COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. Growing up, Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg were just like any other kids in love with baseball, playing imaginary games and dreaming.
''In the backyard, when you were playing whiffle ball, you always imitated all the great players,'' Boggs said. ''I was always Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose. All those guys.''
''I had a rope line for the home run on top of the garage, off the garage was a double, trees and picnic tables were the fielders,'' Sandberg said. ''I played with a solid plastic golf ball. I remember putting my arms up in the air on a game-winning hit, 'Is it out of here? Yes!' And I was by myself.''
Four decades later, those childhood dreams will culminate with the greatest of honors induction Sunday into the Hall of Fame.
Also being enshrined are San Diego Padres announcer and former New York Yankees second baseman Jerry Coleman, and longtime writer and broadcaster Peter Gammons.
''The Hall of Fame is not something an athlete can set as a goal,'' said Boggs, a five-time AL batting champion for the Boston Red Sox who became just the 41st player elected on his first chance. ''It's something that evolves.''
For both Boggs and Sandberg, it evolved slowly at first.
Boggs, who batted left-handed, was a scrawny kid who didn't attract much attention even though he finished his senior year at Plant High in Tampa, Fla., on a 26-for-33 tear. He was drafted in the seventh round by the Red Sox and then spent five-plus seasons in the minors.
Although he won one batting title and finished among the top four hitters four other times, the Sox didn't even invite him to spring training after he barely missed winning the batting title while playing third base for Triple-A Pawtucket in 1980.
''The only thing that I was told by the Red Sox was that I don't hit for power and that I play in a power position and that I wasn't going to be able to play in the big leagues if I don't hit for power,'' said Boggs, who also played for the Yankees and Tampa Bay, retiring with 3,010 hits. ''I forced their hand in 1981 when I led the league in hitting and wasn't called up in September. They had to make a decision on me there.''
The Sox chose to keep him.
Boggs learned his inside-out swing from his father, Winfield, a fast-pitch softball star.
He went on to hit .300 or higher 15 times, finished with a .328 career average and was the only player in the 20th century with seven straight 200-hit seasons.
''It was just one of those things, when someone tells you can't do something, you go out and work twice as hard and try to hone your craft,'' said Boggs, a notorious creature of habit who believed his game-day rituals, such as eating chicken before every game, contributed to his success. ''Honing my craft was the ability to get on base, hit for high average, and score runs. That was my game. I knew I could hit a line drive the majority of the time when I swung.''
Still, for all his hitting accomplishments, Boggs treasures the two Gold Gloves he won with the Yankees.
''I always hated hearing, 'Well, he can't play third. He's a good hitter, but he's not a very good third baseman,''' Boggs said. ''And the only way you can get a label as a complete ballplayer is to go out and win a Gold Glove. It took a lot of hard work. When Don Mattingly called me that night at 12:30 in the morning and congratulated me on winning the Gold Glove, I just started crying right in the middle of the bed. I never cried after winning a batting title.''
While Boggs was a star kicker in high school and could have played college football, Sandberg was all but signed, sealed and delivered to be the starting quarterback at Washington State instead of a minor league shortstop.
''I signed a letter of intent. I had all my classes picked, and I had a roommate,'' Sandberg said. ''All of my college trips my senior year were college trips for football. I was highly recruited. I think I even had a backpack and a bathrobe that said Washington State on it, so I was ready to go.''
Apparently, big league executives figured the same he wasn't picked until the 20th round of the 1978 amateur draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. Although the 6-foot-2 Sandberg began at short, he eventually was switched to second and, like Boggs, had to endure a label of his own.
''I heard a lot of talk about being too tall to play the position how can you move around, turn the double play? because I wasn't the prototype that everybody was used to as a second baseman,'' said Sandberg, who was traded in January 1982 by the Phillies with Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for Ivan DeJesus. ''It felt like I was fighting that a little bit.''
The trade gave Sandberg a chance to play everyday, and he quickly quieted the skeptics.
When the Cubs acquired Ron Cey from the Dodgers to play third base in 1983, Sandberg became the starting second baseman and won the first of his series of nine consecutive Gold Gloves.
''I really liked the transition from third base,'' said Sandberg, who was elected to the Hall of Fame on his third try. ''I just liked being in the middle of the diamond, loved turning the double play. As I got more confident and mature, the power numbers started.''
And after a signature moment at Wrigley Field, he figured he could be just as good as anybody who played the game.
On June 23, 1984, Sandberg went 5-for-6 against the Cardinals and drove in seven runs, hitting a home run in the ninth inning to send the game into extra innings and tied the game again one inning later with another home run both off Bruce Sutter, one of the best relief pitchers in history. The Cubs won the game one inning later.
''That game took me to a whole other level,'' Sandberg said. ''It really brought to life what Jim Frey, my manager, was talking about that spring training, being more of an impact type of a player and being capable of having big games. It all kind of fell in place, that I could play at that level.''
Sandberg won MVP honors that year, hitting a career-high .314 with 19 homers, 84 RBIs, 114 runs, 32 stolen bases, and made only six errors in 156 games. And he led the Cubs to within one game of the World Series.
''I strived to be the best all-around player that I could be, doing little things, and doing a lot of things correctly,'' Sandberg said. ''I was the type of player that if you watched one game, you might not be too excited. But if you watched 162 games, then I think you might see something.''
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