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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #72 Wade Boggs

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The former Red Sox great resurrected his career with the Yankees and helped them snap their 18-year World Series drought... all thanks to chicken, of course.

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Wade Boggs
Position: Third base
Born: June 1, 1958 (Omaha, NE)
Yankee Years: 1993-97
Primary number: 12
Yankee statistics: 602 G, .313/.396/.407, 119 2B, 9 3B, 24 HR, 116 wRC+, 18.3 rWAR, 16.6 fWAR

Biography

One of the more entertaining aspects of Yankees history is their experience with former Red Sox players. Franchise icon Babe Ruth was of course purchased from the Red Sox in an infamous 1919 trade, but that was just the beginning. Several former Red Sox ended up in the Bronx during the next decade, thanks to former Boston skipper Ed Barrow raiding his old team in his new job as Yankees GM. Valuable contributors Red Ruffing, Sparky Lyle, Roger Clemens, and Johnny Damon were also brought on board to guide the Yanks to championships, much to Beantown's chagrin. The tradition continues today with Jacoby Ellsbury.

However, if you ask certain Red Sox fans, no Yankees acquisition chafes them more than their beloved '80s icon Wade Boggs. When Boston let him go, Boggs joined the Yankees, and a few years later, he was riding on horseback celebrating the only World Series title of his Hall of Fame career. Boggs brought his immense talent at the plate to New York, and over 15 years after his last game, he remains one of the few players alive capable of receiving a roaring ovation in both Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.

Boggs horse

Photo credit: Gerald Herbert, New York Daily News

Defying expectations

Boggs was born to a military home in Nebraska on June 15, 1958. His father Winn had served for the Marines and the Air Force in World War II and the Korean War, respectively, and life on their bases was just normal for the Boggs family. Despite the military obligations, Winn made sure he was a vital part of his son's early life, helping Wade craft his swing at a young age when he was free on the weekends.

The family moved around several times before settling for good in Tampa in 1969. Boggs quickly became a talented athlete at H.B. Plant High School. He hit .522 as a junior while also earning the starting job as his high school quarterback. By this time though, baseball scouts began to inquire about Wade, so Winn and his wife Sue advised their son that he might want to consider focusing purely on baseball. Boggs ended up earning All-State honors as his team's placekicker during his senior year anyway, and he further dedicated his efforts to improve his hitting.

Although he rebounded from a slow start to finish the year 26-for-32, scouts were skeptical:

"Some players are showcase thoroughbreds. They have size and speed and cannon-like arms. They can demonstrate five tools in a 20-minute workout. Imagine looking at a 16-year-old Vladimir Guerrero and you get the picture. What can't be measured quickly is plate approach and plate discipline. And then there's a player's internal makeup, toughness, and desire -- skills that don't show up on a stopwatch or tape measure. Boggs had everything he needed to become a big league ballplayer, but little of it could be seen by watching him play a couple of games. The Major League Scouting Bureau labeled him a nonprospect. The Bureau would not be the last to doubt his potential." - Boston Globe, 7/31/2005

Not all scouts were unsure of Boggs though. Veteran Red Sox scout George Digby was almost 60 years old when Boggs was a senior, but he knew talent when he saw it. He strongly advised Boston to draft him, so in the seventh round of the 1976 Draft, Boggs was selected by the Red Sox. Of the 165 players selected ahead of him, only one would end up with a superior career: Rickey Henderson.

A shortstop when he was drafted, Boston shifted him over to third base, and it was a little rocky for Boggs early when he learned the position. His first year of pro ball in the New York-Penn League was not particularly impressive, either. The 18-year-old hit .263/.364/296 in 57 games with just six extra-base hits. His manager, Dick Berardino, told management that he doubted Boggs could make the majors.

Although he gradually improved over the next few seasons in the minors, it would take Boggs six full seasons in the minors before he got a chance with the Red Sox. During this time, Boggs received great encouragement from his family, including his wife Debbie, who he had married when he began pro ball. Thanks to this network of support, Boggs persevered. At age 20 with Double-A Bristol in '78, he batted .311/.400/.370 in 109 games, but was forced to repeat the level. At age 22 with Triple-A Pawtucket in 1980, he batted .306/.396/.364 in 129 games, but again was forced to repeat the level. Not only that, but Boston went out and traded for a third baseman prior to the '81 season, Carney Lansford.

In '81, Boggs played against then-third baseman Cal Ripken, Jr. in the longest game in professional history, a 33-inning, multi-day marathon between Pawtucket and Rochester that took 11 hours and 25 minutes in total. Little did the future Hall of Famers know that they would be playing against each other numerous times in the decades to come. That year, Boggs got even better by hitting .335/.437/.460 with 41 doubles in 137 games. After such a performance and an impressive showing in spring training of 1982, veteran Red Sox manager Ralph Houk could simply no longer keep Boggs in the minors. He was going north.

Beantown batting champ

The 1982 season was an exciting time for Boggs. Even though Houk struggled to figure out how to properly use him, Boggs excelled whenever he got a chance to take the field. In his rookie season, he stunned the baseball minds who doubted him by torching American League pitching to a .349/.406/.441 clip, compiling 3.9 WAR in just 104 games. Houk used Boggs at first, third, and even left field once, desperate to keep his bat in the lineup. He didn't qualify for the batting title, but since AL leader Willie Wilson hit almost 20 points below Boggs, one can surmise that it would have been a damn close race had Boggs received a little more playing time. Regardless, Boston won 89 games and Boggs finished 3rd in AL Rookie of the Year voting (Ripken took home the honors).

By the start of the next season, GM Haywood Sullivan realized that Lansford was expendable, so he was traded to the A's for All-Star outfielder Tony Armas. Third base was Boggs's for the taking, and over the next decade, he never appeared in under 140 games. In the first season he qualified for the batting title, he won it by hitting .361/.444/.486 with a 155 wRC+ and 7.8 WAR, though he was somehow passed over for the AL All-Star team. After an "off-year" of hitting .325/.407/.416 in '84 while fellow burgeoning AL East star Don Mattingly won the batting crown, Boggs incredibly won the next four in a row.

Boggs was unbelievable over a four-year stretch, often going the opposite way with his lefty swing to pepper the Green Monster with hits and batting .364/.460/.508, averaging 215 hits per season. In '85, he set a franchise record with 240 hits and setting career-highs in average (.368) and WAR (9.1). In addition to all those hits, Boggs had arguably the best plate discipline in baseball, often leading the league in walks and almost never swinging at the first pitch. Two-strike counts never bothered him--much like NL batting champ counterpart Tony Gwynn, he always seemed to found ways to foul countless pitches off until he found one he liked. Boggs remarkably never struck out more than 70 times in a season.

Even as his '86 Red Sox eventually found heartbreak in Boggs's first World Series appearance, Boggs kept hitting. He overcame personal tragedy that year, when his mom was suddenly killed in a June car accident. On the field, Boggs did not let it bother him until shortly before the Mets won the World Series, when he was brought to tears in the dugout upon realizing that he could no longer use baseball as an escape. By the next season, it was back to business. He set an AL record with seven straight 200-hit seasons between 1983-89, one that would stand until Ichiro Suzuki broke it in the 2000s.

Fans couldn't get enough of Boggs. They loved his quirky superstitions, like eating chicken before every single game, taking exactly 150 ground balls every practice, drawing the Hebrew symbol for life in the dirt before every at-bat, and of course, all the legendary stories of his prodigious drinking. He guest-appeared with Mattingly and other All-Stars on The Simpsons, made a memorable appearance on the classic Boston-based TV show Cheers, and his reputation managed to survive the reveal of an affair. Then suddenly in 1992, things did not appear to be going so well in Boston. Boggs had a rare off-year, only hitting .259/.353/.358 with a 91 wRC+ that was likely affected by a BABIP roughly 80 points below his career norm.

Boggs had made eight straight All-Star teams and helped Boston win three AL East titles. However, with Boggs due to become a free agent, the Red Sox decided to let him walk away. Boggs was hurt, as Boston's old owner, Mrs. Jean Yawkey, had promised that they wanted to keep him in Boston forever, and that they had a five-year deal waiting for him. When Mrs. Yawkey passed away in '92 though, Red Sox management thought the 34-year-old was on his way to a decline. So with his only Boston offer a one-year deal with an option, he left. Just like they did with Ruth, Ruffing, and Lyle before him, Boston's biggest rival pounced on the opportunity.

Dual return to glory

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner always admired Boggs from afar. It didn't take an analyst to realize that Boggs could hit anywhere, and Yankee Stadium was just as nice for Boggs as Fenway Park. Although officially suspended from baseball while Boggs was a free agent, he still obviously had a large say behind the scenes about the Yankees' plans. GM Gene "Stick" Michael and young manager Buck Showalter agreed that Boggs still certainly had a chance of returning to his pre-'92 form. However, there were questions about Boggs's reputation with his teammates, and they felt uneasy about signing Boggs. Nonetheless, Boggs was indeed signed to a three-year, $11 million deal.

Michael and Showalter's concerns about Boggs in the clubhouse were quickly put to rest, as his new teammates thought he was just fine. He went about his business with an impressive work ethic and quickly assimilated with his new team. Of course, it also helped that his bat did, in fact, return to form. Boggs was an All-Star again and won the Silver Slugger at third by hitting .302/.378/.363 with a 106 wRC+ and 4.2 WAR. In his most defining moment of the season, he returned to Fenway Park for the first time as a visitor and showed Red Sox management just how washed up he was by going 4-for-4:

The crew around Boggs began to improve as well. In '93, the Yankees won 88 games for the first over-.500 season in five years, and they were even better the next season. Recent acquisitions by Michael like Paul O'Neill, Jimmy Key, and Mike Stanley turned out to be terrific moves, young Bernie Williams began to mature, and the Yankees had the best record in the AL in 1994. Boggs was on fire as well, despite missing some time due to injury--he hit .342 with a 142 wRC+ in 97 games. He even won a Gold Glove for his defense, as his long hours taking ground balls had turned him into a tremendous third baseman, as he demonstrated in plays like this one, which saved Jim Abbott's '93 no-hitter:

Unfortunately, the players' strike ruined Boggs and Mattingly's hopes of winning their first World Series. The season was cut short, so they just had to try again in '95. Boggs posted his third straight four-win season that year, and the Yankees snapped their 14-year playoff drought by capturing the first AL Wild Card. They lost the ALDS to the Mariners, but it was no fault of Boggs--he hit .263/.364/.526 in four games, adding three extra-base hits despite playing on a strained hamstring that had forced him to miss the regular season's final series with the playoff berth still in doubt. The Yankees were inspired enough by Boggs's play that they signed him to a new two-year, $4 million contract and felt comfortable trading top third base prospect Russ Davis away in the trade that brought Mattingly's replacement at first base, Tino Martinez.

With Joe Torre now at the helm, Boggs continued to hit, as he notched a solid .311/.389/.389 campaign in 132 games, though he had begun to struggle against lefties. The Yankees acted to bring in Charlie Hayes to split some time at third late in season. Boggs was annoyed about it, but it ended up working out in the end. He also contributed by encouraging the Yankees to go after lefty reliever Graeme Lloyd to improve their bullpen. All of Boggs, O'Neill, and Martinez informed assistant GM Brian Cashman upon his asking that the tall Australian was one of the toughest lefties in the league to hit due to his slider, and Lloyd ended up contributing to multiple World Series winners. Although Boggs slumped in the playoffs, he did work one of the biggest at-bats of the season, as his pinch-hit appearance in the tenth inning of 1996 World Series Game 4 led to a bases-loaded walk that gave the Yankees the lead, completing their 6-0 comeback. The Yankees won the World Series, and Boggs was so excited that he put aside his fear of horses and famously joined a New York City cop on one as the team ecstatically circled the Yankee Stadium field.

End of a Hall of Fame career

Boggs played one more season with the Yankees, though injuries and more struggles against lefties limited him to 104 games and a 107 wRC+. The Yankees won the AL Wild Card, but fell in the ALDS to the Indians. Boggs went 3-for-7 in what would be the last playoff series of his career. Chasing 3,000 hits, Boggs went home with the new expansion club Tampa Bay Devil Rays to finish his quest. At age 40, he was still useful with a .280/.348/.400 triple slash in 1998, and on August 7, 1999 against the Indians' Chris Haney, he reached his milestone in remarkable fashion:

Boggs and Derek Jeter (his Rookie of the Year teammate from the '96 champs) remain the only players to ever reach the 3,000 Hit Club with a homer. It was the 118th and last homer he would ever hit. Toward the end of the month, he hurt his knee and missed the rest of the season. The 41-year-old Boggs decided that 18 seasons, 3,010 hits, and a .328/.415/.443 triple slash were enough for him, so he retired. Six years later, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot, earning 91.9% of the vote. (Yes, 42 BBWAA members did not think Wade friggin' Boggs was a Hall of Famer. Of course.) For some reason, the Red Sox still haven't retired his number, and that's ridiculous. You can go on all you want about the Yankees retiring too many numbers, but if Wade Boggs did what he did in Boston while wearing pinstripes, you bet your ass that his number would have been in Monument Park over a decade ago. (UPDATE: The Red Sox are at last retiring his number 26 in 2016.)

Boggs proved that he still had plenty lefty in the tank when he came to the Yankees, and he really put on a show for the new fans. In 366 career games at the old Yankee Stadium he hit .322/.398/.409, and he highlighted it with his unforgettable horseback ride. Not bad.

But come on, Boggsy. England's greatest prime minister was Lord Palmerston.

Andrew's rank: 71
Tanya's rank: 75
Community rank: 68.09
WAR rank: 74

Season Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB rWAR fWAR
1993 35 NYY 143 644 560 83 169 26 1 2 59 0 1 74 49 .302 .378 .363 .740 104 203 4.2 3.3
1994 36 NYY 97 434 366 61 125 19 1 11 55 2 1 61 29 .342 .433 .489 .922 142 179 4.5 4.2
1995 37 NYY 126 541 460 76 149 22 4 5 63 1 1 74 50 .324 .412 .422 .834 119 194 4.2 4.0
1996 38 NYY 132 574 501 80 156 29 2 2 41 1 2 67 32 .311 .389 .389 .778 98 195 3.4 3.1
1997 39 NYY 104 407 353 55 103 23 1 4 28 0 1 48 38 .292 .373 .397 .769 102 140 2.0 2.0
NYY (5 yrs) 602 2600 2240 355 702 119 9 24 246 4 6 324 198 .313 .396 .407 .803 112 911 18.3 16.6

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Donnelly, Chris. Baseball's Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2010

Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Shaughnessy, Dan. "Wade Boggs: 2005 Hall of Fame inductee," Boston Globe, July 31, 2005.

Sherman, Joel. Birth of a Dynasty. New York: Rodale, 2006.

Tan, Cecilia. The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.

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