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A Quiet .300

The high-averge, low-profile Boggs quietly prepared for what would be his fourth straight .300 season in New York.

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Posted: Wednesday August 04, 1999 03:08 PM

Issue date: January 15, 1996

By Tom Verducci

Sports Illustrated Flashback Beneath a morning sky as dense and mottled as marble, Wade Anthony Boggs cocks his bat into the ready position for the first time since October. The image is familiar: feet slightly closed in a stance as stiff as an artist's easel, but for one exception. The barrel of the bat wiggles quickly in the tight, concentric circles of a thirsty man's swizzle stick. This third day of the new year is the dawn of Boggs's 21st season in professional baseball. Having climbed down from tree stands for hunting bear in upstate New York, and finished his pursuit of deer in Florida and Michigan, and rolled out of bed this winter morning in Tampa, Boggs begins by hammering almost nothing but line drives. They are made all the more vicious by the aluminum bat he is using. Often the blasts ricochet off the frame of the pitcher's protective screen, the sounds from the metal bat and frame combining to mimic the ding-dong of a doorbell, only faster.

The netting atop the long batting cage at the New York Yankees' minor league complex seems superfluous, given that Boggs rarely lifts the ball more than 10 feet off the ground. He could hit all afternoon inside New York's Lincoln Tunnel and never endanger a lightbulb. "Well," he says matter-of-factly, "that's the way you're supposed to do it."

Nothing about Boggs changes, not at 37 and not with more than two months off. After all, this is a man who every day during the season completes a checklist of 60 to 70 superstitions. "The influence of military regimen, I guess," says Boggs, the son of an Air Force master sergeant. This devotion to habit makes what has happened to Boggs in the three seasons since he joined the Yankees all the more remarkable. He has become almost undetectable. The face is the one that became so familiar during Boggs's 11 seasons with the Boston Red Sox -- that weathered look of a daguerreotype, reminiscent of times when players preferred their mustaches and pants droopy. But this is where Boggs has changed: Boston's most fascinating media subject outside the Kennedy family has become the invisible man in New York City, a slick trick given the Big Apple's appetite for the kind of bizarre headlines he cranked out along with his annual 200 hits in Boston.

Boggs has found such peace and quiet in New York that his three straight seasons of hitting better than .300 for the Yankees have drawn little more than passing interest. Only seven other players, all of them younger than Boggs, have surpassed .300 in each of the past three years ( Carlos Baerga , Dante Bichette , Tony Gwynn , Gregg Jefferies , Kenny Lofton , Mike Piazza and Frank Thomas ). Boggs, a third baseman, also has won the Gold Glove Award in the past two seasons, including 1994, when at 36 he became the oldest nonpitcher ever to win the award for the first time. Whereas after the 1992 season the Red Sox chose to dump Boggs to make room for a 25-year-old prospect, Scott Cooper , after the '95 season the Yankees chose to re-sign Boggs for two more years (a $4.1 million package) and trade a 26-year-old prospect, Russ Davis . Cooper was traded right before last season to the St. Louis Cardinals. "Oh, how sweet it is to make them eat crow," gushes Boggs about his disbelievers in Boston.

He has been a model Yankee while hitting, in order, .302, .342 and .324 the last three seasons. If he maintains that .320 pace, late next season he could become one of the top five batters in the franchise's history (minimum 500 games), trailing only Hall of Famers Babe Ruth (.349), Lou Gehrig (.340), Earle Combs (.325) and Joe DiMaggio (.325). Moreover, if he appears in 134 games in 1996, he will become the first player to play 500 games each with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

That he is leaving footprints on hallowed Yankee turf is extraordinary considering that neither New York's manager nor general manager in 1992, Buck Showalter and Gene Michael , respectively, wanted to sign him. Boggs had batted only .259 that year with Boston -- the first time he had failed to hit .300 since he was 18 -- and there had been rumors that his back and eyesight were failing and that he was a malignancy in the clubhouse. "I don't think anybody wanted him more than I did," boasts Yankee owner George Steinbrenner , apparently forgetting that he was supposedly banned from baseball at the time and that his son-in-law, Joe Molloy, cut the three-year, $11 million deal with the free agent Boggs.

Boggs and New York? The Boston Globe fairly laughed aloud at the marriage. "Boggs's stories will become back-page news almost daily," predicted the newspaper, which also called him "a headline waiting to happen." It was as if the Yankees had signed Joey Buttafuoco to play third.

Alas, Boggs has sold nary a newspaper in New York. He has not beefed about official scorer's calls or about having to bat leadoff at times (he prefers to hit third). He has neither consulted a psychiatrist about a stiff back nor toppled out the door of a vehicle driven by his wife, Debbie (the door didn't latch, and he went flying when she made a turn). He has not thought about willing himself invisible when a man held a knife to his throat, as he said he did when accosted in the parking lot of a Florida bar. He has not told reporters unsolved mysteries better than Robert Stack 's, like the one about a twister in Omaha that supposedly swept up one of his grammar school teachers and set her down two miles away, or the one about the time his mother, two weeks after she was killed in an auto accident, appeared at the foot of his bed. He has not willingly taken questions, including some in prime time from Barbara Walters , about his four-year affair with mistress Margo Adams , or told reporters that while watching a Geraldo segment on sex addiction, he suddenly realized his affair was the result of that "disease." All of these things he did in Boston.

"I'd heard the same things everybody else had about him," says catcher Mike Stanley , who had a locker next to Boggs's the past three years. (Stanley signed with Boston last month.) "I never once saw anything remotely close to him being selfish or concerned about his own statistics or anything else like that.

He was always focused on what was best for the team."

Says Showalter, "I don't know what happened in Boston. All I know is that he was the consummate pro the past three years. I think what happened in New York was he just tried to do his job and fit in. I think he had had his fill of the other stuff in Boston."

Boggs, who went to high school in Tampa and still makes his home there, with Debbie and their children, Meagann, 17, and Brett, 9, does not admit to intentionally lowering his profile, though he is not nearly as glib as he was in Boston. "I was too cooperative," he says of those days. "I wasn't like Steve Carlton or Mike Greenwell or Roger Clemens . I didn't decide not to talk to the media for a month or two." But he credits his tranquillity in New York more to improved luck than to reduced cooperation.

Speaking of the knife incident, in which, Boggs maintains, some crazed stranger jumped into his backseat simply because his car had Tampa plates, he says, "It was no different than Charles Manson showing up at Sharon Tate 's house. Wrong place, wrong time. It's happened to me.

"The main thing is we had reporters in Boston who looked for something to stir up. They thrived on that. If something happened off the field, it was bigger than what happened on the field. I could go 3 for 4 and slip on an ice cube in the hotel lobby after the game, and they'd write about the ice cube. They all said, 'You'll fit in with the Bronx Zoo. You'll be on the back page.' It never happened. And it wasn't because I changed."

The presence of Don Mattingly , New York's own object of fascination, allowed Boggs to slip into this camouflaged life. Until 1993 the two All-Stars had been respectful rivals but never friends. In '89, for instance, Mattingly laughed wickedly when he heard that Boggs had played through injuries late in that season to reach 200 hits. Mattingly recalled how Boggs had edged him for the '86 batting title by sitting out the final four games to rest a leg muscle. "He did the same thing with Paul Molitor the next year," Mattingly said at the time. "He had minor knee surgery before the end of the season that everybody else would've waited to have after the season."

But Mattingly immediately welcomed Boggs as a teammate. "And when Donnie steps forward to accept somebody," Showalter says, "he's immediately accepted by the whole clubhouse." The two veterans developed a smooth professional relationship, built mostly on their frequent conversations about hitting. "When I came over," Boggs says, "Donnie's walk totals shot up. From watching me in the past, he said he didn't understand why I'd take those 2-and-0 and 2-and-1 pitches and eventually walk. I said, 'A lot of times at 2-and-0 a pitcher gets you to swing at his pitch. You get so anxious, you swing at a ball.' And he said, 'Yeah, I'd look for a fastball and wind up swinging at a forkball."'

Says Mattingly, "Boggsy is the best hitter I've ever seen, day in and day out. I've seen Gwynn a little bit, but this guy is amazing."

When Boggs won his first Gold Glove, it was Mattingly who broke the news to him with a telephone call at 10 minutes to midnight. Mattingly had milked the information from a representative of Rawlings, which sponsors the award, and then asked to deliver the news himself because, says Mattingly, "I knew how much it meant to him."

With Mattingly in semiretirement -- and almost certainly not returning to the Yankees if he does play in 1996 -- much of Boggs's cover is blown. The reporters obligated to keep watch on Mattingly's corner locker will need some other place to go. The younger players and those without New York know-how will need to find another source of leadership. Boggs, the most experienced major leaguer on the team and now a Yankee fixture, will inherit much of that responsibility. What he chooses to do with it is another matter. "If we're in a three-game losing streak and reporters want to know what's wrong with the team," Boggs says, "they shouldn't go to me. Go to [manager] Joe Torre for that. If they want to ask me about something within the game, fine. My locker is always open. But go to the manager for state-of-the-world quotes."

Boggs is only 459 hits short of 3,000, his sacred goal, which at his current pace he would reach during the 1998 season, when he will turn 40. Though he once planned to retire at that age, now he says, "I can go beyond 40." He has 3,500 hits in mind. His swing, a heaven-sent gift, hasn't changed. Nobody keeps the bat flat through the hitting zone longer than he does. And when each workday ends, when he has deposited one or two more hits into his account, he will peel off his sanitary socks -- made by a different company than those worn by his teammates -- and tie them just so in his usual way, so that the clubhouse man knows not to mix them up with the others. Such is the pleasure he has found in New York that his soiled socks are among the greatest of his worries. He has found his comfort zone.

Issue date: January 15, 1996

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