In an excerpt from his new book, Home Game, former major leaguer Bret Boone writes about the 2003 season, which included a family reunion at the All-Star Game and one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, hit by his little brother, Aaron.
The following is excerpted from Home Game: Three Generations of Big-League Stories from Baseball's First Family, by Bret Boone and Kevin Cook. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2016. To purchase a copy of the book click here.
After a strong 2002 season in which I hit .278/.339/.462 with 24 home runs while winning my second Gold Glove and helping the Mariners win 93 games, I was rewarded with a three-year, $25 million contract. That’s nothing like today’s money, but thinking back on how hard my dad, Bob, and grandfather, Ray, both longtime major leaguers, had worked to make a good living at the game, I knew how fortunate my generation was. I remember when Willie Bloomquist got the locker next to me in 2003. He was a rookie infielder making $300,000, the minimum salary, and one day he asked to see my pay stub. Major leaguers get paid every two weeks during the season, and my biweekly pay, before taxes, was $641,025.62. His eyes bugged out. I gave Willy my best advice: “You want a check like this one? Play better!” He laughed and said he’d try that.
Even though we had missed the playoffs in 2002, we entered the 2003 season just two years removed from setting the American League record with 116 wins in ’01, so we felt like we were still the class of the division. We took over first place in April and held it through June and July. By the All-Star break I had a .313 average, 24 home runs and 76 RBIs and made my third All-Star team.
The day of the game in Chicago, we had a family reunion on the field with the four of of us—two-time All-Star Gramps, four-time All-Star Dad, three-time All-Star me, and my little brother Aaron, a first-time All-Star—posing for a photo op. That’s one of my favorite moments, and it had nothing to do with our 7-6 win for the American League in which Aaron and I went a combined 0-for-3.
As the third baseman and manager, respectively, of the Cincinnati Reds, Aaron and Dad were in Chicago as members of a National League team that day, but that soon changed. Thirteen days after the game the payroll-slashing Reds fired dad and general manager Jim Bowden. Three days later they finished de-Booning their team by trading Aaron and his $3.7 million salary to the Yankees. Aaron cried that day, but when sportswriters pressed him to rip the Reds, he refused. “Hopefully,” he said, “I’ll go to New York and be part of a winner.”
Back in Seattle, we were still doing plenty of winning ourselves, and we were leading the AL West in August when I got thrown out of a game for the only time in my 14-year career. Want to hear the whole R-rated story? First, a little background: I got along with umpires, and I’m a talker. Not a chatterbox, which is a player who runs his mouth before he earns the right. By 2003 I was a veteran, a three-time All-Star with a right to my opinion as long as I said it the right way.
Take veteran umpire Ed Montague. By 2003 he’d been umping in the majors for 30 years. A true pro, he was my favorite ump—not because he favored hitters (he didn’t) but because he called a fair, consistent strike zone.
You’ve probably heard about the so-called magic words you’re not allowed to say to an umpire. That’s a myth. Like just about everything else in baseball, what you can and can’t say to an umpire boils down to two words: it depends. If a rookie curses an ump, he’s sure to get tossed. But I’d earned the right. Montague knew I was ribbing him. I’d also been in the league long enough to debate him about balls and strikes, as long as I followed the unwritten rules.
Montague was one of the good umpires whose zone was the same in a tie game as in a 12–1 laugher on getaway day when his crew had a plane to catch. But he wasn’t perfect. Sometimes he missed one, and I let him know it.
But not to his face.
“Outside,” I’d yell at the ground in front of home plate. Because you can argue balls and strikes as long as you don’t face the ump when you do it. Turning to face him would show him up in front of thousands of fans and millions of TV viewers, and that’s the real no-no. You also need to remember where the TV cameras are. These days there’s one in dead center, so you’d better not make a face and start shouting curse words if you’re facing the mound.
“Eddie, it was a foot outside!” I’d yell at the ground, exaggerating by 10 or 11 inches.
“That’s enough,” he’d say.
“You might have a better view if you got your head out of your ass.”
“Boonie, you’re pushin’ it—”
“Just do your f-----’ job. I’ll do mine, and mine’s harder!”
None of which got me thrown out of the game. I was near the edge of getting tossed, but I always knew where the line was. After the game, I’d see Montague in the hotel bar and we’d laugh about the pitch I still said he missed.
Paul Emmel was no Montague. Emmel was the plate umpire one night in Kansas City for our first series after the All-Star break. The game started at a time when shadows caused the ball to go from sunshine to shade right in front of the plate. That sort of light is as hard on umpires as on hitters. I knew I was in for a tough at-bat when a pitch bounced and he said, “Strike!”
I looked at the grass in front of the plate. “Paul, that wasn’t f------ close.”
“Get back in the box,” he said.
In a spot like that, you have to protect the plate. I wound up swinging at a ball in the dirt, striking out. I threw my bat. I spiked my helmet off the plate. Emmel threw me out of the game, and I went after him. “You can’t toss me for throwing equipment!”
“You did it because you were mad at the first pitch,” he said.
“Yeah, but you can’t presume that.”
Our manager, Bob Melvin, came running out to join our philosophical conversation. Bob was an inch from Nauert’s nose, yelling, “You can’t toss my three-hole hitter because you read his mind!”
“I just did!”
We won that game, but we lost too many down the stretch, ending up in second place in the AL West with a 93-69 record, three games behind Oakland. I finished with 35 homers, 117 RBIs and my third Gold Glove. We had averaged 102 wins over the previous three seasons and made the postseason once.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t watch the playoffs. It hurts to watch when you think you ought to be there. If you make the postseason, you might do something they’ll talk about forever. Just ask Bobby Thomson, Don Larsen, or Kirk Gibson. Once I cleared out my locker at Safeco Field on Sept. 29, the day after our season ended, I had no desire to watch other guys play postseason baseball.
Except for one guy.
Aaron had broken in with the Reds in 1997 with none of the hype that came with my debut as the first third-generation player. Settling in at third base, Aaron hit .284 with 42 home runs in his first five years in Cincinnati. In 2002 he tried swinging harder, with more of an uppercut, like me. Sacrificing average for power, he socked 26 homers in 2002 and made the ‘03 National League All-Star team.
After being traded to the Bronx, Aaron batted .254 with six home runs as part of a career season—24 homers, 96 RBIs and 23 stolen bases for the Reds and Yankees—but he struggled so much in the playoffs that New York manager Joe Torre benched him and played light-hitting Enrique Wilson instead.
I had an easier time with slumps than Aaron did. My impulse was always Screw you, watch me tomorrow, while he was more liable to think What’s wrong with me? At that point he was as low as he’d ever been.
The Yankees advanced to the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, and I was assigned to work it as an analyst for Fox. I was new to broadcasting, but I’d always thought, How hard can it be? Answer: Easier than facing Mariano Rivera, but tougher than it looks. For one thing, it’s tricky to be a still-active player in the broadcast booth. A retired ballplayer can say what he wants. He can say, “Pedro Martinez is a headhunter,” without worrying that Pedro might fire one up into the booth at him. Not me—I still had to play against these guys next season. What’s more, I knew that players on both teams would be going into the clubhouse during the game. The TVs are always on in there. They’d see the telecast and hear everything I said.
The series went the full seven games, and Martinez started for Boston against Roger Clemens in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium. The whole baseball world was buzzing. One more win and the Red Sox would go to the World Series with a chance to beat a hex dating back to 1919, when they sold 24-year-old Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Eighty-four years and a million heartbreaks later, Boston had a chance to reverse the Curse of the Bambino. And my brother was part of it. Sort of.
Aaron was batting .125 in the series. He was miserable. He and his wife, Laura, hadn’t settled into New York yet. They were still living in a hotel room. On the night before Game 7, I knocked on their door.
Laura let me in. “Your brother’s having a tough time,” she said.
“That’s why I’m here. I want to talk to him.”
I walked in and Aaron looked beat. He told me why. “I’m 2-for-16. I’m scuffling so bad. I lost my swing.”
The first six games were done, I said, but there was one more to play.
“You don’t know what I’m going through,” he said. “You never struggle like this.”
“Oh yeah? Check my bubble gum cards for ’96 and ’97,” I said. “Arnie, I’ll admit it, you stink right now, but all it takes is one game. One swing. Especially in the postseason. You might drive in a run. Or the way you’re going, you might go oh-for-four and turn a DP to win the game, and all will be forgiven.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
The next day I got to Yankee Stadium and guess what? He wasn’t in the lineup. Torre had Enrique Wilson playing third.
So Aaron and I were both spectators—me in the Fox booth, him on the bench as the Red Sox took a 5–2 lead in the eighth inning. Jason Giambi had kept New York close with a pair of homers, a minor miracle considering Giambi’s commute to the game. On his way to the stadium he’d spent an hour in a miles-long traffic jam—until a cop recognized the tattooed dude in the Lamborghini and gave Giambi a lights-and-sirens escort to the ballpark.
Still, it looked like Pedro’s game. But the Sox were still cursed in those days, looking for their first world championship since 1918. And the Yankees were still the Yankees. In the home dugout, Derek Jeter leaned over to Aaron and told him not to worry. “The ghosts will show up eventually,” Jeter said.
Pedro got Nick Johnson to pop out to start the bottom of the eighth. Trailing by three, New York had five outs left. Then Jeter doubled. Bernie Williams singled him home. It was 5–3. Hideki Matsui doubled Williams to third. You could see the sweat on Pedro’s forehead and in his curly hair. He was gassed. Sox manager Grady Little let him throw his 123rd pitch to Jorge Posada, who doubled in both runs and the game was tied. In the ninth, Aaron took over at third for Wilson. Game 7 went into extra innings, and the score was still 5–5 when Aaron led off the 11th.
Boston’s Tim Wakefield was looking like the MVP of the ALCS. Wakefield, a knuckleballer, had won Games 1 and 4, allowing only 3 runs in 13 innings. He’d retired the Yankees in order in the 10th, and he pretty much owned Aaron. They’d faced each other five times so far in the ALCS. Aaron was 0‑for‑5 with three lazy fly balls and two strikeouts. But Joe Torre had an idea.
Torre had watched Aaron getting anxious and swinging too soon against Wakefield’s floaters. So he pulled Aaron aside as he left the dugout.
“Try going to rightfield,” Torre said. “Line one to right. That’ll help you keep it fair.”
While Wakefield finished his warm-ups, Aaron was thinking, Keep it simple. It’s just an AB. Rightfield, rightfield.
Watching from the Fox booth, I thought, Wakefield! A knuckleballer screws up your timing. On the other hand, Aaron’s so screwed up right now, it could work the other way. Maybe a knuckler’s what he needs to come out of it.
Wakefield’s first-pitch knuckler floated toward Aaron, who forgot all about rightfield. Torre’s advice might have helped him let the ball travel an instant longer, but this pitch wasn’t going to the opposite field. It wanted to be pulled, and hard. As the ball hung over the plate, muscle memory took over. Aaron planted his front foot and swung hard.
Our dad, watching on TV in a hunting lodge in Idaho with our brother Matt, jumped out of his chair. They both did. I stood up in the TV booth, watching the ball fly toward the leftfield seats while the Yankee Stadium crowd stood and held its breath. There was a moment before we all took in what was happening—and then the ball came down in the stands. Aaron raised his arms as he rounded the bases, then jumped into his teammates’ arms at the plate.
Cameras flashed everywhere. Loudspeakers played the Frank Sinatra song “New York, New York.” The Yankees charged out to mob my brother, the unlikely hero, who had a weird thought as he rounded third. He thought, What are all these people doing in my dream?
I was supposed to be describing the moment for millions of viewers, but my microphone might as well have been dead. For once I was speechless, just overwhelmingly happy for Aaron. Thinking of him tagging along with me and my friends when we were 12 and he was eight, when we were 16 and he was 12, always hustling to keep up. Thinking of all the questions he’d had to answer about his grandpa and his dad and his big brother, as if he should outdo us. Thinking of our talk the night before, when he looked beat. Awesome, awesome. That was my analysis. That’s the sum total of what was in my head, watching my brother jump into the crowd of Yankees at home plate. Awesome, awesome, awesome!
The director was yelling in my earphone, “Bret, say something!” But I couldn’t. Not without busting out crying. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, my broadcast partners, were looking at me, waiting for me to speak. A minute passed. I was breaking out in goose bumps, trying to get a handle on my emotions. My lips moved, but nothing came out.
Finally the director said, “Bret, that’s genius! Letting the moment speak for itself.”
A minute later, I pulled off my headphones and headed downstairs to the Yankees clubhouse. Not as a journalist, as a brother. Ordinarily I would never set foot in the Yankees’ locker room. That’s enemy turf. It’s like going to the wrong church, or buying a drink for a pitcher. But I had to see my brother.
I ran into Billy Crystal waving his arms at the clubhouse door, trying to join the party. He was one of the most famous Yankee fans, but he was still an outsider. The guard ignored him and waved me through. I found Aaron in a scrum of teammates spraying champagne on him. I waited for a minute, feeling awkward. Then he saw me and we had one hell of a hug. We both had tears in our eyes. It was the best hug of my life.
Neither one of us could speak. There was nothing to say. I didn’t have to say, Arnie, I love you. He knew.
That night the Yankees held a victory party in the back room of a Manhattan tavern. I went. Someone grabbed me and said, “Boonie, you’ve got to make a toast to your bro,” so I stood on a rickety table. The room got quiet. I looked around the table at Jeter, Torre, Giambi, Clemens, Mariano, Matsui, Posada, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Alfonso Soriano, and the rest, all of them waiting to hear what I had to say.
Lifting a beer toward the ceiling, I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, for one night, and one night only, I am proud to be known as Aaron Boone’s brother!” They all laughed. I hopped off the table and shook a few hands. But this was their party, not mine. They were still cheering for Aaron as I slipped out of the bar.