Earlier this week, my wife texted me at work to tell me that Wade Boggs was scheduled to make an appearance at the Hannaford Supermarket in Nashua on Friday evening from 5 to 7. I was a little disappointed because I used to love Wade Boggs – he was the Red Sox best offensive player during my formative years as a fan; in 1988, the first year I remember following baseball, he hit .366 – but I work until 6:45 on Friday nights and didn’t think I could make it to the store in time.
Somewhere around five or so, I began to reconsider. My last drop-off was in Nashua, about two exits north of Hannaford. If I finished as close to 6:45 as possible and got to the highway immediately, I could make it there just in time to see Boggs, get an autograph (a quick search of my Saturn Ion’s console revealed the tickets from last September’s visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame – perfect!)…and maybe an interview?
That’s right, folks: thanks to an awesome mixture of the fatigue that can only come from sleeping a combined six hours in two nights and the ballsiness that can only come from actually speaking to professional athletes without sounding like a total fool, I decided that if the opportunity arose, I would tell Wade Boggs about this blog and see if he had the time to answer a couple questions. No, I was not under the influence of drugs, although I was willing to consider the possibility that I was being a wee bit delusional. Okay, a lot bit delusional.
The Ion rolled into the Hannaford parking lot at 6:52. For some reason I expected some sort of outdoor setup, a table and a long line of people; when there was no immediate sign of Boggs outside the store, I texted my wife to proclaim my disappointment, then hatched a brilliant plan: I didn’t really need much at the store, but what I would do was walk inside, check it out to see if he was there, and buy a gallon of milk if he wasn’t. Because you know, it wouldn’t look weird for a heavyset, unshaven guy to wander around a supermarket like he was searching for somebody, only to suddenly grab a single item and run for the checkout. Flawless, this plan was.
I walked inside, phone in hand (I flip it around in my hands when I’m nervous), and was immediately confused. Put simply, Hannaford is a bitch to navigate. Sure, there’s aisles and stuff, but the deli (or what I think was the deli) was plopped right in the middle of the store, perpendicular to the back wall, a divisive force separating the regular part of the store and the produce. I assessed the situation and determined that the best option was to head straight to the back of the store and cut left, where I thought the dairy might be. If I ran into a Hall of Famer along the way, good deal. If not, well, we could use the milk.
As I was walking toward the dairy section, feeling confident that I wouldn’t be seeing Boggs (and realizing that even if I did, I had nothing for him to sign – in my haste, I had left the ticket, that perfect autographable item, in the car), something appeared that was out of place: yellow police-style tape surrounding the end of an aisle. From a distance, it looked random, like they were cordoning off a spill or a broken shelf or something, but as I got closer, I realized that there was a definite structure. The tape was arranged like the ropes at a bank, designed to funnel people to a specific destination in an orderly fashion. And in front of the tape, seated at a table, pen in hand, was Wade Boggs.
The first thing I heard when I arrived was a young guy next to him, herein referred to as his publicist, saying, “Alright folks, two more, then we have to get going. Just two more, please, you and you.” I hung back while he signed a couple more beyond that, posed for a picture, mentioned that he had to move on to his next stop (which I didn’t realize at the time was just down the road at the Lowell Spinners game). When he paused to autograph two hats the publicist was holding, I made my move, moseying up in front of the table and trying to catch the eye of the younger man.
No dice – he and Boggs turned on their heels without so much as a glance in my direction and started toward the front of the store. After a few seconds of intense internal deliberation, I followed, walking down the next aisle over. When I got to the end and saw that they were a few feet in front of me, I figured it was over. They headed for the door, for the car, for their next destination, while I headed for the same door, my own car, my own next destination. It was pretty obvious that the eventuality I had prepared for in the car, that the Boggs interview was just another event that would live forever in my imagination, was about to become a reality.
Until Boggs decided he had to take a leak.
They paused near the door, then veered off toard the restrooms. I paused too, suddenly unsure of what the future held. As Boggs went into the bathroom, I made my decision: I was going to use this opening to talk to the publicist. He’d probably wait outside, I’d tell him who I was and what I was looking for, and Boggs and I would talk. It would be glorious.
Of course, they both went into the bathroom, leaving me standing around outside to contemplate my next move. I was still contemplating (and shaking like a three-day sober alcoholic) when they came out, one after the other, and passed not more than two feet in front of me. I tried to catch the publicist’s eye; it didn’t work. I cleared my throat. It was now or never.
“Excuse me?” I said tentatively.
He tried as hard as possible to ignore me. I could see in his face that he wanted to keep walking. Fortunately, basic human decency won out and he turned toward me. I don’t think he spoke, so I launched into my nervous pitch.
“I write a blog about minor league baseball and I was wondering if Mr. Boggs might have time to answer a couple questions about his experiences while you guys walk to the car?”
He looked at me with roughly the same amount of respect he might have afforded a urinal cake that suddenly appeared in front of him with a request to interview his client.
“While we’re walking to the car?”
He barely broke stride, pulling out his phone to call for Boggs’s car. “Well, he’s right there, you can ask him if you want.”
I turned to my right and there he was: Wade Boggs, the hero of my childhood, one of the only lefthanded hitters in the Red Sox lineup (a huge deal to a lefthanded kid who used to run through that same lineup in his backyard, switching sides depending on the hitter; I was generally either Boggs or Rich Gedman). I asked him if it was okay to use the video function on my phone to record his answers, since I didn’t have another recorder, and almost simultaneously asked my first “question”, about his experiences as a minor league player, both good and bad.
Turning on the camera on my phone can be done in one of two ways: I can either push the Menu button, then Media Center, then Picture & Video, then Record Video and we’re good to go. That’s four steps. The other way is to push and hold a button on the side of the phone. After about five seconds, it’s ready to record. My nerves were so shot, I chose the long way and completely missed the answer to that first question, which took us from just inside the supermarket doors to the curb outside. He did say that he liked the bus rides and getting paid for doing what he loved.
At that point, he stopped to sign two balls for a fan who had followed us out the door. I waited patiently until he looked up, paused like a deer caught in headlights as my subconscious realized that Wade Boggs was waiting on me to ask him a question, and launched into the first thing that came to mind (he did not mention applie pie or Americana in his response):
“It took you awhile to get to the major leagues, right?”
“Yeah, five and a half years.”
“I mean, obviously you could play, so what was it that took so long, what held you up?”
“Well, I had Butch Hobson in front of me, and they felt that they needed a third basemen to hit for power and I was hitting for average in the minor leagues, and you know, I was hitting .300 every year and it just wasn’t good enough.”
At the time, I was just trying not to crap my pants, but looking back, this statement says everything about the way the minor league system is set up and the fact that even the best players are subject to the approval or disapproval of the front office. Butch Hobson is a great guy and a nice power threat at the back of the Red Sox lineup for a couple of years, but he was an average player at best. (Glenn Hoffman and Carney Lansford also served as roadblocks from 1980-82.) The idea of him blocking a Hall of Fame hitter like Boggs is laughable, but strangely believable given what we know about the way the system operates.
For some reason, I’m fascinated by the idea of when ballplayers decide it’s time to leave the game behind. Of course, he gave the exact answer I would have expected from a guy who eventually made the Hall of Fame:
“Was there ever a time when you were like, ‘The heck with it, I can’t do it anymore?'”
“Absolutely not. I was getting paid for doing something I’ve always loved, that was the greatest part about it.”
“You were sticking it out no matter how long it took?”
“Yeah, I was. If I had to be a career minor leaguer, so be it.”
I know some of that was BS, but some of it has to be true. You play the game because you love it, no matter what level you’re at, and there are obviously guys out there who spend long, long careers playing for whichever minor league team is willing to give them the next chance to get on the field. Was Boggs one of those guys? It’s impossible to say. He seems to think he would’ve hung on for a good long while, though.
And that was the end of it. His car had arrived, so I snapped my phone closed (without thinking to save the video; fortunately, it saves automatically when the phone shuts) and thanked him for his time. He shook my hand. And as he was leaving, I managed to throw out the one thing I thought was most important, the one thing that Wade Boggs should know about me, where I’m coming from:
“You were one of my heroes growing up.”
He thanked me and climbed into his car, ready to head down the road to that Lowell Spinners game. I walked down the sidewalk in front of Hannaford’s, fumbling with my phone, trying to figure out how the hell to view a video on the stupid thing, and wondering if I had really just had the balls to request an impromptu interview with Wade Boggs.
And later, a long time later, after I had had some time to process the situation, to realize that yes, I was awake the whole time and it was a pretty cool experience, something else dawned on me:
I never did pick up that gallon of milk.