At the end of last week the California Angels were strong contenders in the American League West. Why? Well, there's the defense, which was strengthened and deepened by the addition of Doug DeCinces at third and Tim Foli at short. Foli has admirably filled in for Rick Burleson, who was lost for the season on April 17 with a torn rotator cuff, and the team's executive vice-president, Buzzie Bavasi, claims DeCinces has saved the Angels a run a game. Two pitchers, Geoff Zahn (5-2 through Sunday) and Bruce Kison (4-2), have far exceeded most expectations. Nevertheless, if a vote were taken among the Angels, Catcher Bob Boone would easily be elected the team's most valuable player.
"Boone's the best quarterback in the game of baseball," says Manager Gene Mauch. That savvy was on display last week. Before one game Boone told starter Ken Forsch that his pitches had been riding riskily in the same horizontal plane. Forsch, who had been unaware of this, got the drop on the Tigers and five-hit them. The next night Zahn couldn't get his changeup over but survived until the sixth because Boone had him mixing fastballs, sliders and sinkers. With Boone calling the shots, the Angel staff, which had a 3.70 ERA in 1981, has lowered it to 3.17, best in the American League. "Boone's been the difference," says Bavasi.
All of this would probably come as a surprise to Boone's previous employers, the Philadelphia Phillies, who unloaded him to the Angels for a reported $300,000 last December. In his two previous seasons Boone had batted .229 and .211, and last year he and Keith More-land threw out only 17% of the runners who tried to steal on them. Critics began calling Boone SBE2 for his throwing errors. With the Angels, however, Boone was batting .292 at week's end, and playing the kind of "little baseball"—sacrificing, squeezing, hitting to the opposite field—that Mauch dearly loves. Boone had driven in all eight runners who were on third with fewer than two outs when he came to bat. And he had thrown out 23 of 36 base stealers, for a dandy 64%.
The Phillies evidently overlooked the fact that Boone's 1979 knee surgery hampered him at the plate in 1980, and that his activities as National League player rep last year adversely affected his play. They may also have put too little stock in the fact that Boone's overthrows were made hurriedly when his pitchers couldn't hold men at first. According to Pitching Coach Tom Morgan, the Angel staff gets the ball home in an average of 1.35 seconds, and Boone gets it to second in 1.9. Only Montreal's Gary Carter (1.8) is thought to be faster. No wonder Oakland's Rickey Henderson is the only runner with a better-than-even chance of stealing on Boone.
But what Boone does best is handle his pitchers. He has a fine physique; a kung fu practitioner, Boone is 34 going on 24 and wants to play until he's 44. Despite two knee operations, he's agile enough to present a low target and block most pitches that hit the dirt. In his first nine years as a major-leaguer Boone has averaged just six passed balls a year and has caught untold numbers of pitches that otherwise would have been wild. "Earlier in the season I threw a couple of curves in the dirt that got by him for wild pitches," says reliever Don Aase. "Later he came to me and said, 'I know how your curve breaks; that won't happen again.' So I wasn't afraid to keep throwing curves. That made a big difference to me." Aase's earned run average was a fine 2.74 when he went on the disabled list Friday with a strained elbow.
After learning the game plan in a meeting with Mauch, Morgan and the starter, Boone calls all the pitches. His battery mates are delighted. "When I come in I don't want to think much, and Boonie's more aware than I am of what the hitters have been doing," says reliever Andy Hassler. "I'm used to calling my game, but I don't anymore," says Forsch. "I used to think two or three pitches ahead and get in trouble with the one I was throwing. Now I can take Boonie's sign and concentrate on the area of the plate I'm throwing to."
"The most important thing is to stay with the pitcher's strength, not the batter's weakness," says Boone. That's why he had Aase throwing fastballs early last week to Larry Herndon, a good fastball hitter—Aase's hummer that day was sharper than Herndon's reactions. In a previous game against the Yankees Boone called for 10 straight changeups by Zahn. Boone even signaled for two against Lou Piniella, a notable changeup hitter. Piniella fouled out.
Morgan says Boone's calls make pitchers more versatile, explaining, "Boonie has guys throw pitches they wouldn't have in the past—say, a changeup on 2-1 or a slider on 3-1—and that gives them more confidence. Basically, that's all pitching is—confidence."
Boone is tactful about telling pitchers what not to throw. After Mike Witt got bombed while trying to use changeups in two of three outings, Boone called exclusively for fastballs and curves. "He never said a word about the changeup," says Witt, who righted himself by adhering to the altered strategy. "I might have taken it the wrong way. Now I'm more confident about my fastball and curve instead of getting sidetracked. I guess that's why he was a psychology major at Stanford."
"Boonie can respect and disagree with you in a healthy way," says Tim McCarver, a Phillie broadcaster and ex-catcher and Boone's former teammate. "Most ballplayers aren't like that. They feel you can't like and disagree with someone. But Boonie keeps the lines of communication open. To persuade you, he'll use all his powers, including sarcasm. He undercuts that poor-little-rich-boy look of his with a biting but not offensive wit—Brutus with a smile."
In his nine years as a Phillie, Boone's most important convert was Pitcher Steve Carlton, who resisted Boone's advice until 1980. The Boonie-Lefty combination—with a major assist from Schmitty—led the Phillies to their first world championship.
"Firmness is Boonie's most outstanding trait," says McCarver. "What matters is how confidently you make a call; the conviction you have can turn things around. Even if you call the wrong pitch, your pitchers respect you so much they'll throw it with confidence."
"I view pitching and catching as less of a science than an art form," says Boone, who moved from the infield to catcher after his first two years in the minors. "For instance, you might have a pitcher who's having trouble with his breaking ball, so you'll throw them early when he won't get hurt by one that hangs. You work up to a point where you can use them in pressure situations. But I can't explain what I do. Things happen: All of a sudden you're going with pitches you never thought you'd call for." Against Detroit, Boone had told Forsch to work Enos Cabell inside, but before one at bat, Boone noticed something—or felt something—and ordered outside breaking stuff. Cabell was hitless for the night.
Boone's uncanny instincts were surely picked up from his father, Ray, an infielder for six major league teams in 13 years, who shared the American League RBI lead in 1955 with the Tigers. Bob was nine months old when his father reached the big leagues; he's been talking baseball for as long as he's been talking.
But the elder Boone suggests his son has special gifts of his own. "Everything he's done, he's done as a leader," says Ray, now a Red Sox scout in Southern California. Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association, agrees. "I remember meeting him in spring training in 1970," says Miller. "He asked, 'Why should I join the union? What is it, and how will it help me?' He was a thinking man's rookie." And a natural candidate for National League player rep, a position he assumed several years later.
Throughout all of this, Boone is proving that catchers actually wear the tools of intelligence, not ignorance. "Boonie has a knack for catching pitches outside the strike zone without moving his glove," says Forsch. "He holds his glove on the corner, and if the ball is a little outside, he'll catch it on the webbing or let it bounce off when the bases are empty. You get a lot of extra strikes that way."
"Did Forschie tell you that?" Morgan exclaimed later in mock anger. "I'm gonna get all over him! Put that stuff at the end of the article, where the umpires will miss it."