Nights like the one that transpired at McCoy Stadium Saturday night don’t come around too often …
PAWTUCKET — As much as he enjoyed his two-year stint with the Pawtucket Red Sox, Wade Boggs wanted no part of the Triple-A ball club upon reaching the parent team in 1982.
Any ballplayer will tell you that his goal is not just to make the majors, but to make it and stay there, leaving the minor leagues in their rear-view mirror for good. When Boggs’ promotion came after almost six years in the minors, he felt he had learned everything he needed to begin his big-league career.
The value of a minor-league education is just some of the ground Boggs covered following his enshrinement into the International League Hall of Fame on Saturday. Joined in a pregame ceremony by PawSox Team President and fellow I.L. Hall of Fame inductee Mike Tamburro and League President Randy Mobley, Boggs took the occasion to reflect on the 5½ years he spent at what he dubbed, “Minor League University.”
“I’m a firm believer that the minor leagues are there for a purpose. After five-and-a-half years, I thought I had my doctorate. I also felt I was ready for the big leagues,” Boggs said. “I think nowadays, a lot of guys are rushed to the big leagues and it’s tremendously overwhelming when you get exposed to that atmosphere. The guys who don’t have enough at-bats or innings … they keep labeling these guys as if they’re going to be the next greatest players ever to play the game.
“The yo-yo effect doesn’t work. Once you get to the big leagues, you’ve got to stay,” Boggs stated.
In his two AAA seasons in 1980 and ‘81, Boggs showed Pawtucket fans many of the skills that would decades later earn him induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He hit .306, with a .396 on-base percentage as a 22-year-old in 1980. The next year he hit .335, good enough to win the International League batting title, but not enough to win a September call-up to Boston.
It was a low moment, one Boggs used to his advantage.
“That was pretty devastating and I had to figure out what I needed to do in my life to take that next step,” recalls Boggs. “It was a life-changing moment for me when (then-PawSox manager) Joe Morgan told me I wasn’t going to the bigs.”
More baseball was deemed the best medicine. Boggs spent the ’81 offseason playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, where he recalls hitting .379. One of his teammates that winter was Victor Rodriguez, the roving hitting instructor in the Red Sox’ farm system. “We took a lot of groundballs together because we were infielders,” said Rodriguez. “The thing was that he could hit. That’s something that you couldn’t hide.”
“I wasn’t about to let this opportunity go by without putting up a fight. I went to spring training (in 1982) with that attitude and wound up making (the big-league) club,” Boggs stated. “I said, ‘I love Pawtucket, but I don’t want to go back.’”
Boggs knows that his career may have taken a different trajectory had Carney Lansford not gone down with an ankle injury early in the ’82 season. The door had been opened and to Boggs, that meant not relinquishing what he called “the golden ring.”
“I never let go of it,” said Boggs about the circumstances that led to him becoming Boston’s third baseman on a permanent basis. “These guys today, they get a little taste of how everything is and they relax. I spent 18 years in the big leagues. In my last at-bat in the majors at 41, I sprinted to first base after walking. That’s why you put on the uniform; it’s an honor.”
Boggs met the media in Pawtucket’s weight room following the on-field ceremony, an area in the team’s clubhouse that today is packed with state-of-the-art exercise equipment. Boggs was asked if having all of the current advantages that today’s players are privy to really makes that much of a difference.
“Athletes today are bigger, faster and stronger. Plus it’s a full-time and year-round occupation,” said Boggs. “It’s not something that you can end the season and suddenly pick it back up in spring training. The money is too great not to stay in shape and get better.
“We have to understand that we’re entertainers. We’re no different from someone who makes a film and earns $25 million,” Boggs continued. “People pay to watch us perform. That’s entertainment, which is the great part of this game.”
*** Boggs had 2,647 reasons to become a big leaguer, as in how many at-bats he accrued during his time in the minors. For comparison’s sake, Will Middlebrooks had 1,550 minor-league at-bats to his name when he was summoned earlier this season. The Hall of Fame third baseman was asked to offer his take on Boston’s current prized patroller of the hot corner.
“The one piece advice I would give him is to keep his (right) elbow up a little bit when he fields a groundball,” was the critique Boggs offered. “He drops his elbow and flips the ball to first. He’s going to find the more and more he does that, the ball’s going to tail on him and he’ll start making errors. He’s a fine young kid, though, and can really swing it.”
The return of Boggs to McCoy Stadium prompted PawSox general manager Lou Schwechheimer to recall the many instances he tossed batting practice to the Red Sox great between 1980-81. “You could put a cup in short left-center and Boggs would probably hit it,” Schwechheimer said fondly. “He was absolutely single-minded with one purpose: to become the greatest hitter ever.
“He would hit until the sun went down and then try to get you to turn the lights on. Wade had an incredible work ethic second to none of anybody who’s ever come through here,” Schwechheimer delved further. “Those are magical memories when you start in this business that you never anticipate and cherish the most. You can look back and smile and say, ‘I actually threw a round or two to a Hall of Famer.’”
The ceremony celebrating the minor-league careers of two worthy individuals concluded on a fitting note, as PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler gave the okay for Boggs to bring the lineup card to home plate. There Boggs was greeted by Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg, his fellow 2005 Hall of Fame classmate.
Boggs proudly called Sandberg “his wing man.” Sandberg took it a step further.
“I tell Wade that we’re connected at the hip for life. We had a great experience going into the Hall of Fame together in 2005,” said Sandberg. “When we go back to Cooperstown (for Induction Weekend), we wear our pins from our year the whole time. I enjoyed being associated with him.
“I never played against Wade except in some All-Star Games, but I followed his career in the newspaper,” continued Sandberg. “We had a blast going in together and we’ll continue to go Cooperstown and represent our class, each other and the Hall of Fame group.”