‘Twas an exciting time in the Tampa Bay region. After a century of baseball in the region, and decades of attempting to land a major league team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were assembling their first roster and in the process of putting the finishing touches on.
The expansion draft had come and gone, with the team immediately acquiring veteran first baseman Fred McGriff to add some extra excitement to the team. As the off-season lagged on, the Devil Rays remained active, bringing several more veterans with the likes of Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez coming into the fold.
Then, on December 9, 1997, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made another marquee signing as they announced that sure-fire Hall of Famer Wade Boggs had agreed a one-year deal, with an option for a second year.
Career before the rainbow
Over his career up until the 1998 season, Boggs had slashed .331/.420/.447 with a total of 2,800 hits. He spent the first decade of his career with the Red Sox, debuting in 1982. He left as a free agent following the 1992 season, eventually joining the Yankees, and sticking with them through the 1997 season (winning the World Series with them in 1996).
A Tampa native, Boggs decided to return home to the region as he pursued 3,000 hits.
At a press conference held at Tropicana Field on the day of the signing, Boggs addressed the media and told them it was a special day for his career because he was getting to come home. Playing for the Devil Rays just made it all the more meaningful.
On Opening Day 1998, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first ever major league game. Wade Boggs hit third for the Devil Rays and played third base. After grounding out and popping out during his first two plate appearances, Boggs stepped up to the plate a third time.
It was the bottom of the 6th, the Devil Rays were being blown out, as the Detroit Tigers had taken a 11-0 lead. Tampa Bay had managed just four hits off of Justin Thompson heading into the frame. Quinton McCracken led off with a line drive up the middle for the team’s fifth hit of the day. Boggs came up with one out, McCracken on first.
With the count 2-2, Thompson attempted to rush a fastball past Boggs, but the veteran third baseman proved he was still able to turn on a pitch, as he walloped the ball in the right field seats for the first home run in franchise history.
Boggs would play in 123 games in 1998 for the Devil Rays, splitting the third base duties with rookie Bobby Smith. It was one of the worst seasons of Boggs’ career, as all of his numbers fell well below his normal career outputs, but it was still a respectable year. Overall, Boggs hit .280/.348/.400 with seven home runs over 483 plate appearances.
Slow crawl to 3,000
Wade Boggs finished the 1998 season with 122 hits, giving him 2,922 overall for his career, still needing 78 to get him to the 3,000 mark. Boggs would return to Tampa Bay to finish the trek.
The 1999 season was it for Boggs.
At 40 years old, with over two decades as a professional baseball player to his name, his body started to wear down on him, plaguing his performance. However, the fans in Tampa Bay didn’t have much to watch for, with the team’s performance matching Boggs, and attendance started to dwindle. So, Boggs was kept in the lineup most nights as his march towards 3,000 became the most exciting facet of the team.
For his part, Boggs kept his ability to make solid contact and get on base, but he became a defensive liability for the team.
On August 7, 1999, the Cleveland Indians were in town and Boggs was now just three hits away from 3,000.
Over 39,000 people packed the Trop, all there hoping to witness history. Boggs wouldn’t disappoint as he accomplished something that had never been done before in the history of the game.
Bottom of the sixth inning, Boggs was up for his fourth plate appearance, having already laced a pair of singles on the night.
He stepped in against southpaw Chris Haney, with Terrell Lowery on first and one out.
The count reached 2-2, when Haney attempted to loop in a curveball. It was a mistake, as the pitch hung slowly over the heart of the plate. Just like he did on Opening Day 1998, Boggs punished the mistaked and walloped the pitch in the right field seats for career hit number 3,000.
He jubilantly ran around the bases, and as he approached home plate and the crowd of teammates waiting for him, Boggs knelt down and kissed the plate.
He attempted to go to the dugout, but the crowd was relentless, so Boggs went out to receive his curtain call.
With his 20-year trek towards 3,000 behind him, and his knees failing him, Boggs could see the end in sight. He played in only ten more games for Tampa Bay following the 3,000th hit game. On August 22, 1999, the Devil Rays held a pregame ceremony, honoring Boggs for his accomplishment.
Just five days later, Boggs would play the final game of his career. He went 0-for-3 with a walk. He underwent knee surgery in September.
Boggs retired following the season and joined the front office as Special Assistant to the General Manager. Prior to the start of the 2000 season, the Devil Rays announced they would be retiring Boggs’ number 12 on Opening Day, becoming the first team number to be officially retired.
After a year serving in the special assistant role, Boggs was hired as the team’s hitting coach for the 2001 season. After one year as the team’s hitting coach, Boggs resigned.
The hat incident
With his 3,000 hits to go along with an absolutely amazing career, Boggs was a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. He ended up being elected to the Hall during his first turn on the ballot, joining Ryne Sandberg as the Hall of Fame class of 2005.
However, there was some controversy, not as to whether or not Boggs should be in the Hall of Fame, but whose cap would he be donning on his plaque. A rumor began circulating that Boggs would don a Devil Rays cap on his plaque, after being paid for doing so by Rays ownership. However, Boggs has always denied this allegation, and when the time came for the plaque to be revealed, it was a Boston Red Sox cap on the Hall of Fame third baseman.
The Rays are celebrating 20 years of history and have already welcomed Wade Boggs back once this season when they had the inaugural team comeback to commemorate the anniversary of their first game.
On August 25 of this season, the team will be giving Boggs a day of his own, and a bobble head will be given out with a likeness from his Devil Rays days.