7 August 1999

Wade Boggs got his long-cherished 3000th hit today. The previous two days featured Tony Gwynn doing the same thing and Mark McGwire hitting his 500th home run; much pomp, circumstance, and hype preceded and followed these doings -- Major League Baseball and its corporate partners are always all-too-ready to spread a thick layer of schmaltz and shameless self promotion on any milestone event. Ask them about labor issues or MLB's corporate-welfare jones or attendance problems, and all you'll get is the verbal equivalent of a blank stare. Out of all the predictable back-slappings and celebrations (and even Gwynn got sick of it -- press conferences and ceremonies are Not Baseball, and therefore of minor importance to him), the Boggs thing was the only one to really interest me.

As a New Yorker, trained almost from birth to hate his pure-evil Red Sox, I was embarrassingly unable to hate Boggs. I'd even try to induce hatred by summoning the Rizzuto Memory -- of that long-ago day in Fenway Park when some persistent, potty-mouthed Bawstun hecklers nearly drove our beloved Phil Rizzuto out of the WPIX broadcast booth and into the stands, ready to lay some smack-down, a turn of events akin to goading the Dalai Lama into throwing chairs at your head.

The Rizzuto Memory didn't work vis-à-vis Boggs. There was just too much to admire; he was a Hit Machine, lashing opposite-field line drives almost at will when he was In That Zone. He was a student of the game; it looked like he took his work more seriously than most (he still works on his knuckleball, even though he isn't a pitcher). He excelled for years in the minor leagues only to languish there, since the Sox wouldn't find a way to fit him on their roster -- how can you hate an underdog? And in the finest tradition of Baseball Superstition, he always ate chicken on the day of the game. Even when Margo Adams went public with their affair, one could attribute his adultery to another great baseball tradition -- Boys Will Be Boys when the workday's done. A Yankee fan, raised on the tales of Curfew-Bustin' Last-Call Legends like Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin (and the wife-swapping done by Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich), could relate to that.

It was much easier to like him when he signed with the Yankees, but his last days in New York were rough on me. The Yanks had Boggs and Don Mattingly (another favorite of mine) in their infield, but neither one could produce offensively the way a third-baseman and first-baseman traditionally should -- with lots of homers and runs batted in; Mattingly's bad back made it no longer possible, and it was never Boggs' MO, even in the best of years, which was probably one reason why he spent so many years in the minors. Many of the callers and hosts on WFAN were treating them -- and perhaps rightly so -- like they were old nags, ready for the glue factory. They were a shadow of their former selves, yes, but they were still excellent ball players, IMHO. Everyone speculated on which free-agent signings would replace them in the next season. Mattingly retired; the unwanted-in-NYC Boggs signed with the expansion team in Tampa, his hometown -- a good place to end one's career. Tino Martinez and Charlie Hayes (and later Scott Brosius) took their places. The reconstituted Yankees went on to win championships, so I couldn't complain, could I?

I began to occasionally check the Tampa Bay boxscores to see how Boggs did -- there were still hundreds of hits to go before reaching the 3000 milestone, and he was out of the lineup on occasion, due to injuries or just the need to give an old guy a day off; he was now nearly as old as some of his teammates' fathers. At some point I stopped checking, confident that he'd come close to 3000, and the press would begin hyping the matter -- which, a few weeks ago, they did. In the finest tradition.

Tonight, Boggs hit a two-run homer in the sixth inning against Cleveland, his third hit of the game (a reminder of those In That Zone days of frequent multi-hit games), and the 3000th of his career. ESPN Radio re-ran DeWayne Staats' play-by-play call in their every-twenty-minutes updates. The fact that #3000 came on a home run was historically significant -- Boggs is the first player to reach that mark by hitting one. That's fitting, in this New Day of the super-juiced ball and "Honey, I Shrunk the Strike Zone" (as was the 15-10 final score) -- Boggs was the poster boy for the original modern-day juiced ball in 1987, when he hit the studly (for him) sum of twenty homers. You could end barroom debates back then by invoking that stat:

"Whaddya mean da bawl iz joosed?"

"I got two words faw ya: Wade Boggs. Got two maw: twenny homiz."

The guy in the stands who caught the home-run ball is an old Yanks fan, now living in Tampa; he said he'd return the ball to Boggs, rather than, say, head over to QVC or Sotheby's and "give" it to the highest bidder. I suspect it will end up on exhibit at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where I could visit it on occasion. People will make money off of that baseball -- that guy in the stands will get a finder's fee of various goodies from the Tampa Bay organization; Boggs gets his normal handsome paycheck anyway, but I suspect there will also be QVC-like Boggs "memorabilia" (i.e. junk) sold to "commemorate" #3000. Cooperstown is one big tourist trap itself, and this week's events (McGwire and Gwynn included) makes for one more item for someone's pilgrimage. This day is really all the pilgrimage I need -- a trip through a memory or two.

And so I raise a toast to Wade Boggs, albeit only a mixture of apple juice and iced herbal tea. It may be more appropriate to raise a drumstick or some Buffalo Wings, but I've already chowed down on a Reuben and salad. These things can't be planned in advance, can they?

"In baseball, you don't know nothin'." -- Yogi Berra

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