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Baseball Is In His Blood

July 04, 1988
July 04, 1988

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July 4, 1988

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Baseball Is In His Blood

At 40, Bob Boone, the son of a ballplayer and the father of another, is still the game's best catcher

The rest of the California Angels hurried through their post-game routines, from showers to blow dryers to silk suits, eager to get started on a Saturday night. The Angels had lost a game to the Boston Red Sox that started at 3:20 p.m.; by 7:15 most of them were on their way out the door. But off in the far corner of the Fenway Park visitors' clubhouse, behind a partition, Bob Boone grunted. He stood holding a five-pound barbell in each hand. A three-pound weight was strapped to each ankle. For 10 minutes he circled and thrust his arms and legs in a sweaty ballet.

This is an article from the July 4, 1988 issue

Boone had caught all nine innings of the 8-4 defeat, crouching through 12 hits and five walks. When he finished his postgame workout—a grueling kung fu and weight training ordeal devised by Philadelphia Phillie strength and flexibility instructor Gus Hoefling and followed for years by Steve Carlton, Boone's old Phillie teammate—he was the only player left in the clubhouse. "I don't want to do this," Boone said. "But I have to. It creates and maintains discipline. It's gotten me a long way." At 8:30 clubhouse man Don Fitzpatrick gave Boone a ride back to his hotel, where he was 30 minutes late for dinner with a business associate.

Through Sunday, Boone had caught 1,988 games, more than anyone who had ever played at this most demanding of positions. What makes his record more striking is that he didn't even make the major leagues until he was two months shy of his 25th birthday. Now, at the age of 40, he's on his way to catching 100 or more games for the seventh consecutive season. Before Boone and his fellow 40-year-old, Carlton Fisk of the Chicago White Sox, came along, catching was a young man's position. Johnny Bench stopped catching when he was 33; Gabby Hartnett and Bill Dickey were part-timers by the time they were 35. No one, save Boone and Fisk, has caught 100 games in a season after the age of 36.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Boone is that in 15½ seasons as a regular catcher he has never been on the disabled list. Says Gene Mauch, who managed Boone for six seasons in California and who spent 26 years as a major league skipper, "He has the highest pain threshold and the most mental toughness of anyone I ever managed."

"It's an attitude," says Boone. "The kung fu helps, because you reach a level beyond pain, beyond exhaustion, and you always know you can do more. I tell myself. It's only pain. Can I play or can't I play? If it's just pain, I can play." So when he tore cartilage in his right knee in 1975, he kept playing. In 1984, when he tore cartilage in his left knee in spring training, he still caught 137 games. When he broke the fourth finger on his throwing hand, he taped it to the middle finger and played the next day. Only in '79, when he tore ligaments in his left knee two weeks before the end of the season, did Boone give up playing for more than a few days. He had surgery on the knee and began rehabilitation within several weeks.

Since 1976 Boone has been pushing himself through the Hoefling torture for 40 to 60 minutes every other day during the season. (In the off-season he works out three hours every day, using another Hoefling program.) He still throws out would-be base stealers at a higher rate than any other catcher in the American League. This season, for the first time since he went to California in '82, he is sharing the catching duties, with Butch Wynegar. As he winds down a career that makes him a cinch for the Hall of Fame, Boone is considering staying in the game as a manager—he is often mentioned as the successor to current Angel manager Cookie Rojas—or as a front-office executive.

It so happens that Boone, who has spent so much time wearing "the tools of ignorance," as 1920s catcher Muddy Ruel once described the paraphernalia of his trade, graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in psychology in 1969. He never intended to be a catcher; he went to the Phillies as a third baseman. But Philadelphia had young Don Money at third and converted Boone to a backstop in 1970. Good thing for Boone, because in '71 the Phils signed another third baseman, Mike Schmidt. "I had good hands, a strong arm and good speed within three feet," says Boone. "I was reticent about moving. Becoming a catcher was the best thing that ever happened to me, considering the way I hit."

Boone is a career .250 hitter, and he has never had more than 12 home runs in a season. Those modest numbers underscore his value behind the plate. He has appeared in only 16 games at a position other than catcher. Still, he never intended to go on this long. "I had always worked diligently toward two careers—baseball and medical school," he says. "In 1975 I almost quit to go to medical school, because baseball wasn't going to be a way to make a lot of money. I put it off, and that winter Andy Messersmith changed all that." Messersmith was the pitcher who defied baseball's reserve clause and paved the way for free agency. Boone stayed on, and after the 1981 season the Phillies sold his contract to the Angels for $300,000. Two years later Boone signed his first big contract: $2.75 million over three years.

Baseball is in Boone's blood. He got it from his father and has passed it to his son. Ray Boone, 64, spent 13 years as a major league shortstop, third baseman and first baseman for the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Braves. He was converted from catcher to replace Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau because Cleveland had a good young backstop named Jim Hegan. In 1955 Ray shared the lead in RBIs in the American League, with 116. He retired in '60 to begin a scouting career with the Red Sox that's now in its 29th year. Bob's son Bret, 19, recently completed his freshman year at Southern Cal, where he played second base and batted .326 with eight homers, 53 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 62 games. The Boones could become the first three-generation major league family, but not until Bret becomes eligible for the draft, after his junior year. His grandfather the scout offers this unabashed report: "Bret's a solid middle infielder who's getting stronger [he's 5'10", 165 pounds], a plus [above-average] bat, plus power and above-average speed. A definite prospect." Ray adds this footnote: "He has a lot more natural talent than his father. Bob had to work for everything he got."

All three Boone men consider Southern California their home. Ray was raised in San Diego in a working family during the Depression. He never made more than $50,000 a year playing the game; Bob earns close to $900,000. "Bret and I are baseball brats," I says Bob. While his father was playing ball, Bob attended three different schools each year: in San Diego during the winter; in Florida during spring training; in Detroit, or Chicago, or Milwaukee from April through June. Bret stayed put wherever his dad played, except during spring training, when he and his brothers Aaron, now 15, and Matthew, 8, would study with a tutor.

Ray would throw batting practice at Tiger Stadium to Bob and his younger son, Rod, who played in the minors for four years. In 1958, when Ray was traded to Chicago, Bob shagged flies while the White Sox took batting practice at Comiskey Park. "I'd hear a roar, and I knew either Bob or Early Wynn's son [Joel had made a great catch," says Ray. Bob signed his first autograph at 11; he was so big for his age that the Sox equipment man gave him Nellie Fox's uniform to wear into the outfield, and one day a fan, thinking Boone was Fox, asked him to sign a program.

When Bob played for the Phillies, Bret would work out at Veterans Stadium, running down flies and learning about life in the clubhouse. Bret got his first standing ovation at nine when, during warmups for the 1979 All-Star Game in Seattle, the crowd rose to cheer his behind-the-back catches while shagging fly balls.

But these baseball brats are not alike in all respects. Says Bob, "Bret and I are as different as night and day." Bob has always worked hard to make himself a player. Bret is a natural. "He walked at six months, and by the time he was one, his grandfather was pitching Wiffle Balls to him, and he could hit them over the house," says Bob.

Ray says that Bob was extremely serious and never talked about himself: "He came home after a high school basketball game one night and I asked him how he played. He said, 'O.K.' Nothing else. The next day I found out he was the high scorer with 27 points."

"I was boring," says Bob. "My parents never had to find something for me to do. They never dreaded the weekends, as I did with Bret. I loved to study." Bret says, "I'll read the book when it comes out on video."

Not long ago Bob demonstrated his Hoefling workout for Bret. He suggested that Bret join him in his off-season conditioning program. "Dad," Bret said, "I can hit."

Caught between a father who hit .275 lifetime—including four consecutive seasons in Detroit during which he averaged .296 with 23 homers and 99 RBIs—and a son cocky enough to make wisecracks about the way his old man bats, Bob doesn't talk a lot about hitting. He'll talk about having played in postseason competition six times in the last 11 years, but he won't mention his .318 postseason average. Nor does he bring up his four All-Star appearances. "My job is catching," he says. "And the biggest part of that job is handling the pitching staff. That takes a lot of preparation. I have to have everything planned out before I even begin to think about hitting."

Before the first game of any series, Boone arrives at the park six hours early. He studies the scouting reports and watches videotapes of the opponent's recent games. Then, when the opposing team takes batting practice, he sits on the bench and watches intently. "In BP, hitters will show you what they want to hit," he says. He discusses rival hitters with Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann but avoids long strategy sessions with the starting pitcher.

"I don't believe in going over lineups or talking with a pitcher, especially if he's young," Boone says. "That creates too many negative thoughts, like, 'Don't throw this guy a fastball.' Pitchers have ideas. Fine. But it's my job to get ideas, give my pitcher the target and, in so many words, say, 'Just think about giving me your best fastball here,' or 'Just give me your best forkball there.'

"Calling a game is an art form, not a science. You can't call a game five hours before it begins, or from the bench. There are so many minor adjustments that hitters and pitchers make back and forth during a game, it becomes a sort of mental chess game. I don't believe in going to the mound too often, except to try to relax a pitcher. You can communicate without saying a word, and sometimes it's better that way.

"There are only a handful of pitches in each game that are crucial, so you'd better not overdo the rest. Getting a young pitcher through a day when he's got mediocre stuff is more fun than going 4 for 5. All that stuff is the fun part of the game. It certainly isn't fun getting beaten up."

"Boone is amazing in that one immediately feels confident putting the pressure into his hands," said Angel pitcher Dan Petry recently. "He's a genius when it comes to the subtleties of building confidence. My fastball was being hit, it was only going about 84 miles an hour, and I was reluctant to throw it. But he kept calling for fastballs. Soon my confidence returned, and the last three or four starts I'm back around 90, where I was three years ago." Says reliever Donnie Moore, "Pitching to Bob Boone is like having a love affair. You just fall in love. It's so easy to adapt to him."

"Boone had a lot to do with my development," says Angel pitcher Mike Witt. "He helps in a lot more ways than calling the game. He frames pitches [a technique in which a catcher moves his glove gently to catch the ball in the webbing while most of the mitt stays directly behind the strike zone] so well that he steals strikes that are four or five inches out of the strike zone. He works so hard to go down in the dirt for the hard curve-ball that you never worry about bouncing it back to the backstop. With a lot of catchers, you're so afraid of the wild pitch that you choke the curveball and leave it hanging."

Boone says his catching skills "just evolved. I never thought much about framing or receiving. Those things came with playing. Of course, I couldn't have done it all these years without the vast amount of stretching I do. Fisk does it, too. Flexibility is everything to a catcher. When you start to lose it, you can't catch anymore. The toughest thing for me now, at 40, is blocking balls in the dirt. When a catcher gets older, he tends to come up on those balls. The key is deadening your body to take the ball off your chest, but it gets harder and harder to do that. I had some difficulty with that earlier this year, and all I can do is work harder on stretching and Gus's flexibility exercises."

The most tangible aspect of Boone's defensive prowess is his strong arm, although he feels that stats measuring how many base runners a catcher throws out don't by themselves reflect his value. In fact, Philadelphia was happy to sell Boone, because he and catcher Keith Moreland threw out only 17% of those who tried to steal on them in '81. "The Phillies soon found out it was the pitchers' fault, not mine," says Boone. In his six-plus years with the Angels, Boone has thrown out would-be base thieves at a rate of 46%, far and away the best in baseball. "I've never had trouble throwing because I've always had good mechanics," he says. "I transfer energy from my legs. Of course, the leg strength goes back to the workouts. And in the last 10 years I haven't even had dead-arm periods because of all the weightlifting I do in the off-season."

Boone doesn't know how many more years he'll continue to play. He no longer thinks about medical school, and he isn't that interested in going into business. He may get a chance to start managing, though, before his playing days are over.

"Catcher-manager?" Boone says. "It would be tough to do, but it wouldn't be impossible. It would require a top-flight righthand man who could handle a lot of situations. I do know that after all these years, yes, I want to stay in the game. I'd like to manage. That's not to say I will manage, because the circumstances and conditions might not ever be right, in which case I'd have to think of something else to do. I don't know what that would be, though. Stanford wouldn't be too proud of some guy who at 40 just wants to stay in the game."

Boone is wrong there. Stanford will forever be proud of this guy who will one day take the tools of ignorance all the way to Cooperstown.

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONBoone, a Stanford graduate, has borne "the tools of ignorance" in a record 1,988 games.PHOTOCOURTESY PHILADELPHIA PHILLIESThree generations of Boones (in the late '70s): Bob, Bret, Ray and Aaron.PHOTOV.J. LOVEROBret, a sweet-hitting infielder at USC, takes after his grandpa more than he does his dad.PHOTOV.J. LOVEROEvery other day during the season, Boone goes through a grueling, one-hour workout.