The Red Sox Thursday night did something they should have done a long time ago: They retired Wade Boggs’s No. 26. Capping a week awash in memory and nostalgia, the Sox paid tribute to their Hall of Fame third baseman before the game against the Colorado Rockies.
It’s easy to make the case for Boggs’s digit on the right-field facade alongside those of Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and other Red Sox greats. Boggs is the 10th player to have his number retired by the Sox (Jackie Robinson’s 42 is retired throughout major league baseball). Yaz made a rare Fenway appearance to honor Boggs Thursday, as did Claudia Williams, daughter of You Know Who.
“This is the greatest day of my life,’’ Boggs told the Fenway sellout. “I’m glad that I’ve come back home. Boston will forever live in my heart. Boston Strong!’’
In 11 seasons with Boston, Boggs hit .338, second only to Teddy Ballgame’s .344. Wade ranks in the club’s all-time top five in hits, doubles, walks, and on-base percentage. He won five batting titles and had 200 or more hits in seven consecutive seasons. He scored 100 or more runs in seven straight seasons. He recorded his 3,000th hit with Tampa Bay in 1999, and was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2005.
“I hoped this day would come,’’ an emotional Boggs said. “When you think about a player having his number retired — that nobody is ever going to wear that uniform again — that is something that resonates through eternity. Just because I made the Hall of Fame or anything like that, it’s not a given . . . This is the last piece of my baseball puzzle. My journey has ended and I’ve come back home.’’
He wore his Hall of Fame ring Thursday. When the 1986 Sox were honored Wednesday, Boggs wore his 1996 Yankee championship ring, which created a small stir with social media folks.
“I’m proud of it [the championship ring],’’ Boggs said Thursday. “I didn’t feel like it was appropriate today. I left it off.’’
In addition to his impressive numbers, Boggs goes down as one of the most colorful characters in Red Sox history. He’s in the Sox pantheon of goofy stunts and punditry, alongside Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Oil Can Boyd, Bill Lee, Jimmy Piersall, and Babe Ruth.
Boggs was a lively quote and a constant newsmaker. Only Wade could look you straight in the eye and tell you that he once willed himself invisible to escape from a parking lot knife fight. Only Wade could insist that he ate chicken three times a day, 365 days a year. Only Wade could get run over by his wife in the family Jeep while leaving the famed Christy’s Restaurant in Winter Haven, Fla. That was when Wade proudly showed off the tire tracks on his arm and announced, “I’m the white Irving Fryar.’’
Some critics thought he was all about numbers and didn’t care enough about winning. How then do you explain the unforgettable sight of Boggs weeping in the Shea Stadium third base dugout moments after the Sox’ 8-5 loss in the seventh game of the 1986 World Series?
Boggs was born in Omaha in 1958, son of a career Marine who’d served in World War II and Korea. Wade’s family moved to Tampa when he was 11 and it was in the Tampa Public Library that Wade’s dad checked out Ted Williams’s “The Science of Hitting,’’ and changed his son’s life. Scouted by George Digby, the Sox drafted Boggs in the seventh round in 1976. Wade banked his $7,500 signing bonus, married high school sweetheart Deborah Bertuccelli, and started his Hall of Fame career hitting .263 in 57 games in the New York-Penn League.
He lingered in the minors forever, hitting over .300 in five straight seasons, because he was a singles hitter with little speed and suspect defensive skills.
Nothing stopped him. Boggs made himself a Gold Glove defender and hacked his way into the big leagues, where he hit .349 for the Red Sox in 1982. A year later, he was the American League batting champ, hitting .361.
He was an absolute hit machine. I once did some Alex Speier-esque math and calculated that over a 162-game span from May 1985-May 1986, Wade actually hit .400.
Owed to his dad’s military ways, Boggs did everything by the clock. If he said he’d meet you in the dugout at 3:45, he was there at 3:45. Trust me when I tell you that this is rare for a professional athlete.
He was superstitious long before Nomar Garciaparra made it trendy. When Boggs stepped into the batter’s box, he drew the Hebrew symbol “chai” (which means life) in the dirt. He did his running and batting practice routine at the exact same time before every game.
Boggs hit .322 in 15 ALCS games with the Sox, and batted .290 in the 1986 World Series against the Mets. He was an eight-time All Star with the Sox. He was not a particularly happy camper at the end in 1992, and Sox fans were slow to forgive him when he signed with the Yankees. Boggs won a World Series with the Yankees and infuriated more Sox fans when he hopped on a New York City police horse to celebrate the victory at Yankee Stadium.
Despite his accomplishments here, Sox management sometimes has appeared to be trying to will Boggs invisible.
Roger Clemens left Boston in a huff, won a World Series with the Yankees, but his No. 21 has never been issued to another player. The Sox have given Boggs’s No. 26 to a million guys, even Lou Merloni (Sox numbers 1, 4, 6, and 27 were also re-issued before they were “retired.”) For years there was a “legends’’ canvas outside the Sox clubhouse in Fort Myers featuring images of all-time Sox greats. For years, Boggs was excluded while the Sox celebrated good players such as Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield.
Ever the hardball historian, Boggs expressed no bitterness about the long wait.
“It took Ted 24 years after he retired,’’ Boggs noted. “I was here in 1984 and he donned the cap. I have that picture on my wall. Mrs. Yawkey is in the background. He retired in 1960. It took 24 years for Ted Williams to get his number retired. Why wouldn’t Ted Williams’s number be retired the day after he retired? So, no, it never bothered me. If you do the math, when I left Boston, it was 1992. So how many years until now? It’s exactly the same. Ted and I bonded. It took 24 years for both of us to have our number retired.’’
Perfect Wade Boggs there. He always produced and he always knew the numbers. Finally, he has taken his rightful place on the right-field facade at Fenway and he appreciates it probably more than any of them.