With Skills Eroding, Hall Of Fame Third Baseman Used Trademark Patience To Help The Bombers To Championship

By Ryan Chatelain
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Twenty years later, Wade Boggs still has no idea how he ended up parading around Yankee Stadium on the back of a police horse.

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The moment became perhaps the most iconic image from the Yankees’ 1996 world championship season, their first in 18 years.

On Oct. 26, the mustached 38-year-old superstar, who ironically had been afraid of horses since being bitten by one as a child, trotted around on a horse at the “House that Ruth Built” while pointing one index finger toward the heavens and wearing a grin that an industrial-strength cleanser couldn’t erase. After all the chaos subsided, Boggs didn’t remember if he jumped on the horse or was pulled up on it.

“We wanted to take a victory lap, and we were going to run around,” the Hall of Famer recalled during a recent interview with WFAN.com. “And it was very unusual that no fans rushed the field. Everybody just stood in front of their seats clapping and yelling, and no one just bombarded the field like they normally do at sporting events when someone wins. So we took the victory lap, and next thing I know I’m in center field on a horse. It was an impromptu moment that turned out to be probably one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.”

GALLERY: Wade Boggs’ 1996 Season

It was a moment that came to the delight of previously hungry Yankees fans and to the disgust of starved Red Sox fans, who celebrated Boggs as the face of their team for more than a decade. And not that we needed any reminders of the disdain between those teams’ fans, but we got a taste of it anyway last week when some ripped Boggs for wearing his Yankees World Series ring to a Fenway Park ceremony honoring the 1986 Red Sox.

The marriage between the five-time batting champ and the Bronx Bombers began in December 1992 when Boggs was signed as a free agent. The move certainly wasn’t viewed as a slam dunk in everyone’s eyes. Boggs was 34, was coming off a season in which he batted .259 — by far his career worst — and had been battling back problems.

Wade Boggs -- 1996 Yankees

Orioles catcher Mark Parent, right, tags out the Yankees’ Wade Boggs during the third inning of Game 5 of the ALCS at Camden Yards in Baltimore on Oct. 12, 1996. (Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

Manager Buck Showalter and general manager Gene “Stick” Michael were initially against the signing, but owner George Steinbrenner, returning from his two-year ban from baseball, and managing partner Joseph Molloy thought signing a big name like Boggs would scream to the baseball world that the Yankees, who had missed the postseason the previous 11 seasons, were serious about contending again.

“If there were people who didn’t think the signing was right, they will come around,” Steinbrenner said then. “Everyone pulls together once it is done. You’re a company man. If you’re not, you’re in trouble.”

The winning didn’t come for a couple more years, but Boggs proved he was far from done writing his legacy. He batted .302, .342 and .324 in his first three seasons in the Bronx, respectively. He was an All-Star all three of those years and won two Gold Gloves.

And Steinbrenner looked like a genius.

If you examine his stats, Boggs’ 1996 season, too, looked strong. He hit .311 and was selected to his 12th consecutive All-Star Game. But there were ups and downs that his stat line does not reflect.

With Boggs showing signs of decline, the Yankees struck an August trade with the Pirates, reacquiring Charlie Hayes to help shore up third base. When Boggs learned of the move, he made a comment that was seen by some as selfish when he said, “I guess I’ll have to go elsewhere to get my 3,000 hits.”

“It was sort of just a knee-jerk reaction to all of a sudden he wasn’t going to be playing anymore as much as he was in the past — he’s used to being an everyday player,” said former major league pitcher and MLB Network analyst Jim Kaat, who called Yankees games in 1996 for MSG Network. “I think he made that remark out of frustration. Didn’t come across as a real team-oriented remark, and I know he didn’t mean it that way.”

Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs crouches down in a defensive stance during the Yankees' 4-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on July 14, 1996, in Baltimore. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs crouches down in a defensive stance during the Yankees’ 4-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on July 14, 1996, in Baltimore. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

There was also Boggs’ dreadful postseason. He batted .158 and suffered through an 0-for-22 slump.

But while Game 4 of the ’96 World Series is best remembered for Jim Leyritz’s three-run homer that tied the score at 6, it was Boggs’ trademark plate discipline that gave the Bombers the lead in the 10th inning.

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With two outs and the bases loaded, Boggs was called upon as a pinch hitter. He drew a six-pitch walk from Atlanta’s Steve Avery that scored Tim Raines. The Yankees added another run moments later and won 8-6, tying the series.

Boggs recalls that manager Joe Torre nearly sent pitcher David Cone in to pinch-hit instead of him, but changed his mind after talking it over with bench coach Don Zimmer.

“I had known Avery hadn’t pitched in three weeks,” Boggs said. “It was just a situation (in which) he’s not going to overpower me. … I knew that he could be rusty. It was chilly, and a lot of times you get caught up in the moment. (I) walked up to the plate and (the Braves’ catcher) says, ‘You live for this moment, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, this is a pretty good moment right here.'”

And while that walk didn’t pack the same excitement as a line drive over the right-field wall or a seeing-eye single, the bottom line was Boggs delivered in a clutch spot.

“Everybody wants to contribute, and you don’t want to be left out,” he said. “And that was my little way of contributing to try to help out the team. You don’t want to go into a hitting slump in the middle of a World Series or the playoffs. But I was called upon with the bases loaded, and thank goodness that Steve Avery was just a little bit wild.”

In Kaat’s mind, Boggs’ approach at the plate, which was put under the microscope in Game 4, was more than just a defining characteristic of one player on the team; it was a trait that rubbed off on other players and helped mold the Yankees into a dynasty.

“I think what a guy like Boggs does is he influences hitters with his patient approach, takes pitchers deep in the count,” Kaat said. “And I think that was a big strength of his. I think it was the same kind of influence that Donny (Mattingly) had (before he retired in 1995). That was kind of a characteristic of the start of the Yankees for the next five or six years, where they had very patient hitters, good two-strike hitters. Today, you’ll see hitters just kind of bail and wale and swing hard and strike out a lot. And the Yankees were a very disciplined team at the plate, and I think that was something Wade brought to the table.”

Wade Boggs rides police horse

Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs, right, was given a ride around the field by a mounted NYPD officer after New York defeated the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the World Series on Oct. 26, 1996. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Boggs also brought the perspective of a veteran who had felt World Series heartbreak before and would do anything to help steer his teammates away from a similar fate.

Of course, he was a member of the Red Sox’s ’86 team that saw its world title hopes begin to evaporate when a ground ball passed between Bill Buckner’s legs against the Mets.

When the Yankees went down 2-0 to the Braves in the ’96 Fall Classic, Boggs was quick to point out that the championship was still very much within the Bombers’ reach.

“I said in the back of the plane when we were flying down to Atlanta that, ‘Hey, I’ve been in this position before, and I know what the Braves are thinking, and they’re riding the 2-0 lead and thinking that it’s all over in Atlanta,’” Boggs said. “And, consequently, that was far from the truth.”

But by that same token, when things swung in the Yankees’ favor, Boggs said he urged caution.

“I was sort of a doubting Thomas because we were in the World Series, and not that I was waiting on something bad to happen, but I’ve seen things happen,” he said. “And just very fortunate we came out on the right side of the stick.”

Boggs said he thinks what made the 1996 Yankees so special was their camaraderie.

“We were sort of different than the (1978) Bronx Zoo team. We all got along,” he said. “If we would go into Minnesota, we would all end up at Manny’s (Steakhouse) for dinner, like 22, 23 of us. So we were a close-knit bunch. And I think that we carried that from the clubhouse to the field.”

And then around the field for a victory lap, one of them, memorably, aboard a horse.

For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.

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Follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanchatelain