Two hours before game time, Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox digs in. The major league's leading hitter already has had the meal of chicken that he eats, superstitiously, before every game of a season. No red meat to slow his bat or his brain. If Boggs had to eat curried snails simmered in crankcase oil to get base hits, he wouldn't mind.
Boggs' left foot grinds into the batter's box, spraying pebbles and dirt behind him. Like a bull pawing in a pasture, he is defining his turf, saying unmistakably that this is his box and anyone who comes after can work around the hole he's left.
Before the first batting practice pitch, Boggs slams the bat on home plate as though splitting a log with an axe. His red mustache twitches as he talks to himself, muttering and cursing, exhorting and preaching.
"Pop it . . . Not that . . . Stay on top," says the 25-year-old who, after six years of infuriating delay in the minors, is now ready for greatness. "Get up . . . Get in the gap . . . Go through."
For four minutes, as he swings at 30 to 35 pitches, driving them to every sector of the field, Boggs is in constant motion, whirling the bat between pitches, flexing his forearms, then swinging again as the sweat runs down his face. Aside from those minutes at bat in a game, this is the core of Boggs' day: the four minutes when he rivets his timing, stokes his enormous confidence and proves to himself once more that he is the next evolutionary stage in the striking of a baseball with a bat.
Boggs is part of an unmistakable tradition. Some with a provincial bent assume Boggs is the latest in a line of left-handed Fenway Park batting champions that includes Ted Williams, Pete Runnels, Carl Yastrzemski and Fred Lynn. It might be truer to say that Boggs' lineage includes men like Ty Cobb, Pete Rose and Williams, who burned with a passion for excellence.
Last season, Boggs batted .349, the highest average in American League history by a rookie who played in more than 100 games. This year, he is hitting .361 with an unheard of on-base percentage of .450. The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder is on a pace to collect 215 hits, 48 doubles and score more than 100 runs.
After more than 1,000 major-league plate appearances, Boggs has a career batting average of .356. He's young and hungry to find his place in history; it could be quite a place.
The Tampa-born Boggs has been prepared, practically from birth, for a baseball career. His father, Winfield, was a semipro fast-pitch softball player who once turned down a contract with the high-powered Clearwater Bombers.
Boggs likes to keep his responses to questions as spare as his swing, yet, about his swing, he'll risk an embellishment. "My swing's like a fast-pitch softball swing: quick, inside-out." In other words, he has been trained by his father to hit a ball moving 100 miles per hour and thrown from a distance of 45 feet. In the big leagues, he has to hit a ball moving only 90 mph thrown from 60 feet.
Nit-pickers, like Manager Ralph Houk, who would like to see his third baseman pull for more power, feel that Boggs' disdain of the home run--he has only 10 in the majors--is an oversight that needs correcting. Boggs, who can pull breaking balls with authority, has no plans to alter the course of bullets hit back at pitchers' heads and toward left field. "That would be screwing around with something that works," he says. "I'm not changing much."
Two pieces of lore are already bookends for the Boggs legend. The first is a photograph of Boggs at the age of 2 or 3 swinging a toy bat; scouts and other cognoscenti were asked to analyze the infant's swing (not knowing who he was) and, supposedly, all proclaimed it perfect.
The second tale has it that Boggs keeps two books in prominent view on his coffee table at home: "My Turn at Bat" by Ted Williams and "The Art of Hitting .300" by Charlie Lau.
"I've read Ted's book and Lau's," says Boggs, who currently leads Rod Carew in the batting title race by 16 points. "I've got a theory of my own that combines them both."
Mechanically, Boggs is a Lau type, keeping his weight well back, then hitting off his front foot and controlling the swing with his top hand--all sins in the Williams canon.
From the neck up, Boggs is a Teddy Ballgame man. He will take the first pitch of almost every at bat. "I believe in patience and discipline at the plate, working the count into your favor, seeing a lot of pitches." It's already gospel that Boggs, who has struck out only 32 times this year, is probably the most relaxed and confident two-strike hitter in the league.
"You have to analyze every pitch during that at bat. You can't foul off 10 pitches (which Boggs sometimes does), then make your adjustment before the next at bat," he says. "That's too late."
If there is a mystery about Boggs, it's not his success but, rather, why it took the Red Sox so long to bring him to the majors. From 1977 through '81 he hit .332, .311, .325, .306 and .335 in the minors and, as he'll gladly point out, "I was never more than four points away from leading the league any year.
"Better lighting, easier travel and better umpires" are the reasons Boggs gives for his current success, although another obvious factor comes to every mind. Fenway Park, where he's hitting .399 this season, is a left-handed hitter's paradise. Also, the Red Sox, because of their personnel and park, are death on southpaw pitchers, so Boggs sees few of them.
Can Boggs join Cobb and Rogers Hornsby as the game's only .350 career hitters. Is a .400 season possible?
Most sophomore players would plead modesty on such subjects. Boggs simply says that he sees no reason why he can't continue to improve, just as his averages have in the last four seasons.
When Boggs gets into the batter's box, what exotic thoughts run through his mind?
"I always think the same thing," he says. " 'Gotta get a hit.' "
Doesn't everyone tell himself to get a hit?
"No," corrects Boggs, his steady gaze intent. "Gotta get a hit."