Batting Champ Wade Boggs Hits with a Cool Eye, a Hot Hand and a Resolve to Help His Sister Overcome Illness
06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
To anyone who hits baseballs for a living, failure is what happens most of the time. Look at it this way: The last season any major league player was able to put the ball in play safely even four times in 10, no babies had boomed, only the Navy knew where Pearl Harbor was, and Frank Sinatra was Tommy Dorsey's kid singer. The game has changed since then, and no one may ever do that again. If anyone does, it will be Wade Boggs or someone much like him. The methodical Boston Red Sox third baseman, winner of two American League batting championships in only four years in the majors, hit safely in all but 26 of the 161 games he played in last year, collecting 240 hits—more than anyone in 56 years—and reached base almost as many times as he didn't. Even more telling, he batted .397 with men in scoring position. With a bat in his hand, Wade Boggs was as popular with pitchers as playing Russian roulette with too many bullets.
Now, as another spring turns to summer, Boggs, 27, is hitting closer to .400 than ever—this time with an added incentive. He has dedicated the season to his sister, Ann, 35, who is struggling through rehabilitation following a sudden, crippling attack of multiple sclerosis. The illness began last September with a numbness in the back of her legs. "I didn't think anything of it at first," she recalls. "The weekend had been rainy, and I had spent all Saturday sitting on wet bleachers watching my daughter play ball." But by Monday morning, as the young mother of three drove to the St. Petersburg, Fla. hospital where she worked as a nurse practitioner, she realized she couldn't feel the gas pedal beneath her foot. Within three days she was paralyzed from the neck down.
Arriving at the hospital the night the 1985 baseball season ended, Wade told Ann he would be there for her every day, just as she had always been there for him. "This is not going to get you down," he told her. "Together we're going to make it through." But the toughest time lay ahead. "As bad as it was in the hospital, it was far worse when I got home," Ann says. "The full reality of my illness hit me, and I became very depressed. I remember one really bad night, so bad that Wade sent everyone else out of the room. He took me in his arms and told me it was okay to feel bad and to cry, but that if I stopped trying to get better it would only get worse. He told me that so long as I refused to quit, he knew I could get it all back. He was right. Once I set myself the goal of regaining everything I could, it never again seemed as bad as it did that night."
Stubborn determination and a shatterproof will have been the keys to Wade Boggs's success. He grew up in a loving but regimented household in which dinner was served at exactly the same time every night and in which his father, Win, a career military officer, always insisted his three kids do their best. (Wade's older brother, Wayne, 39, joined the Marines after high school and is now an air traffic controller at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.) Even as a youngster, says his mother, Susan, Wade used to thrive on the demanding routine. "His father taught him how to bat in Puerto Rico at 18 months," says his mother, "and he was so good at it people from all over the base would come to watch him. It seemed like he was born to hit just like some kids are born to play the piano."
But if his ability was a gift from the gods, the talent was refined only through practice—hundreds of swings day after day. "When I was 6, I knew I wanted to be a ball player," says Boggs, "and from the time I was 12 or 13, it became my obsession." Early on he realized that the key to hitting was discipline. "It's what's in the head that really counts," he explains. "That's why I started developing all the rituals I go through every day. It's my way of building a cocoon to put myself in and block out everything else around me."
Boggs's rituals are as well known in Boston as his batting average. On the afternoon of every night game he arrives at the park at 3 p.m. At 4, making sure not to step on the foul line while walking onto the diamond, he fields exactly 150 ground balls. Then, at precisely 5:17, he steps into the cage for his batting practice. "Sevens and seven-teens seem to work for me," he says. Afterward he returns to the clubhouse until 7:17, when he runs his wind sprints in the outfield. During the game, each time Boggs steps into the batter's box he draws the Hebrew sign Chai with his foot. And before he even comes to the park, he eats only chicken to bring him his hits. In 1983, when he won his first batting championship, it was lemon chicken that did it. In 1984 it was chicken cacciatore, and last year it was barbecued chicken. This season, uncharacteristically, he has been sampling a varied menu of chicken du jour. "People think Wade's superstitions are funny," says Ann, "but it's not that he really believes in all of them. Taken together, they are part of a deliberate process he goes through to focus his mental and physical energy. They are the weapons he uses to maintain control at the plate."
Boggs at bat is a picture of intelligent watchfulness. With his slightly closed stance and his bat upright, he brings to bear such concentrated attention that he seems to dominate the plate. "The main question in hitting," he says, "is who's in control, the pitcher or the batter. From the moment the game begins, I watch the pitcher's every move. Even when he starts warming up, I watch to see what he's trying to work on, whether he's getting his breaking ball over. I can tell by looking in his eyes or from his whole body language how he's feeling that day, and then I prepare myself.
"Once I'm in the box, I settle in for as long as it takes to get a hit. I'm a firm believer that the more pitches you see the better your chances. I never let myself get up there and simply swing away. It's not an accident that more than half of my hits last year came with two strikes, because I'm determined to stay in there until I get the pitch /want. The tease the pitcher puts up is a pitch that looks good to hit, and may even be a strike on the outside corner, but it's Ms pitch. The trick is to hold out, to take the first strike and even the second, waiting for the pitcher to make a mistake—which he is bound to do, sooner or later."
Boggs's critics carp that he doesn't hit enough home runs, though at his present pace he could hit a career high of 15 or 20 this season. Boggs says he is learning to pull the ball for more power but won't try to play beyond his ability. "My goal is to hit the ball as hard and as consistently as I can," he says. "Too many players lose it all when they reach for the home run." Baseball legend Ted Williams agrees. "Boggs is as smart a hitter as I've ever seen," he says. "The next five or six years will tell the tale, but if he keeps up like he's going now, he stands to be one of the greatest hitters of all time."
Boggs is aiming for that kind of greatness, and his dedication to hitting is total. He is convinced that if he works hard enough, he can capture the batting title year after year, and he isn't coy about wanting to have it. "It's something no one can ever take away from you," he says. "It's the one tangible statistic that proves you are the best." But his hunger for achievement goes further. Every time he comes to the plate, he is goaded by the near-impossible dream of recording the highest lifetime batting average in major-league history. His own, at the beginning of the season, was .351, 16 points shy of Ty Cobb, 7 behind Rogers Hornsby. These are formidable ghosts, but Boggs is not a competitor who looks for small challenges.
Nor, in her illness, is Ann. Through a strenuous program of physical therapy, she has regained the use of her arms and the limited use of her legs. Yet she knows she may never return to her work as a nurse. She has lost coordination in her hands and feeling in her fingers, and she realizes that multiple sclerosis is a disease of relapses. So she has set a new goal for herself. She plans to go back to school to become a counselor for the mentally retarded and the physically handicapped. "Thank God," she says, "that my brain is still fine. If I can focus the limited physical energy I have left on my school work and then bring this experience to bear on my new career, I am convinced I can become a really great counselor." She is her brother's sister, and nothing less will suffice.