TAMPA — Wade Boggs already owns a piece of the Field of Dreams. But he still dreams that the Red Sox will ease his pain and retire his No. 26 at Fenway Park.
“It would be nice,” said Boggs, 54, who is currently the assistant baseball coach of the Wharton High School Wildcats here, wearing pinstripes. “Am I bitter? I thought when I wore a Boston hat in the Hall of Fame I’d be up there.
“It’s been eight years now. I used to be bitter. But I think those days are over. Was I bitter? Absolutely.”
Boggs won five batting titles with the Red Sox and spent 11 of his 18 big league seasons in Boston. He hoped his father would live to see his number join Ted Williams’s No. 9 up on the right field facade. But Winn Boggs died in 2009.
Williams was Winn’s hero. A Marine, Winn once gave young Wade a copy of the classic Williams book, “The Science of Hitting.” The Splendid Splinter once saw a photograph of an 18-month-old Boggs swinging a baseball bat and declared that he had “an absolutely perfect swing.’’
‘I used to be bitter. But I think those days are over. Was I bitter? Absolutely.’
Williams hit .361 at Fenway Park, but Boggs hit .369 there.
But the Red Sox, who inducted Boggs into their team Hall of Fame in 2004, won’t go the distance.
“They told me there’s criteria,” he said. “You have to end your career as a Red Sox.”
Boggs left the Red Sox in 1992 and won a World Series with the Yankees in 1996. The 12-time All-Star got his 3,000th hit — a home run — as a Tampa Bay Devil Ray in 1999, and they retired his number 12 the following year.
Boston fans still cringe at the indelible image of a giddy Boggs riding on horseback with a police officer at Yankee Stadium, an index finger jabbing skyward. Not exactly Carlton Fisk waving his 1975 World Series home run fair. But Fisk, who played more seasons for the White Sox than the Red Sox, eventually was hired back as a special assistant in Boston, and his No. 27 has been retired at Fenway.
Boggs says he never wanted to leave.
“Mrs. Yawkey called me and Debbie over in the parking lot in 1991 after the last game,” said Boggs. “She said, ‘Wade I want you to follow in the same steps as Ted and Carl [Yastrzemski]. I want you to be a Red Sox for life.’
“I said, ‘Mrs. Yawkey, that would make me extremely happy.’ She said, ‘Would seven years, $35 million be adequate?’ I said, ‘I’ll sign it right now.’ But then she slips in the tub, she dies, and everything washes away.”
The new brass took the offer off the table. Boggs signed a three-year, $11 million deal with the Yankees in December 1992 and played five seasons in New York.
But he missed hitting at Friendly Fenway.
“You took away the greatest place in the world to hit,” he said. “You said, ‘There’s the door — don’t let it hit you on the way out.’ ”
According to Boggs, former Red Sox CEO John Harrington eventually apologized to him at a reunion.
Answering his critics
The number 26 has been issued to more than a dozen players since Boggs left the Sox.
“Lou Gorman gave my number to a nonroster player the year after I left,” he said.
Lou Merloni, Wes Chamberlain, and the immortal Chris Snopek all have worn it. Scott Podsednik wore No. 26 last year.
This spring, Brock Holt, an infielder acquired from Pittsburgh, was assigned the number. He didn’t ask for it, he says. And when he tweeted the news, he received obscene messages from some Sox fans in return.
Boggs wonders about Rogers Clemens’s No. 21, which never has been given out since he left the Red Sox in 1996, though it hasn’t been officially retired by the team.
“I think his jersey is retired, isn’t it?” said Boggs. “They’ve never given it to anybody.”
He dodges a question about whether he would vote for Clemens for the Hall of Fame.
“I don’t vote, the writers vote,” he said. But then he added, “He was found not guilty of lying. He was not found not guilty of using steroids.”
Boggs says he never needed steroids, even after his average dipped to a career-worst .259 in 1992.
And he has no sympathy for Alex Rodriguez.
“It’s a shame he got a half-billion dollars to play baseball,” said Boggs.
He thinks Kevin Youkilis, another Red Sox third baseman who wound up with the Yankees, will flourish in pinstripes.
“He’s a hard-nosed, nose-to-the-ground player,” said Boggs. “New York is going to love him. He’s a gamer.”
He’s still angry at former teammate Oil Can Boyd, who called Boggs a bigot.
“You don’t think Jim Rice or Don Baylor would’ve beat my ass if I was?” he said.
Some of his critics, including teammates, have said that Boggs was selfish, obsessed with individual statistics. That makes the Chicken Man furious.
“My job was to get on base to score runs,” he said. “I was Billyball before Billyball. I got on base 300 times a year.”
He is just getting warmed up.
“The old saying was, ‘Boggs never drives in any runs.’ I played in 155 games. I led off. That’s 155 plate appearance where I come up with nobody on.”
There were charges that he sat out at the end of the 1986 season to win a batting title against the Yankees’ Don Mattingly.
“They don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Boggs. “Dr. [Arthur] Pappas stuck his thumb in my hamstring and I had a big hole in it. Nobody talks about the broken foot I played with or those two broken ribs I played with all year.’’
There was the embarrassing Margo Adams palimony lawsuit, which culminated in 1989 with Barbara Walters interviewing Wade and his wife Debbie on national television.
“Rod Carew told me once that for those that know you, no explanation is necessary, and for those that don’t know you, none is possible,” said Boggs. “That’s the philosophy I live by.”
Boggs said he and his agent have approached Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino and principal owner John Henry about a public relations role with the Sox, similar to the one Johnny Pesky had.
“We gave them a number, they gave us a number, and neither number worked,” said Boggs. “It was very time-consuming for not a lot of money.”
So when the opportunity came to invest in the Field of Dreams — the iconic baseball diamond carved out of a cornfield for the 1989 Kevin Costner movie — Boggs journeyed to Dyersville, Iowa.
“Ah, I had goose bumps,” he said. “It tears you up a little bit. It’s emotional. I mean, it’s everything that everybody dreams of. It’s playing with your dad in your backyard.”
Boggs is part of an investment group called Go The Distance Baseball, which recently purchased the 193-acre site for $3.4 million. The group plans to develop it as a mecca for tournament travel baseball. The original farmhouse and field will be preserved, just as they appeared in the film.
Plans are to build a $45 million complex of 24 baseball and softball fields, an indoor training center, and clubhouse space for 72 teams, including lodging. The first-phase grand opening is scheduled for May 2014.
“We’re going to leave the cornfield up, where the kids walk through the corn to their fields,” said Boggs. “It’s just going to be a neat project.”
Boggs is the face of the investment group, which is headed by Chicago real estate developer Denise Stillman and her husband, attorney Michael Stillman. The original owners, Don and Becky Lansing, will stay on as long as they like.
If they build it, Boggs believes, people will come.
“When I was approached with this concept, I was skeptical at first, because Cooperstown has the perfect model of this,” he said. “Then I started thinking. It gives the people on the West Coast a viable option and they don’t have to drive all the way across the United States. It made perfect sense.”
The group is still seeking investors. Actor Matthew Perry came on board at the end of January. Costner has been invited to perform with his band. Boggs says he will conduct baseball clinics there.
“Hopefully, people will learn now that Shoeless Joe Jackson was a lefthanded hitter and not a righthanded hitter,” he said with a laugh, referencing a factual error in the movie.
Boggs loves baseball in its purest sense. He is content to coach the high school team his son played for 12 years ago for zero money. Boggs also helped finance the high school field.
“I just enjoy it,” he said. “It’s 10 minutes from my house. I like the atmosphere. I still put on the uniform and don’t have to travel.”
He also singlehandedly stopped the water moccasin problem in the swamp behind left field.
“I went out there with the fungo bat, one shot, top of the head. Done,” said Boggs. “There’s also two alligators back there. I like alligator meat. Tastes like chicken.”
He still eats chicken five times a week.
“Not free range,” he says “Good ol’ Publix chicken.”
Before a recent high school game, Boggs schedules stretching for exactly 5:57 p.m. He then gets every player to tug on a knotted rope while they warm up. A team-building exercise, he said.
“In case you fall off the cliff, your teammate pulls you back to safety,” he said. “Everyone pulls for each other.”
Close to game time, Boggs grabs a bat and hits fungoes. His hair is perfect.
Alex Kranick, the third baseman, looks over at Coach Boggs and smiles.
“The other day, he was telling me don’t stick my butt out in the batter’s box, and it worked,” said Kranick. “I got a hit. What he tells you works every time.
“To us, he’s not a Hall of Famer, he’s just Coach Boggs.”