Boggs determined to be a hit man again with Yankees

March 03, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- At the height of "Boss Madness" two days ago, Wade Boggs met George Steinbrenner for the first time.

"How are you, sir?" the third baseman asked when the New York Yankees owner broke away from his media entourage for a few seconds. Steinbrenner gave Boggs a quick welcome to life in pinstripes, then returned to the circus surrounding his return to baseball after a 2 1/2 -year absence.

In the clubhouse later, Boggs said the commotion over Steinbrenner neither bothered nor surprised him. "It's baseball," he said with a shrug.

"It's not a much different approach here," said Boggs. Except, of course, no other team has an owner who draws the attention that Steinbrenner commands.

"They do have a great atmosphere here," he said. "You have a job to do and you go about it, which makes it very easy.

Almost anything would seem easier than last season for Boggs, who had his worst season since coming up with the Red Sox in 1982. He hit .259, 79 points lower than his lifetime average. It was the first time in 11 major-league seasons he failed to hit over .300.

"Everybody who plays this game has to feel wanted," said Boggs, 34. "Last year, I didn't have that feeling from the end of spring training until I walked out of the clubhouse on the last day [of the regular season].

"I just never felt like I was part of that team. I knew that Scott Cooper was the third baseman of the future, and I was a lame duck," said Boggs. "It is a business, and you have to do what you think is right.

"They [the Red Sox] made a decision, and I lived by it. I moved on -- that's the way the game is designed."

Although he didn't express any bitterness toward his former club, Boggs said he feels a lot of observers were waiting for him to fail.

"When I hit .302 [in 1990], they said I'd never hit .300 again," he said, "and I came back and hit .332 [in 1991].

"When I dropped a .259 on them last year, they said all of the things they'd been waiting to say or print."

Boggs, a left-handed hitter, said that playing in Yankee Stadium, with its inviting right-field fence, instead of Fenway Park, with its friendly left-field target, will not affect his style.

"Why should it?" he asked, almost defiantly. "What would I change what I've been doing successfully?

"I'm not going to go up there and look for a ball I can hit over the fence every at-bat," said Boggs. "That's not my game.

"The only difference will be that, when I hit a long fly ball in Boston, it was an out; now it will be a home run. But I'm not going to change the way I hit.

"I'm basically a guy who hits from left-center to right-center field," said Boggs. "And I'm not going to change because I'm in a different park."

His new boss, Steinbrenner, is a fan of Boggs' style.

"They say he's selfish because he won't go for home runs," Steinbrenner said. "But I say he's unselfish because he'll take a walk, and he's always on base. I know I hated to see him bat against us."

In addition to giving the Yankees another hitter to get on base in front of Don Mattingly, Boggs apparently is destined to be a trend-setter with his new team. Boggs has shaved his trademark beard, something that Steinbrenner never allowed on his team, but likely will be allowed to grow it back. "As long as it's neat," said Steinbrenner, "I don't care. If he hits, he can play in his underwear."

Boggs is a key ingredient in the overhaul of the Yankees, but he isn't the only key player. The enthusiasm about the changes made during the off-season are merely heightened by Steinbrenner's return.

"If [Danny] Tartabull stays healthy all year, that will be a big factor for us," Steinbrenner said. "He is a real presence.

"The pitching is as strong as we've had in a long time, with two of the top six ERAs in the league last year [Jim Abbott and Melido Perez]. And I don't see any easy outs in the lineup."

The guy who has to keep the optimism in check, manager Buck Showalter, doesn't try to check the enthusiasm, but acknowledges that the Yankees still have a way to go.

"We've got some deficiencies," he said, without being specific, "and they're going to show up.

"Every team in baseball, except maybe the Braves, is looking for more pitching. And I'm sure even the Braves and Blue Jays would've liked to have had more than they did going into the World Series last year."

Despite the hype, the Yankees are a team that won only 76 games last year. They haven't played in a championship series since the split season in 1981 and haven't finished higher than fourth since 1986.

Still, the trades for Abbott and outfielder Paul O'Neill, plus the free-agent signings of Boggs, left-hander Jimmy Key and shortstop Spike Owen have increased speculation that the Yankees and Steinbrenner will stage comebacks in the same season.

If so, Boggs will have to be a major component. But just as he has detractors who say his days as a premier hitter are over, the Yankees also have their doubters.

"We'll find out," said Boggs, sounding very much like a man on a mission.

Hitting No. 1

Wade Boggs ranks first among active players in career batting average:

Player, team ......... Avg.

Wade Boggs, NYY ...... .338

Tony Gwynn, S.D. ..... .327

Kirby Puckett, Min. .. .321

Don Mattingly, NYY ... .311

Edgar Martinez, Sea... .311

Changing stripes

New members of the Yankees roster this spring from outside the organization:

Player .......... P ... Last team

Jim Abbott ...... P ... Angels

Wade Boggs ...... 3B .. Red Sox

Jimmy Key ....... P ... Blue Jays

Paul O'Neill .... OF .. Reds

Spike Owen ...... SS .. Expos

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