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Cooperstown a Short Drive for Boggs

Baseball: At 39, Boggs goes home to Tampa with a remarkable resume, including a .331 career batting average.

March 15, 1998|STEVE MARANTZ | THE SPORTING NEWS

'A swing is like a car," Wade Boggs is saying. "You've got the fan belt, carburetor, pistons, spark plugs, fuel pump. If any part isn't working, the car doesn't run. Same way with hitting."

In the spring of his autumn, Mr. Goodwrench is fidgeting in a Florida batting cage. His weight shifts from foot to foot until it is just so. Fingers, hands, shoulders and hips conduct an intimate dialogue only Boggs understands. If a swing is a car, then his is a Porsche, finely tooled and temperamental. The scene is familiar, just the uniform has changed, this time to the expansion Devil Rays. Manager Larry Rothschild stops to admire Boggs' work. "How do you think he'll be remembered?" I ask Rothschild.

His reply is instantaneous.

"As a great pure hitter," Rothschild says. "I don't know how else to put it. I think about those years in Boston when he never put the ball in the air. That was phenomenal. That tells you as much about a hitter as you can possibly say."

The Boston years preceded the Yankees years, which preceded this, presumably the end of the line. With Boston in 1985, Boggs popped up three times in 653 at-bats, only once in fair territory. He finished with 240 hits, the most by a major leaguer in the past 67 years, and batted .368. The Boston years seem so long ago it's hard to remember that the last image of the 1986 World Series was Boggs sitting alone in the dugout, tears sliding down his face. Even Margo Adams is fading. What remains is a picture of Boggs rifling hits and walking. At Fenway he set conventional wisdom on its ear, turning two strikes into an advantage, the better to punch doubles off The Wall. With Boston, Boggs won five batting titles and became, with Tony Gwynn, the master batsman of the 1980s.

The Yankees years began in 1993, and though they produced no more batting titles they generally were happier. As a Yankee, Boggs provided another final World Series image, in 1996, riding behind a mounted cop across Babe Ruth's outfield, weeping for joy. He had himself to thank. Game 4 against the Braves was tied at 6 in the 10th inning, bases loaded, two outs, with Boggs pinch hitting against Steve Avery. His eye sharp enough, his reputation intimidating enough, he took a couple of borderline balls to draw the game-winning walk on a 3-2 pitch.

I ask him if he minds that his most important career at-bat was a walk and not a hit. "It worked out pretty damn good, didn't it?" Boggs says.

Although his final year in the Bronx was bitter--he platooned at third base with Charlie Hayes--it is said Boggs cried when he left Yankee Stadium after the team returned from its playoff loss to the Indians, knowing he would not wear pinstripes again.

At 39, Boggs comes home to where he graduated from Tampa's Plant High School in 1976, toting a remarkable resume. His .331 average ranks third behind Ted Williams (.344) and Gwynn (.340) in the post-World War II era. He is the only player in the modern era (1901-present) to have seven consecutive 200-hit seasons and shares the major league record for most years leading the league in intentional walks (six). He has reached base 300 times in a season six times, exceeded only by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (nine) and Williams (seven).

With the Devil Rays, Boggs will be close to his steadfast wife and high school sweetheart, Debbie, his two children and his crusty father, Win, 73, a retired Air Force master sergeant. Boggs credits his longevity to Win's "good genes," and he may have inherited his father's irascibility as well. When Boggs left the Yankees, Win called Manager Joe Torre "a loser" and said he cost Wade $1 million in the marketplace.

In a similarly vindictive vein, Wade says his most gratifying accomplishment has been proving wrong a long list of people who predicted he'd never make it or that he was washed up. He is hard on others, but no harder than on himself. Perhaps that's why Boggs cries.

There's one milestone left--3,000 hits. Boggs is at 2,800 and probably will need this season and part of next to get 200 more. Playing on turf at Tropicana Field won't help his legs or back, but it may help a few more grounders skitter through.

"How many guys have done it, 22 or 23?" Boggs says when asked what the threshold means to him. (Actually, 21.) "It means a lot if you're a hitter."

Three thousand hits is Boggs' Hall of Fame ticket. However, it would be wrong to assume he is wearing an expansion jersey because of a statistic. It would be wrong to assume that he showed up for camp in top shape or labors in the batting cage because of a statistic. The truth is Boggs is going about his work as he always has, fully engaged, with passion and precision.

"I can't say I have more motivation at 2,800 hits than at 2,500 or 2,300," Boggs says. "But as far as seeing light at the end of the tunnel, it's becoming a lot more clear now."

For the hitter whose swing is a car, the next pit stop is Cooperstown.

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