, like an explorer claiming a foreign land for the crown. He looked up into the noise as it built slowly at first, then quicker, like a climbing pulse. Then Boggs smiled and lifted the batting helmet from his head, lifted it slowly toward the heavens because, who knows, probably they were paying attention there, too.

This is the way we will remember Boggs, standing at first base after another hit, his chin as high and regal as his batting average will allow, the noise of a crowd roaring its approval. He was a man born to hit a baseball, and he has heard a cheer or two before.

But even to a man who has 2,874 hits to his credit, this moment was a special one.

This hit put him past the Babe. As in Ruth. As in Sultan. As in Swat.

That Babe.

A team with no history before this season shared a moment for the ages Monday night. Boggs had three hits to charge past Ruth on the all-time hit list. Only 32 players have had more.

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"The guy is amazing," outfielder Bubba Trammell said. "I was sitting there on the bench just saying to myself, "I'm playing with a guy who has more base hits than Babe Ruth.' It was incredible."

Boggs is in his twilight now. He is 40, and it is fair to say he cannot spank the ball around the park the way he once did. Ground balls seem to get up on him quicker at third base than they used to, and a young player named Bobby Smith is pressing him for playing time. Boggs spends a lot of time defending himself against the calendar.

But stick a bat in the guy's hands and he still can give you a moment. Or more.

Take the way Boggs tied Ruth's total. He did it with a home run. How is that for dramatic flair? Then, in the ninth he passed him with a single that helped sew up the Rays' team-record fifth straight victory.

"A little kid from Bayshore Little League passes Babe Ruth," Boggs said, grinning into the camera lights, soaking up all the energy the moment would allow. "It's very special when you pass big names like that."

It was special to his teammates, too. Manager Larry Rothschild described the atmosphere on the bench as "electric." He immediately sent Smith in to pinch-run, but Smith grasped the moment properly enough to hang back and take his time, to allow Boggs his ovation, his moment.

"It seemed like it lasted five or 10 minutes," Boggs said. "It gives you chills. It really does."

This is what Boggs does. He hits a baseball. It is what he always has done, with a precision shared by few others. Oh, most major-league hitters love the feeling of the bat meeting the ball in the purity of a swing. But few are driven toward it, absolutely obsessed, the way Boggs is. That explains the picture of the saint in his locker. And the four-leaf clover. And the rabbit's foot. And the lucky troll. Why take chances?

Someone suggested to Boggs that it didn't matter when you were talking about him, even if it was 8:15 a.m. on a Saturday in February, Boggs would be thinking about hitting. Boggs grinned. "Nah," he said. "That's too early. Maybe 8:30."

When you are a kid of 11, as Boggs was once, watching Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola do the Game of the Week and talk about Al Kaline's march to 3,000 hits, this is fanciful stuff. Truth is, it takes a lot of base hits to add up to Babe Ruth. It takes a lot of trips to third base when an ankle or a wrist is crying. Through it all, Boggs has locked his eyes like a sniper on the goal of 3,000 hits. Every moment he is awake -- and, you get the feeling, most when he is asleep -- he knows exactly how far away he is.

There are those who have knocked him for this. Kirk Gibson, the old Dodger, now a Tigers analyst, has called him selfish. Durwood Merrill, the umpire, wrote about Boggs' diminishing skills. But every hitter in the bigs knows his average to five decimal points. Boggs simply is better at it.

Turns out the old guy isn't done yet. Rogers Hornsby is a few hits in front of him. And Frank Robinson and Wee Willie Keeler and Roberto Clemente. There are hits to go before he sleeps.

We are a part of it now. We have shared a moment of history. We have shouted our thanks, and we have relished the sight of Boggs doffing a cap to the crowd, signalling thanks of his own.

Forever, we will talk of him, and of this moment. Both were something to see.


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