HITTING THEIR STRIDE : Boggs, Once a Boring Hitter, Is Living More Dangerously
As he pitches batting practice to the Boston Red Sox, Bill Fischer feels like Igor, the aide to Dr. Frankenstein, who watched a monster as it was created a bit and a piece at a time.
For three years, Fischer has watched Wade Boggs recreate himself. Now the Wadester or the Boggman is almost ready to erupt.
When Fischer arrived, Boggs was still a purist, a fanatic about hitting nothing but line drives.
“He’d even get furious if he hit a liner in batting practice that had the wrong spin,” says Fischer. “He hated those top-spinners that dove.” As for fly balls: totally anathema.
A man who eats chicken before every game, sits in the same spot in the dugout before every at-bat and crosses the foul line at precisely the same minute each evening is clearly a perfectionist, a person who wants to control every situation and eliminate surprise.
In his early days, Boggs may have been the most boring man in baseball--proof that almost any quality, taken to its apotheosis, can become fascinating and approximate a virtue.
Studying him at bat was like watching a computer purr. He’d swing at a first pitch, or a bad pitch, once a week and pop up to the infield once a month.
Even with two strikes, he was, statistically, twice as likely to get a hit as to strike out because of his compact, almost defensive swing. He’d rather demoralize than demolish. For every hit, he’d make just as many loud outs. For him, a bad swing was a slump and a soft out a cause for revenge.
Yet, with the years, Boggs has learned to dream of living dangerously. A bit at a time, he’s turning slugger--an idea so contrary to his nature that some doubt he’ll ever execute it.
“There’s no question that Boggs hits the ball farther and harder than Jim Rice or Dwight Evans or Don Baylor,” says the old pitching coach Fischer. “He has titanic power that he hasn’t shown yet. But he will. He regularly hits the ball onto the roof in Chicago and into the waterfalls in Kansas City. He’ll hit 10 home runs in one round of batting practice. He’d win any home-run contest he ever entered.”
How many homers could Boggs hit?
“As many as he wants.”
“He outdistances any of us,” says Baylor, who has 330 career homers. “It’s not close. He has great arm extension, and he finishes very high--just like a golfer who hits it 300 yards. Look above his locker. Two pictures. One of extension, one of a high finish. Until you see it every day, you don’t realize how strong he is. It seems like he can hit it as far as he wants to. Yet he never loses his form. His head isn’t flying out like a pull hitter.
“Boggs can be the one slugger who can also hit .350 to .370.”
Since no such Ultimate Weapon has existed in baseball since Ted Williams, it would be extremely wise to require Boggs to do these things before giving him credit for them. Nonetheless, signs and omens are at hand.
In his first five seasons, Boggs hit only 32 homers in 2,778 at-bats--about one a month. Of course, he did manage to bat .352--the fourth-highest mark in history behind Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Last winter, facing arbitration, the Red Sox told Boggs they couldn’t pay a $2-million-a-year type contract to a singles hitter. Boggs told them, “Bat me third” instead of leadoff, and watch the home runs fly.
The Red Sox believed him. They also suspected he might never hit those home runs unless he was properly paid for them in advance. This is an enormously proud man who spent six wasted years in the minor leagues--during which he never missed a batting title by more than four points in any year. Yet he never got a shot at playing in Fenway Park. Seems unbelievable now; but it’s fresh as yesterday to Boggs.
“Nobody can take a batting title away from me. You don’t vote for that. There are no (front-office) politics,” Boggs says, tight-lipped under his red mustache. “You have to work hard for everything you get in this life, but you don’t always get what you deserve. . . . If I’m obsessed with being the best, then it’s because I don’t want anybody to take anything away from me.”
So the Red Sox carved out a contract Boggs could love. And as soon as the opportunity presented itself, Manager John McNamara moved Boggs into the third hole--residence of Williams, Babe Ruth and their kin. No more leadoff man.
Since then, Boggs has batted .390 with 40-home-run power. It’s almost as though he’d been so hurt and squelched at Pawtucket and Bristol that he refused to provide services until they were paid in full. Or maybe it just took him until he was 29 to put all the bolts in his neck and screws in his forehead.
Going into Friday night’s game at Kansas City, Boggs was hitting .371 with 18 homers. That projects to the old Boggs, but with a new gland. “Yes, I can keep hitting home runs, if I keep deciding to hit fly balls,” he says. “But fly balls are also outs. Line drives are hits.”
In other words, Boggs will hit home runs just as long as it doesn’t detract from his image: The Man Who Really Might Hit .400.
The Wadester may be coming, but not without a price in personality adjustment. Boggs wants it all. No wasted motion or emotion. No slumps, flaws or vulnerability.
When he recently went 0 for 11, including 0 for 6 in one game, some turned to the Book of Revelations. Sure enough, there it was. One of the portents for the end of the world.
The next day, Boggs shaved his full beard, months in the growing, and immediately wracked up a double, a triple and a disabled pitcher in his next game. “One inch to the right and it would’ve missed his pitching hand,” said Boggs, ever sympathetic, “and I’d have had a hit.”
To others, Boggs’ evolution is a drama. To him, it’s just evolution. “This is a man who does not shun a day’s work,” says McNamara.
“He’s made himself into a great third baseman,” says Coach Johnny Pesky. “Those plays he made in the World Series last fall were typical of what he’s been doing for two years--turning plays that would make Clete Boyer or Brooks Robinson proud. . . . He’s worth every bleeping cent they pay him. He was born with a great talent, and he’s developed all of it.”
“He’s such a competitor and has such great work habits that he just keeps getting better at everything,” says Baylor. “Every young player should watch Boggs and (Don) Mattingly.”
At times, the game seems utterly simple to Boggs. Two books sit on his coffee table at home. “My Turn at Bat,” by Williams, and “The Art of Hitting .300,” by the late Charlie Lau.
The first governs Boggs’ head, preaching patience, selectiveness, study of pitchers’ habits and the need to wait until the last instant. The second is his guide to modern batting mechanics. Lau’s best disciple, Walt Hriniak, is Boston’s batting coach, so Boggs stays close to the source.
Finally, Boggs’ father was a reknowned fast-pitch softball player in Florida, so the little boy had to master the quick inside-out swing needed to hit a 100-mph pitch from just 45 feet away.
Add to this Boggs’ 20-10 eyesight--the same one-in-a-million score that brought Williams so much pride--and you have a man suited to unique feats. No wonder Boggs can shrug and say, “Everybody asks me ‘why’ about everything. I have no idea. I see it. I swing. I hit it.
“People want one secret. They want to say, ‘It’s like this.’ Well, it’s not ‘pass go and automatically collect $200.’ Hitting is never the same two days in a row. It’s intangibles, so many intangibles. Is the wind blowing in? Where are they pitching you? With me, it’s here, there and everywhere. Never a pattern. Where is the defense? Some play me to pull, some play me away. If there were one way (to hit), then everybody would be great. . . .
“Sometimes you have a fight at home and go 0 for 4. Next day, it’s patched up and you go 4 for 4. . . . Don’t say luck doesn’t matter. No matter how much you prepare, you can’t eliminate luck. A perfect swing can be a line drive right at somebody, and an imperfect swing can be a bloop hit. . . . I had 12 diving catches made against me in one week early this year. Daryl Boston dove four rows into the seats to take a home run away from me. . . . You lose far more hits than you get.”
And what if he could leave aside those thoughts of silver bats and, perhaps, a .400 season? Boggs may be working on that project as we speak.
“I bat too many times a year to hit .400,” he says. “I’d like to hit once a week--like the NFL, where you play 16 games. The day I play 120 games in a season is when I’ll have a chance to hit .400.”
Thus, Boggs has moved the quest for .400 into a late-career holding pattern. “Rest when you’re tired, take care of your injuries,” he says, fantasizing about the joys of baseball old age. “Especially, miss that tough left-hander who can bring you down for three or four days afterward.”
Entering this season, only three pitchers have had any success with him. Don Sutton (6 for 31), Matt Young (1 for 19) and Dan Quisenberry (2 for 19). In other words, one right-hander, one left-hander and one submariner. “I guess maybe they’re the select few of each group,” says Boggs, laughing.
Much bemuses Boggs, who is not given to the outright laugh. Those who try to search out all the obscure records that he breaks particularly amuse him. He calls them “fossil-hunters.”
When did a major leaguer last have 240 hits before Boggs did it in 1985? Answer: 1930. Who last had 200 hits and 100 walks in the same year before Boggs did it in 1986? Answer: Stan Musial, 1953.
When the proper fossil is unearthed, his name is usually Tris Speaker or somebody else who gets his fan mail forwarded to Cooperstown. So far, wherever Boggs has gone, someone has trod before. “I have not broken any new ground,” he says.
Nonetheless, you get the feeling that he expects to explore the uncharted before he’s finished. “I want to be the best,” Boggs says, leaving his time frame vague. “That is the bottom line. That’s what drives me.”
With that, he heads back to the batting cage to add a stitch here or there. Fischer, who once set a major league record of going 84 innings without walking a man, lays pitch after pitch right where Boggs wants. The line drives crash off Fenway’s walls and fences.
When one pitch is low, breaking Boggs’s concentration, Fischer apologizes. Behind the cage, McNamara and Hriniak observe every pitch closely--a support system if they should be needed. The wind blows in, hard enough to make the flag snap. “Last one,” says Fischer.
Boggs uncoils, and the ball bores its way through the wind--over the right-center field fence, over the bullpen and well into the bleachers, an easy 420 feet. Boggs doesn’t notice, walks away taking it completely for granted.
But it makes you wonder.