No. 52: Wade Boggs
I’m always amazed by people who can see beyond convention. Great comedians do this. They find ways to step out from the simple comforts of every day life and see something that should be obvious to everyone (and BECOMES obvious once they say it). There are obviously countless examples of this, but I always loved George Carlin’s small line about getting on a plane. It’s a tiny joke, somewhere around 10,000th on the list of his great thoughts, but it’s instructive.
Flight attendant tells me to get on the plane. I say, “Uh uh lady, I’m getting IN the plane.”
So obvious, right? But until I heard that joke, I never once thought about the absurdity of saying “get on a plane.” Why do we say “get on a plane?” We don’t get on a car or motorhome. We do get on a train or on a bus. We don’t get on a house or room. Getting in a truck and getting on a truck are two different things. It’s the smallest thing, but it make so little sense. And yet, we just keep going, saying it that way because it’s just so much easier to along than to question every little thing. Questioning gets exhausting.
More in our world, Bill James has spent a lifetime challenging convention. Bill is a good friend of mine, and he has given me a lot of insight into how he does this: He simply doesn’t believe almost anything at first blush. If I say to him something that I find obvious in sports, in music, in science, in life, there’s at least a 50-50 chance he will challenge the contention even if the point was something else entirely. He doesn’t do this to be difficult; it is simply how his mind works.
When other people just nodded at the cliche “pitching is 90 percent of baseball,” his mind simply blew up. His takedown of that absurdity is one of the most famous in baseball writing. But he’s like that ALL THE TIME. When people say these days, “every team wins 50 games and loses 50 games, so it’s the other 62 that make all the difference” his mind blows up again. He simply cannot stand lazy things. Wrong thinking — if it’s really thinking — is fine. Lazy thinking: No.
Another of Bill’s most famous takedowns was the Ryne Sandberg-Mark Grace indignation. At the time, Grace seemed every manager’s dream No. 2 hitter — he almost never struck out, he hit for high average, he handled the bat, he was a hit-and-run maestro, and he didn’t hit with a lot of power. This for many people around baseball is the definition of what you want in the No. 2 spot.
Sandberg, meanwhile, seemed every manager’s dream No. 3 hitter. He hit for decent average, hit with good of power, could drive in them runs.
And yet, at their peaks for the Cubs, Sandberg hit second and Grace hit third.
Why? Bill explained it simply: Sandberg was a second baseman. Grace was a first baseman. Second baseman are supposed to be No. 2 hitters. First baseman are supposed to be No. 3 hitters. That simple.
This is the blind circle we so often find ourselves in. It’s part of being human. The world is so complicated (forget the universe) that there are habits and traditions and codes that are easier to hold on to than change. In baseball, teams have long had a sense of what players at every position are supposed to do. This was more true 25 or 30 years ago, before everyone at every position started hitting, but it’s still somewhat true now:
First baseman: Power hitter, fielding optional.
Second baseman: Good fielder, hitting optional.
Shortstop: Good fielder, scrappy, leader, hitting optional.
Third baseman: Strong arm, quick reflexes, low average, moderate-to-good power.
Left fielder: Good hitter, offers great power or great speed, weak arm.
Center fielder: Often best player on team, sometimes good fielder and weak hitter.
Right fielder: Good hitter, great arm.
Catcher: Great arm, lots of leadership, an occasional home run.
Take a look at third baseman again. Think about those traits. When you see the perfect third baseman in your mind, who do you see? Schmidt with his compact swing, as perfect as a short right hook? Brett turning on a Goose Gossage fastball? Brooksie diving to his right and throwing off-balance? Mathews hitting another titanic home run?
And now ask: Where does Wade Boggs fit in that picture?
* * *
Wade Boggs was a singular baseball player. Because of this, almost nobody really got him. He couldn’t run. He had almost no home run power. He lacked the natural grace of a promising defender. From the start, he was destines to be … not so much overlooked as misunderstood. The Red Sox never quite got him. The fans never quite got him. In a way, people still don’t.
It began with being overlooked. Boggs expected to be a first round pick after he hit .455 at his Tampa high school. Instead, he was taken in the seventh round — the same round as Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith, neither who signed because they were taken so low. Boggs did sign for five grand, He had furious determination to prove all those scouts wrong.
His first full year, in Winston Salem, he was hitting around .330 when a Red Sox roving instructor told him: “You’ll never made it to Boston hitting like that.” He ended ht year hitting .332 with a .423 on-base percentage. He spent the next two years in Class AA doing more or less the same. He then spent two more years in Class AAA doing more or less the same thing. As he would say, he might have been the only player in the last 50 years or longer who battled for five consecutive minor league batting titles.
The Red Sox just couldn’t see the major leaguer in him. All he did was slice and chop and poke at the ball. He kept working for walks. If he had been a speedy second baseman like Rod Carew, maybe he would have made sense to somebody. If he had been an athletic outfielder like Tony Gwynn, maybe he would made made sense to somebody. Instead he was this awkward looking third baseman who refused to swing for fences. And it looked like he never would.
So Wade Boggs was left to smolder in the minors for five full seasons even while he posted .400 on-base percentages and developed his mastery of the strike zone.
When he was called up in 1982, he was a finished product. In part-time duty, he was hitting .380 in mid-September when a rough final two weeks dropped his final average to .349. Still, no first-year player in 50 years had hit .340 or better (in 300 or more plate appearances). The next year he had a remarkable season hitting .361/.444/.486 and was probably the second-best player in the American League behind MVP Cal Ripken.
Or, anyway, that’s the way we might look back on it. Was that how he was viewed at the time? No. The Boston Globe ran a story under the headline: “For All his Totals, Wade Boggs Has Yet To Prove Himself In the Clutch.”
Bob Ryan was pretty direct in his column.
“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,” Ryan wrote. “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.”
Whether or not Bob was fair to Alou — who hit .333 from 1967 to 1969 when more or less NOBODY hit for average — he missed the hitting genius of Boggs, who unlike Alou, walked a ton and hit for extra base power even if he didn’t hit home runs. At the time, Boggs’ .444 on-base percentage was the highest ever for a second year player (Frank Thomas has since passed the mark). Boggs also hit .364 with runners in scoring position that year and .373 in high-leverage situations, so as John Updike once wrote of Ted Williams, Boggs was no slouch in the clutch. Such statistics were not easily accessible then so a story built around Boggs, a story he never quite shook, a story that suggested because he didn’t hit for power and didn’t have a lot of RBIs that he was not all that valuable.
Put it this way: Boggs never received a first-place MVP vote. Not one. We often talk about the best players who never won an MVP. Boggs probably has a lock on best player to never even receive one MVP first-place vote.
In 1985, he hit an astonishing .368/.450/.478. He didn’t get a first place vote. Don Mattingly won the MVP award though Boggs might have had a better year.
In 1986, he hit .357/.453/.486 for a pennant-winning Red Sox team … he didn’t get a first place vote. His teammate Jim Rice got FOUR first place votes that year though Boggs almost certainly had the better season.
In 1987, Boggs hit .363 with a .461 on-base percentage and that year, for fun, he added some power. He hit 24 homers and slugged .588. He led all every day players in WAR, though nobody knew that then. He finished ninth in the MVP voting. No first place vote.
In 1988, Boggs hit .366/.476/.490, led the league in doubles and runs and intentional walks, This time he led everyone — pitchers, hitters, everyone — in WAR in both leagues. Jose Canseco won the MVP award unanimously.
He was just a wildly unusual player whose skills often baffled all of us. Then again, Boggs was a baffling player on his own. He was the son of a marine, and discipline was his power. There was his great plate discipline, of course, But he carries his discipline to bizarre extremes. Before every game, he famously ate chicken. Jim Rice dubbed him “Chicken Man.”
He was militant about time. Boggs left home for the ballpark at precisely 3 p.m. He sat down at his locker at precisely 3:30. He walked into the dugout and sat down at precisely 4. He warmed up his arm at 4:10 and went to take 117 ground balls beginning sometime between 4:15 and 4:20 (the precision of the 117 ground balls seemed to mollify his need for an exact starting time).
He wanted to take batting practice at 5:17 p.m. when possible. He always went to run sprints at 7:17. This sprint-time was so well known that Bobby Cox, to mess with his mind, once had the scoreboard operator in Toronto make the clock jump from 7:16 to 7:18. Before every at bat, he would draw a Hebrew “Chai” — meaning life — in the batter’s box.
These kinds of maniacal superstitions made Boggs seem like a creature from outer space — as did the Margo Adams affair, which made a lot of news back in the late 1980s. The other great pure hitter of the time, Tony Gwynn, seemed so much more accessible. Gwynn didn’t get much more MVP love than Boggs, but he got a little more and people generally adored him.
Boggs, meanwhile, led the league in on-base percentage five years in a row, but said that wherever he went people asked him when he would hit more home runs. When he signed a big contract, it was wildly unpopular in many circles — why should a SINGLES hitter get paid that much? (Boggs hit 578 doubles in his career too, though that tended to get overlooked). In a baseball culture that tended to worship at the alter of batting average, Boggs’ high averages were somehow held against him … as if ALL he ever did was hit for average.
It is true that Boggs was, in many ways, a creature of Fenway Park. He never hid from that — rather, he embraced it. He knew Fenway better than anyone, understood its dimensions inch by inch, knew exactly how to hit a pop-fly off the monster and how hard he had to yank a pitch to get it over the short fence down the right field line. He played Fenway the way Clapton played guitar. In a career, he hit .369 at Fenway and slugged .527 there.
After he left Boston, he was older and not often the same great hitter (though he did hit .342/.433/.489 in 92 games for the Yankees in the strike shortened 1994 season). But he suddenly gained some of the respect that was denied him when he was perhaps the best player in the league. He gained some respect for his defense and won his first two Gold Gloves as a 36 and 37 year old. He also won his first and only World Series with the Yankees in 1996.
It’s not exactly right to say Boggs was underrated. He certainly did not lack for attention or fame or money or even respect. Heck, he was elected as the starting third baseman to 11 straight All-Star Games.
It was more like he never quite fit the eye. It took the Red Sox five years to call him up, I think, because they just couldn’t quite fit him into their conventional idea of what a third baseman was supposed to look like. And, in a way, I’m not sure that ever really changed. Boggs was a first-ballot Hall of Famer — 3,000 hits will usually get you here — but I recall when he was elected hearing from a lot of people saying, “Well, he was a good player, but was Wade Boggs really a great player?”
Hell yes, he was a great player. He did perhaps the greatest thing a hitter can do for a team. He refused to make outs. He didn’t get on the plane. He got in the plane.