Wade Boggs: All Is Forgiven

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The retirement of #26 has come with mixed reactions from the Boston Red Sox fan base. Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was certainly an excellent player, but his departure and his behavior, before and after that departure, left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths. Dan Ennis looks at Boggs’ history on and off the field and decides that it’s time to forgive and embrace the third baseman.

The announcement that the Red Sox will retire Wade Boggs’s number on Thursday, May 26, 2016, has already generated fond remembrances of “The Chicken Man.” Heck, they’ll sell out the game that night — against the Rockies no less — and all will be forgiven (unless you’re really into Brock Holt). But what about the NYPD Horse, the Rays cap, the alleged racism, the Margo Adams Affair, the 107 beers, and Boggs being Wade Boggs?

The NYPD Horse? Who among us would not jump onto a police horse if offered the chance. Some of us have done so even when not offered the chance. Was Boggs, at that point well and truly a member of the New York Yankees, supposed to retreat to the clubhouse and refuse to celebrate his team’s 1996 World Series? In 1995 Mo Vaughn jumped onto a police horse at Fenway to celebrate a mere division title in a watered-down AL East. We can forgive Boggs the NYPD Horse.

The Rays Cap? The rumor was that the Devil Rays (that was what they were called back in the day) had offered Boggs, who played his final two years in Tampa, a cool million to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame wearing a Rays cap. There was mild outrage, the contention being that Boggs’s Cooperstown plaque should feature the headgear of the Red Sox (eleven years) or Yankees (five years, one ring). I don’t blame the Devil Rays — as a history-challenged expansion team, they were trying to create mystique by appropriating the icons of other franchises (they retired Don Zimmer’s number, for God’s sake). Many Hall of Famers make idiosyncratic cap choices. Greg Maddux went into the Hall with a dorky blank cap. Babe Ruth probably would have gone into the Hall as a Boston Brave if Emil Fuchs had offered him a pile of money and a lifetime supply of hot dogs. Ruth despised Fuchs, but Ruth liked money.

The racism thing? In 2012 former Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd claimed that when they were teammates Boggs used racial epithets around the clubhouse. Boggs denied it. If you are a Red Sox fan old enough to recall that era, you probably loved The Can. One part Dizzy Dean, one part pre-suck Rick Porcello, the skinny righty looked like he enjoyed every pitch. Boyd was so charming and so quotable that nobody worried that he got his nickname because he drank a lot. What if in small-town Mississippi, from which Boyd hailed, they’d called beer “beer” instead of “oil”?  If he’d been called “Beer Can Boyd” alarms would have gone off and we might have avoided the heartache of watching the pitcher lose his career to substance abuse (Boyd claimed to have spent the the 1986 season on crack). One has to question Boyd’s credibility.

Left: Wade Boggs. Right: Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd

The Margo Adams Affair? A professional baseball player was cheating on his wife during road trips! Even in the 1980’s this was old news. In Ball Four (1970), Jim Bouton had informed a scandalised public that “Beaver Shooting” was the number one ballplayer distraction on road trips. A decade later, Steve Garvey, baseball’s “Mr. Clean,” commenced a spectacular run of infidelity that culminated in ugly publicity over out-of-wedlock children. Margo Adams went public in 1988, and she suggested that most of the Red Sox were sleeping around on the road, and thus came some team dissention. In a juicy detail, Boggs reportedly took indiscrete photos of his teammates so as to inoculate against blackmail. The Chicken Man supposedly codenamed this clandestine surveillance project “Delta Force,” which is about the most eighties codename he could have come up with.

The 107 beers? That astounding number is a recent embellishment of a story that is over a decade old. Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson gave a radio interview in 2004 and casually mentioned that Boggs had been capable of downing “50 or 60 beers” on a cross-country flight. In 2006, Boggs addressed the story (which had expanded the number to 64 beers), and did allow that “it was a few.” In 2015 Boggs upped the number to 107 in an aside to actor Charlie Day on the set of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Beer aficionados might be offended to learn that the ballplayer’s oil of choice was Miller Lite, but other than that it seems like a mild excess compared to the team-shattering drama of Boggs’s adultery.   

Boggs being Wade Boggs? That will be forgiven as well. The “what took them so long?” articles about retiring Boggs’s number tend to oversimplify the emotional element that has crept into the Red Sox Number Retirement Industry. The Red Sox retired Johnny Pesky’s number because he was beloved, not because he was outstanding (career OPS+ of 107, one all-star game). Pesky himself sinned in a way that Boggs did, signing with the hated Yankees late in his career, but after that misstep he spent the rest of his life as “Mr. Red Sox,” a living link to the Ted Williams era. Retiring numbers requires sentiment (and a cold-blooded marketer’s willingness to exploit sentiment, see: Devil Rays, Zimmer). Boggs was not sentimental, nor is he remembered through the haze of goodwill, as are Carlton Fisk and Pedro Martinez. Boggs’s stats and awards have always been there. The love has not.

When John Updike wrote about the 1980’s Red Sox, he praised Oil Can Boyd’s “enhanced charisma.” He declared that Roger Clemens was “full of the Right Stuff.” Boggs? Boggs, Updike sniffed, “singled his way to some batting championships.” The third baseman was efficient, systematic, professional, and aloof. Seriously, “some batting championships,” as if Wade Boggs was Pete Runnels? Updike’s snark was not unique. The Chicken Man was often dismissed as a one-dimensional specialist, and he didn’t leaven his focus on hitting with an engaging persona.

In 1981, when Boggs was still a minor leaguer, Peter Gammons created the template for a Wade Boggs piece. After raising questions about the youngster’s defense, Gammons writes:

Boggs’ other rap is that he is a singles hitter who can’t run, the Chris Coletta of his time. “I guess they only want home run hitters,” he says. “But do they watch batting practice? I can hit them as far as anyone. My extra base hits are picking up as I get older and stronger. I hit the ball off the center-field fence. They say I can’t run, but I have more infield hits than anyone on the club. Maybe I’ve been typecast.”

It’s all there: The charge of too many singles. Boggs’s own touchiness when asked about hitting singles. Damning is Gammo’s comparison of Boggs to Chris Coletta, a 1960’s Red Sox prospect who spent a decade in the minors.

Part of Boggs being Wade Boggs was being a singles hitter and then being cranky about being called a singles hitter. He made the big club in 1982, joining a team stocked with power hitters Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, and Carl Yastrzemski. When Boggs started getting national attention in 1983, a Christian Science Monitor reporter asked Red Sox Traveling Secretary Jack Rogers about the young third baseman. Rogers opined, “So far, Boggs hasn’t hit with power for us and maybe he prefers it that way… but in batting practice, he’ll hit the ball as far as Jim Rice.”

It’s a weird journalistic strategy, seeking a quote from the guy who makes the hotel reservations, but Rogers was merely confirming what the press already suspected. The implication stuck with Boggs throughout his career: The man looked for single after single no matter what the game situation, unwilling to take a chance on the big swing. The “maybe he prefers it that way” angle was a backhanded way of saying “Wade Boggs could be more like Rice or Yaz… if he wasn’t so selfish.” It was an era of RBI men, and Boggs was a table-setter.

Boggs didn’t do much to fight the impression that he was self-serving. He would bristle at the “singles-hitter” label, but he did indeed protect his average. Reflecting on the 1983 season (he ultimately hit .361) Boggs told New York Times reporter Joseph Durso “I still go to the ballpark with one thing to achieve: I’ve got to get two hits a day.” Rationally speaking, a guy who gets two hits a day is incredibly valuable. But Boggs, already developing a reputation for weirdness (the all-chicken diet, drawing the number “7” into the dirt before each at-bat), rarely gave lip service to tailoring his approach to help the team. No cliches about “whatever the team needs me to do.” No rah-rah about the greater task of winning the pennant. One thing to achieve: two hits a day.

Over the years, Boggs addressed some of his perceived weaknesses. He became an effective defender. He added doubles power. Yet that progress was lost in the static of the player’s straightforward concern for his batting average. He sat out the last few games of the 1986 season when he was leading the American League in batting average, and even as he locked down that batting title there were invidious comparisons to Ted Williams, who famously played in a meaningless game and risked his .400 average in 1941. Boggs seemed to act selfishly in 1987 as well, sitting out the end of that season to protect a .363 batting average against a hard-charging Paul Molitor. The Chicken Man ended up having surgery that offseason, but critics noted that he played until he built up a solid lead on Molitor, then shut it down.

When the Margo Adams Affair exploded in 1988, it reinforced the “Boggs is a bad teammate” message. As the salacious details came to light, Boggs got into fistfights with both Dwight Evans and Rick Cerone. Bruce Hurst, a fine starting pitcher and a devout Mormon, declared free agency after the 1988 season and refused to re-sign with the Red Sox. The Wade Boggs circus — drunkenness on team flights, endless controversy over his alleged sexual activity, friction with teammates — made Boston unbearable. Boggs was still hitting (he collected 214 hits in 1988) but he’d become the anti-Pesky, a self-absorbed scumbag who was known for cheating on his wife, blackmailing his teammates, and looking out for his stats.

 

When Boggs finally had a poor season at the plate (1992’s .259/.353/.358) his timing could not have been worse. He was a 34-year old free agent, an unpopular teammate, and the Red Sox were retooling after a 73-89 season. On December 15, 1992, he signed with the New York Yankees. Asked about losing the All-Star third baseman, Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman was philosophical, “We tried to sign him for a fair and very good price in spring training and he didn’t seem interested. It got to the point in our situation where we had an up-and-coming third baseman in Scott Cooper and we needed him to play.” Scott Cooper, man.

When Boggs returned to Fenway Park in 1993 for the first time as a Yankee, he didn’t seem interesting in seeking out his old teammates and reminiscing. He told the New York Times:

“I’m not going out of my way to chase people down. If I see people, I see people. If I don’t, I don’t. I’m sure I’ll run into everybody I need to run into on Friday. I don’t need to go knocking on any doors or anything.”

Was he worried about the fan reaction?

“I got booed for 81 days last year. If I get booed for three this weekend, that’s 78 less than last year.”

Yet in a piece by Jack O’Connell of the Hartford Courant, Boggs makes the same statement but adds a key line: “I don’t play by emotions. Emotions to me are a distraction.”    

That was the Wade Boggs persona: sensitive to slights, thin-skinned, not very self-aware, but tightly focused on the task of getting two hits per day. For the record, Boggs collected four hits in his return to Fenway, and batted .302 for the season. Red Sox fans booed Wade Boggs throughout the nineties, even as he enjoyed a renaissance in pinstripes and collected his 3,000th hit with the Devil Rays.

After he retired in 1999 (career batting average: .328), and especially after his election to the Hall of Fame in 2005, Boggs’s orneriness seemed to soften. Well-liked in the Tampa area (he’d grown up there), he threw himself into charitable endeavors. He even kept his marriage together, and Debbie Boggs was The Chicken Man’s highly visible companion at fundraisers and social events. Boggs nursed his wife through a health scare. Delta Force seemed like ancient history, and by contemporary standards a rather quaint mini-scandal that would have lasted but a few days in the twenty-first century news cycle.

Baseball changed as well. The Red Sox of Boggs’s era were built on right-handed power, middle of the order run producers — Rice, Tony Armas, Evans, Jack Clark, Tom Brunansky, and Ellis Burks — , while Boggs’s 5-10 homers and 50 RBIs per year seemed like a disappointment. A generation of baseball commentary has created a world where a player who can post a consistent .450 OBP (as Boggs did in his prime) is a superstar. Boggs waltzed into the Hall of Fame with over 90% of the vote.

The Hall of Fame election put the last piece into place. The Red Sox looked a little foolish, letting other players wear Boggs’s number 26 (Lou Merloni!) even as they quietly reserved Roger Clemens’s number 21 for some future honor. When they played together in Boston, Boggs and Clemens seemed to have a low-level competition as to who could be more of a jerk. In the round of Hall of Fame publicity in 2005, however, Boggs came off as engaging, truly moved by the honor, and said nice things about the Red Sox. His induction speech was gracious, namechecking Gammons, Jean Yawkey, Ralph Houk, John McNamara, Walt Hriniak, Williams, and Pesky. He pined for the retirement of his number and was no longer booed at Fenway.         


This summer he’ll be cheered at Fenway, his exile ended. All will be forgiven.  

 

Dan Ennis has written about prospect hype, an epic cage match, why the Red Sox win, sports media, and the original superfan.

Follow Dan on Twitter @DeanDanEnnis.

1 COMMENT

  1. The number retirement date is quite inspired. May 26, is also 5/26, which is Boggs’ position number and his uniform number. Quite appropriate for a player obsessed with numbers.

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