To get the clearest picture of the magnitude of Wade Boggs’s production, consider this: in his 18-year career, Boggs reached base safely in an incredible 80% of his games and was the only batter in the twentieth century to have seven consecutive 200-hit seasons. (Wee Willie Keeler pulled off eight straight from 1894 to 1901.) He appeared in twelve All-Star games as a third baseman, second only to Brooks Robinson. In the seven years between 1982 and 1988 he batted .349 or higher six times. In his off-year he hit .325. Boggs’ methodical, perfection-driven approach to hitting was an extension of his methodical personality. The quirky Boggs was one of the most superstitious players baseball has ever seen: he awoke at the same time every morning, ate chicken before every game (Jim Rice nicknamed him “Chicken Man”), and took exactly 150 ground balls during infield practice.
For night games, Boggs stepped into the batting cage at 5:17 and ran wind sprints at 7:17. (Trying to hex him, a scoreboard operator in Toronto once flipped the stadium clock directly from 7:16 to 7:18.) Before each at-bat Boggs would draw the Hebrew word “Chai” in the batter’s box, and his route to and from the playing field was so precise that by late summer his footprints were often clearly visible in the grass in front of his home dugouts.
All these automatic routines were the cogs and springs that powered the precise mechanism of his hitting. After getting his first major-league hit against the White Sox’ Richard Dotson on April 26th, Boggs set the AL rookie standard with a .349 average in 1982. In ’83, the Red Sox traded away Carney Lansford, his chief rival for the third base slot, and Boggs responded with a league-leading .361 average.
That marked the beginning of his seven consecutive 200-hit seasons. His easy left-handed stroke sprayed line drives to all fields, and while he was not known for his power — in 1985 he set the AL record with 187 singles — he stroked 24 home runs in 1987 and finished third in the league in slugging percentage. Don Mattingly nearly won the batting crown from him in 1986, but Boggs sat out of the Red Sox’ final two games to preserve his .357 average and emerge victorious.
The embarrassing furor that arose after Boggs admitted in 1988 that he had committed adultery never seemed to distract him at the plate — even when thousands of cutout masks of his mistress were distributed at Royals Stadium in Kansas City. But various injuries (wrist, toe, back, hip) slowed Boggs in his second decade. From 1990 to 1997 Boggs “only” averaged .307, and his low point came in ’92 when the Sox finished last for the first time since 1939. Neither Boggs nor his .259 average helped much. A change of scene was the ticket, and Boggs signed with the Yankees after that season.
Boggs was back to his old .300 self in 1993 for the contending Yanks, and made his first of four consecutive All-Star starts in pinstripes. At the age of 36, Boggs won his first Gold Glove in 1994 and repeated the following year. The oldest first-time winner since the award was introduced in 1957, Boggs proved that his persistence and hard work weren’t just limited to his magic with the bat. He had come a long way from his rookie year, when he booted the first two grounders hit to him.
But 1996 was the real feather in his cap. Ten years after Boston’s agonizing loss to the Mets in the World Series, Boggs found himself back in the Fall Classic. This time his sharp eye and patience at the plate reaped the ultimate dividend. Batting against Steve Avery in the tenth inning of Game 4, Boggs drew a bases-loaded walk to win the game and tie
the series. Momentum suddenly belonged to New York, and when the Yankees clinched after Game 6, Boggs led the team in its victory lap — on horseback, courtesy of the NYPD — with his fist aloft.
But it was Charlie Hayes, and not Boggs, who made the series-ending catch at third base. In retrospect, it was a telling omen. Boggs only started 88 games in ’97 after enduring the worst month of his career, a .143 May. (He did appear in one game as a pitcher against Anaheim, retiring three of four Angels with a knuckler inspired by his childhood hero, Phil Niekro.)
While Boggs heated up to .417 for September, it was too little, too late. The Yanks similarly sputtered, bowing to the Indians in the Division Series, and in the off-season Boggs signed with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Boggs made a splash by socking the first home run in Devil Rays history, and in the relatively low-key environment of his hometown — he was an all-state kicker on the football team for Tampa’s Plant High School — Boggs seemed virtually assured of reaching the 3,000-hit plateau. He reached the historic milestone on August 7, 1999 with a home run to right field against Chris Haney of the Indians. Boggs kissed home plate after circling the bases.
It was the first time in baseball a player’s 3,000th hit was a round-tripper. “I love to hit home runs,” Boggs had told the New York Times earlier that season. “I was a home run hitter in high school, but then something happened. The parks just got bigger.”
Shortly after collecting his 3,000th hit, a knee injury put Boggs on the DL for just the third time in his long career. Satisfied with his achievements, the legendary hit machine decided it was time to retire.
Boggs was not considered much of a prospect in the minors, but was well reviewed very early in his career by one Hall of Fame scout. Aged eighteen months, his photo was shown to Ted Williams during a Game of the Week telecast, and Williams called the infant’s swing “perfect.” (WAG/JGR)