DUCK KEY, Fla. — Watch a Baseball Hall of Famer become a puddle of mushy cooing when he's approached at a charity saltwater fishing tournament by a little girl who is fighting cancer, and the sense is immediate that he cares most about those for whom such charities are working.
Wade Boggs and his wife, Debbie, travel all over North America and the world for charity events, most notably the Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series, for which Boggs is on the road for half the year.
This week at Hawk's Cay Resort in the Florida Keys, Boggs was the celebrity host for the Redbone Sunrise/Sunset Tarpon Tourney, which eventually will be featured on the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series presented by TakeMeFishing.org on ESPN Outdoors programming.
The Mercury Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series was founded by Gary and Susan Ellis in 1988 with a mission: "To catch the cure for cystic fibrosis."
Through the years, Boggs has forged an abiding friendship with the Ellises and their daughter, Nicole, who has CF.
Because of their charity commitments, the Boggses have enjoyed annual visits to beautiful destinations such as Puerto Vallarta, a favorite of Debbie's. That event is hosted by Bob Houston of California, who also came to Hawk's Cay this weekend to compete and give to the Ellises' cause.
"It's all we know," Wade said. "We make sure we can do every Redbone event that we can. I think one year Debbie and I did 21 events. It seemed like every weekend we were somewhere else: We were in Saint Augustine, we were in Montauk, we were in Key West, we were everywhere."
Boggs' soft spot for helping kids and people of all ages comes from personal experience.
"Wade was very sick as a child, until he was 10 years old," Debbie said. "And we were dating when he was in high school, we got married out of high school, and when we played our first year in the big leagues, there were seven players on the team with terminally ill kids. One was sick with cystic fibrosis.
"Now when you're an active player, these tournaments are during the season, so it's impossible to do them. Wade, after he was retired, the fishing tournaments for charity were a perfect scenario. Most of the players we've met, golf is the big one for them, but for Wade fishing is first — he'd rather fish than play golf.
"I come with him and these are great events," said Debbie, who will fish her second tournament of the year soon, one that will benefit breast cancer research. "And actually it's a little selfish. You get to go to these wonderful resorts, and you're helping people that you already would want to help anyway, and you get to fish. It's a bonus that you're helping people. Even if players we know don't fish, they would do it for a charity."
Debbie added that one of the things that makes her most proud of her husband is the fact that if he's asked to do something — a small local event for a few kids — he checks his schedule and, if he can do it, he'll put the event on the calendar.
"It can be a one-day thing he's committed to in a small town," Debbie said, "and somebody will come and offer him a hunting trip of a lifetime that same day — and his favorite thing in the world to do is hunt — and he will not do it if he's already committed to a charity event. If you ask him to do it and he puts it on the calendar, you can bet he'll be there."
Along with Boggs, some friends from Major League Baseball have become regulars in the fishing tournaments or host their own charity events, including Mike Stanley, Tim Wakefield and Bill Hurst. Football players have joined in the fun and the mission, and recently two Bassmaster Elite Series pros, Bobby Lane and Chris Lane of Florida, competed in their first Redbone event.
Joining Boggs to compete as celebrity/athletes this week were Miami Dolphins quarterback John Beck, guided by Scott Meyer, who won his second straight Celebrity Grand Champion award, former Miami Dolphins wide receiver/running back Jim "Crash" Jensen, and current Dolphins guard Justin Smiley and quarterback Chad Henne.
Boggs caught one tarpon for the entire two-day tournament at Hawk's Cay, and even before the fishing began it was clear that the number of fish he might catch mattered little.
"The thing about it is, you have to raise money and you have to get the word out. You have to raise money for the cause," Boggs said. "Gary and Susan, and Nicole, have a piece of my heart and Debbie's. We have been around Nicole since she was 3 or 4, for her graduating college, we've seen her grow so much and we've seen the transformation and how things work for cystic fibrosis.
"Everyone asks if we have a child afflicted with cystic fibrosis and I say 'No.' Gary and Susan are why we do this. Gary calls up and says, 'Wade, I need you at Montauk, can you go?' And I say yes. They're the driving force. We go where it takes us, and that's the way it is."
The Sunrise/Sunset Tarpon Tourney is part of the Mercury Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series. Proceeds from the accompanying silent auction benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.