Red Sox Third Baseman Wade Boggs was hitting a lofty .374 two weeks ago when The Boston Globe ran this five-column headline: FOR ALL HIS TOTALS, WADE BOGGS HAS YET TO PROVE HIMSELF IN THE CLUTCH. An accompanying cartoon was captioned: THE TWO SIDES OF WADE BOGGS, and showed Boggs with a big bat resting on his right shoulder, and a baseball falling out of the glove on his left hip.
At the time, Boggs, 25, led the American League or was close to the top in seven offensive categories, including average, hits, runs, on-base percentage and runs produced—all "pluses," the paper conceded—but that didn't excuse his "minuses": 18 errors, only one game-winning RBI and only one home run. "There is no evidence to suggest he is a man you want to send up there in the late innings with men in scoring position," wrote Globe columnist Bob Ryan. "In fact, some people are suggesting he is naught but a glorified Matty Alou. The immortal Matty was the greatest spacer-out of base hits of all time." (Credit Ryan with an extra-base insult, stretching a knock to two players.)
"Last year I had 44 RBIs in a limited time," Boggs points out, citing the 338 at bats in which he set a league record for highest batting average (.349) for a rookie playing 100 or more games. "But early on this season I was putting pressure on myself 'cause I was batting fifth, where you're supposed to drive in runs. And I'd get up with guys on second and third and not drive them in." But that was the exception, not the rule.
Last season Boggs led the Red Sox with a .421 average with men in scoring position and hit .348 from the seventh inning on. And in a recent eight-game stretch following the Globe's criticisms, Boggs got 16 RBIs—including five game winners, three of which were on ninth-inning hits, and three home runs. Through last Sunday, Boggs had 57 RBIs, was batting .360 with runners in scoring position, and had a league-leading .374 average, seven points ahead of California's Rod Carew, who had been the top hitter since May 1.
In his first 200 major league games Boggs has batted .361, one of the most prodigious starts in history. " Wade Boggs is in that elite group of great, great hitters with George Brett [.288 after 200 games] and Rod Carew [.293]," says A's Manager Steve Boros. He might also have mentioned Stan Musial (.327) and Ted Williams (.331).
On the other hand, Baltimore Manager Joe Altobelli said in June, " Boggs wouldn't be anything without the Wall in Fenway." Which just goes to confirm that a glass can be half empty or half full, depending on one's perspective.
"I think he's an excellent hitter," counters Brett. Brett's opinion counts with Boggs, who admits that the Royals' third baseman was his inspiration during his slow, six-season climb through the Red Sox organization. "I've always followed George," Boggs says, "but particularly since 1977. That's because he was a third baseman, hit lefthanded like me, and hit to the opposite field." A disciple of the hitting theories of both Williams ("patience, discipline and a slight upswing") and Charley Lau ("using the whole field, not worrying about home runs"), Boggs accepts as gospel Brett's dictum that home runs come with good mechanics and a relaxed swing, not by trying to hit them.
"We've become very good friends," Brett says of Boggs. "We started talking in the batting cage at Fenway last year, and the next thing you know we were talking an awful lot."
Recently, says Boggs, they talked about the "dominant top hand coming over to put top spin on the ball when you pull it," an action that makes a line drive sink. "George says, I'm trying to do that.' That shocked me," says Boggs, who puts top spin on the ball naturally. "As great a hitter as he is, he was asking me how I did it."
Walt Hriniak, the Sox hitting coach, smiles at this, because Boggs has been working to "correct" that very action. "He's trying to let the left hand come off the bat, like George, so he can get the ball to carry." Boggs thinks it's possible to use one swing for homers and another to hit sinking line drives to right, the way a golfer controls a fade or a draw.