The cocoon is woven daily from the delicate threads of nutrition, habit, discipline and superstition. When the minutiae are completed and he has eaten his chicken, left his Maiden apartment, taken his ground balls, meditated, concluded his methodical batting practice, run his wind sprints and approached his position with Greenwich Mean Time precision, then—and only then—is Wade Boggs prepared to do what he does quite unlike anyone else.
"In my cocoon, I can eliminate distractions and variables and shut out the entire world except for me and the pitcher," explains Boggs. "I don't like surprises. I face enough of the unexpected when I'm hitting, I don't need any others. Some people laugh at me, just like they laughed at me in the minors when I carried my own game bats because I didn't want them in with the others picking up bad habits." Teammates once marveled at Ted Williams, too, for taking his bats to the post office and weighing them to see if condensation had added an extra fraction of an ounce.
Wade Boggs's good habits have brought him two of the last three American League batting championships and the seventh-highest average (.351) after four years for any player in the history of baseball; no other player who broke in after Pearl Harbor averaged better than .330 after his first four years. Last season he had more hits (240) than any man since Babe Herman in 1930 and reached base more times (340) in one year than everyone except Williams, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Because of double-play balls, strikeouts and other unclutch performances by his teammates, Boggs also broke a record (previously held by Ruth) for reaching base the most times without scoring (233). In his three full seasons as a regular, Boggs has averaged 217 hits, 92 walks and 50 extra base hits. Let those who try to demean him by calling him a bases-empty, two-out Pete Runnels singles hitter consider this: Boggs has a lifetime .374 average with runners in scoring position.
But nearly everywhere Boggs went this spring, the first question he was asked was, "When will you hit more home runs?" (The second question was usually, "How can a singles hitter justify earning $1.35 million a year?") "What's new?" he says with a shrug. "My first full year in pro ball I was hitting .330 and a Boston batting coach told me I'd never make the big leagues hitting like that." The Major League Scouting Bureau tabbed him as a non-prospect in his senior year in high school. In 1980, after he lost the International League batting championship by .0005, he was left unprotected by the Red Sox, and was unclaimed by the other 25 teams, who could have had him for a mere $25,000. In February of this year, he took a lot of grief for asking for $1.85 million in arbitration—he had to settle for $1.35 million—but in his own mind, "I was forced to go to arbitration and be told I'm a one-dimensional player because I don't hit home runs, when all I wanted was to sign a three-year contract with an assurance I can stay in the city in which I want to play my entire career." Like an eccentric artist, he plunges forward with his motto: The key to success is overcoming adversity," he says. "And I best confront adversity in my cocoon."
As Boggs batted .368 last season, adversity often took the form of two strikes. More than half (124) of his 240 hits came with two strikes, and he batted an astounding .390 after starting off 0 and 2. No wonder Williams says, "Boggs may have the best hand-eye coordination of anyone I've ever seen." But what it takes to get Boggs to the plate to hit is even more remarkable.
At home in Boston, where Boggs has batted a mere .383 lifetime and in 1985 hit .418, the routine begins at 2 p.m. when Wade, wife Debbie and 7-year-old daughter Meagann sit down for the daily chicken dinner. "My stomach always required mild foods, so I was eating chicken three or four times a week in 1977 when I was playing in Winston-Salem," he says. "I noticed that I always seemed to hit best after chicken. So I started having Debbie fix it every day." When Boggs is home for a two-week stand, he eats on a 14-day, 13-recipe rotation because he insists on lemon chicken once a week. He has eaten lemon chicken weekly ever since he went 7 for 9 in a doubleheader in his rookie season after consuming same. The recipe can be found in Fowl Tips, the chicken cookbook he and Debbie wrote two years ago.
According to Wade, "Some kids wouldn't have liked growing up in a military household, but it was the greatest thing that happened to me." His father, Win, was in the Marines in World War II. After being mustered out in 1946 he worked at a variety of jobs until joining the Air Force at the outset of the Korean War. He served until 1967. Today he's retired. The military life left its imprint on young Wade. "Dinner was always at 5:30, and if you weren't home at 5:30, you didn't eat," he says. "So you learned to always know where the clocks were in your friends' houses, and to this day I always notice clocks. I woke up at precisely the same time every day for 18 years. If I woke up, say, 30 minutes late, I was out of sync all day. From the time I was small, my pet peeve was being rushed, so I left for school at exactly the same time every day." Debbie knows full well that he also went to bed at the same time every night: On their first date, when her car broke down half a mile from his house, he got out, said good-night and ran home, leaving her stranded. "It was 15 minutes past his appointed bedtime," she says. Win recalls that back in Little League, Wade was so particular about his bats that he couldn't find one to his liking off the rack in sporting goods stores; he had to rummage through the stock rooms until he found bats with the right feel.
When all of his high school teammates switched over to aluminum bats, Wade refused for two reasons: "I'd hit with wood since I was four years old, and they don't use aluminum in the big leagues."
Boggs leaves his apartment at three every game day. "That way it's almost always between 3:10 and 3:15 when I walk in the door of the clubhouse," he says. He sits down in front of his locker at precisely 3:30 and begins to get undressed. He takes his first dip of smokeless tobacco, checks his game bats—one for right-handed pitchers, a slightly thicker handle for lefthanders. At 4:00 he goes to the dugout and sits down. At 4:10 he warms up his arm, usually with coach Joe Morgan, and between 4:15 and 4:20 he trots to his position at third base to take ground balls for 20 to 25 minutes. As that part of practice ends he steps in order on the third-, second- and first-base bags, steps on the baseline (when he goes to his position each inning, he steps over the line), takes two steps in the coach's box and lopes to the dugout in exactly four steps. Because he always goes to the first-base dugout via those four steps, they are clearly visible on the Fenway sod by August. Boggs has a drink of water and jogs to centerfield for what he calls meditation. "I like to focus in on who's pitching, what he, the catcher, the manager and the defense are likely to try to do with me, who's available in the bullpen—everything I'm going to face. It's nothing more than preparation. Then I'm ready to take batting practice."