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.
April 14, 1986
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."
Boggs even leaves a small block of time for television interview requests so that when it's about time for him to take infield he'll be able to perform his ritual of standing in the runway and throwing the ball against the wall for five minutes. He runs his wind sprints at 7:17—when Bobby Cox was managing Toronto, he tried to foul up Boggs's routine one day by having the Exhibition Stadium clock go from 7:16 to 7:18. When Boggs gets to the on-deck circle in the bottom of the first inning, he arranges the pine tar, doughnut and resin, then applies them, in that order. When he gets to the batter's box, he draws the Hebrew letter Chai.
"Almost every hitter has a routine as he gets into the box," Boggs says. "Pete Rose. George Foster. Carlton Fisk. Yaz. Mine has evolved from Little League on through the minors, part by design, part born of superstition, but mine's the same as theirs—only it takes a little more than 5½ hours." With that, Wade Boggs is prepared to do the one thing he's always liked to do best.
As a junior at H.B. Plant High in Tampa, Boggs was the best hitter in Florida, batting .522 with eight homers and 41 RBIs in 20 games. "For the first time in Wade's life, he took something for granted," says Win. "He thought it would be the same the next year. But I told him they'd pitch around him." After 10 games of his senior year, Wade was in the first slump of his life: 4 for 36. The morning after the 10th game, Win Boggs went to the Tampa Public Library and checked out Ted Williams's The Science of Hitting. That was a Friday. When Wade came home from practice in the afternoon, he was handed the book. "By Tuesday I want you to read this entire book," Win told him. "I don't mean thumb through it. Study it." To Debbie's consternation, Wade did just that. He canceled their Saturday night date and studied the book all weekend. "I realized I'd forgotten patience at the plate," Wade recalls. By Tuesday he had digested the entire book. In his last 11 games, he went 26 for 33 and finished at .485. When the draft rolled around on June 9, he waited to see if he would be picked—as he hoped—in the first round.
"There were a lot of people who liked him because he was a great hitter," says Red Sox scout George Digby, "but the Scouting Bureau representative came down, watched him for one game and graded him a 25, which on their scale of 20 to 80 is about 13 points below the minimal level for a player to be drafted. The Dodgers and Reds liked him, but they backed off because they said he couldn't run. I just kept telling [then Boston scouting director] Haywood Sullivan, 'Draft Boggs somewhere. Hitters like him don't come along often.' " Sullivan selected Boggs in the seventh round.
"I was crushed," Boggs says. He had alternatives because he was an honor student and an all-state punter, and he had a two-scholarship offer to the University of South Carolina. But when Digby came to the house the next day and offered seventh-round money—$7,500—Boggs took all of five minutes to sign. "I knew what I wanted," he says. "I knew the other scouts were wrong." Two days later he was on his way to Elmira, N.Y.
It was in the 70-game New York-Penn League season that Boggs batted under .300 for the only time in his life; playing in 57 games he hit a mere .263 with six extra base hits. He also made 16 errors. That winter he and Debbie were married, and he hasn't seen the downside of .306 since. The next four years he hit .332, .311, .325 and .306 in A, AA and AAA. (In the majors, he has hit .349, .361, .325 and .368.) But at the end of the '80 season the Red Sox chose not to put Boggs on the 40-man roster and made a trade with California for third baseman Carney Lansford. To make Boggs's winter even more miserable, no club took a chance on him for $25,000.
The next spring Boggs asked Morgan, at the time his manager on the Red Sox farm team at Pawtucket, R.I., what he had to do to make the big leagues. "Not many clubs are looking for a third baseman who is below average defensively, can't run and doesn't hit for power," replied Morgan. "You'll have to show more power." Boggs thanked Morgan for his honesty and resolved to work 20 minutes a day in the field, and half an hour on driving the ball for power. He has driven himself ever since. Says Morgan today, "Boggs has always been able to evaluate what he needs to do to make himself better and do it." Defense? He has led AL third basemen in total chances over his three full seasons and has put himself into the class of Doug DeCinces and George Brett. He has excellent hands, an accurate arm and an exceptional ability to initiate the 5-4-3 double play. Speed? "I always accepted that you can either run or you can't," says Boggs. "But one day during the winter after the '82 season a couple of local track coaches watched me running, and one of them said, 'Hey, you run all wrong. You run heel-toe. Run on the balls of your feet.' They showed me a program." Boggs took their advice, bought an inner tube, attached it with a rubber strap to a wall in his basement and, with the inner tube around his midriff, practiced running against the tension of the strap every day before going over to the high school to hit with the team. He now is regularly clocked to first base in a respectable 4.15 seconds. Morgan says, "He used to be one of the worst baserunners I'd ever seen. Now he's one of the best we have." Bad body? After the '82 season Boggs began a weight and conditioning program. "You looked like you were 27 going on 37 when you were 21," Morgan told him this spring. "Now you're 27 and you look 21."
In an aside, the coach said, "I used to hear players call him a 'nut' in the minors. [Now] Boggs is a millionaire and they're...."