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.