Bigger And Better Twenty pounds of new muscle and a smoother swing have transformed Seattle's Bret Boone from a baseball-family curiosity into the AL's most potent RBI machine

July 15, 2001

Bret Boone had grown tired of those third generation questions by
1994, two years after his debut with the Seattle Mariners. His
father had played major league baseball and so had his
grandfather. It was remarkable, at least in a human genome kind
of way, no question. But what more could you say? If he was only
going to be some genealogical quirk, with a family tree more
interesting than his batting average, well, there must be
somebody else to interview. "Hey, Bret," they would ask, "what
about your son? Wouldn't that be something if... " You can see
how this might grind away at a guy, his life story reduced to the
science of DNA, a search for the baseball gene. The only
attention Boone rated was for his ancestry, and, unless you're a
Rockefeller, what's the fun in that?

The problem was, Boone's roots were often more interesting than
anything he was doing on the diamond. It actually might be better
to talk about old Ray Boone, the patriarch of the clan, who
shared the RBI title in 1955 and who trots out Ted Williams
stories at family picnics, or to talk about Ray's son, Bob, one
of the game's better catchers for 19 years and one of the few
guys who could talk to Steve Carlton. Bret, though, was up and
mostly down, one season to the next, offensive surges deflated by
stretches of strikeouts, his stubbornness at the plate offsetting
his steady play around second base. After his first full season,
with the Cincinnati Reds in '94, when he batted .320 with 68
RBIs, he was entitled to insist on a third-generation-free zone
around his cubicle. However, after successive seasons of .267,
.233 and .223 in Cincinnati, his run production declining, there
really wasn't much to talk about except the novelty of his
lineage, especially after his younger brother Aaron joined the
Reds in '97. To the extent, of course, that anybody was talking
to Bret at all.

What a difference 84 RBIs make, huh? That's how many the newly
buff Boone had at the All-Star break, leading the Mariners, whom
he rejoined this season, to the best record in baseball. Boone's
RBI total--which tied him with Manny Ramirez for the most in the
American League--is one of the season's more astonishing numbers
and, relative to his elders, projects Bret well beyond Ray's
career-best total of 116 and more in line with Hack Wilson's
alltime mark of 191. "It's not that I'm not proud of my family,"
Boone says of the attention he's receiving this year. "I am. But
this is better."

Now enterprising reporters are calling 77-year-old Ray (who
scouts for the Boston Red Sox, one of the six teams he played for
from 1948 through '60) and 53-year-old Bob, who's managing the
Reds, asking how they feel about the three-gen angle, the full
flowering of their seed. If it's starting to bore them, maybe
they should have learned to hit to all fields, too.

That's the simple explanation for one of baseball's biggest
turnarounds. The righthanded hitting Boone, at 32, with nine
seasons of inconsistent play behind him, is finally taking simple
instruction, not trying to jerk everything down the leftfield
line. An off-season conditioning program that added 20 pounds of
muscle to his 5'10" frame--"He looked like a little Tarzan when he
came to camp," says manager Lou Piniella--probably put pop in his
bat. The motivation of a one-year contract might be helping, too.
In any case the fans at Safeco Field are hardly lamenting the
defection of Alex Rodriguez, whose 41 homers and 132 RBIs last
year landed him the richest contract in major league history,
with the Texas Rangers. Rodriguez is having another A-Rod type
season, but he's not exactly running away from B-Boom.

As even Boone will explain, if you're going to drive in runs,
Seattle is the place to do it. Hitting in the fifth spot, he
rarely comes to the plate without runners in scoring position.
Imagine hitting behind rookie sensation Ichiro Suzuki (who is
batting .347), sweet-swinging Edgar Martinez (.302) and ol'
reliable John Olerud (.316). "It helps," admits Boone, "that John
has an on-base percentage of .400-plus."

"I hear him saying that," says Olerud. "But even if people are on
base, you still have to swing the bat."

Although Boone has always had considerable power for a second
baseman, he had never come close to this kind of production. In
1998, in his final year with the Reds before successive
one-season stints with the Atlanta Braves and the San Diego
Padres, he seemed to be reaching the potential he teased everyone
with when he cracked 12 home runs in 76 games for Seattle in '93.
He hit a career-high 24 homers and drove in 95 runs for
Cincinnati in '98. That season earned him an All-Star berth,
giving the Boones (pardon us, Bret) All-Stars across three
generations, a unique distinction. This year, however, in
addition to hitting .324, Boone has significantly upped his power
numbers. He already has 22 homers, so he has not exactly been
bunting Olerud across.

Why now? At first glance (and with his shirt off), the obvious
answer would seem to be his new physique. Thanks to an off-season
regimen in Orlando, where he hired a trainer to bulk him up, he
has huge guns, rolling shoulders--a home run build. Still, not
even Boone is sure that's the reason for his success. "I was in
my early 30s, heading into free agency," he says, "and the one
thing I could control was the shape I was in. Is it responsible
for more home runs? Maybe, maybe not. I didn't do it for that
reason, but to keep my body strong, just to hold up, to have some
longevity."

Boone was sobered last year at San Diego when (sans muscle) he
got off to an excellent start, with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs by
the All-Star break, then trailed off after suffering a contusion
to his right knee. That injury may have cost him as much as $25
million as potential bidders shied away. The Padres could have
picked up his option for $4 million but declined. That part of it
Boone understood. "I read in the paper they were going to cut $20
million in payroll," he says. "So, O.K., I'm not gonna be there.
Anyway, they would have lowballed me." Boone believes other teams
consequently backed away, thinking San Diego's failure to re-sign
him had to do with more than economics.

The training program was a way to take matters into his own
hands. A one-year contract (as much Seattle's decision as his;
still, the Mariners gave him $3.25 million) and then a stab as a
free agent was another way to take responsibility for his career.
It is hardly a stretch to recognize the motivation of free agency
in Boone's season. "Everybody says it's not about the money," he
says, "but this is how we make a living." Anyway, who ever said
it wasn't about the money? A-Rod? The Padres? It's always about
the money.

There are other factors in Boone's resurgence. He credits his
father's off-season tutoring as much as anything. The two have
had a long and happy relationship in baseball. As a preteenager
growing up in San Diego, Bret tagged along with his father to the
"office" whenever Dad's team was in Southern California. "A day
at the park," Bret says, "was like Christmas for me."

That relationship continues, with weekly phone calls and winter
diagnostics. "He knows hitting," Bret says of his father, who was
a lifetime .254 hitter. "He was so good defensively that people
don't think of him as a hitting guy. Because it wasn't easy for
him, he says that he had to watch and saw more than most."

This past winter the two got together earlier than usual, about
two weeks before Christmas, and worked on smoothing out Bret's
swing. The younger Boone admits he has been inconsistent, the
first sign of a slump chasing him from his fundamental stroke
into a search from which he doesn't always recover. Now he's
better able to stick with his stroke, wait out a bad game and
return with the same swing.

If Boone always got along with his father, he didn't seem to do
so well with father figures. He came up cocky, storming through
the minors and landing in Seattle, at Piniella's feet, full of
himself. "I don't want to say arrogant," Boone says, "just young
and naive." That first Seattle stint was difficult, with Boone
and Piniella often at odds. "It was no feud," Boone says, "but
Lou was hard on me. He wants you to show him you're a big league
player."

Piniella simply wanted Boone to hit behind the runner every once
in a while, not strike out so much (52 whiffs in 271 at bats in
'93). Boone was neither inclined nor able to do that, and he was
soon on his way out of town. "I'm a little wiser now," says
Boone. "I've been humbled by this game."

Humble, though, is not a word often associated with Boone. He's
cocky as ever--"I would say confident, not cocky," says Martinez.
"You have to play with Booney to know him"--but at least he's more
willing to defer to authority. "He's more disciplined [at the
plate]," says Piniella. "He's still got that cockiness, but this
time it's all coming together."

It couldn't have happened at a better time, certainly not for the
Mariners, who figured to lurch through the season without
Rodriguez. And certainly not for Boone, struggling against the
pressure of pedigree all these years, who's finally made a
name--for himself.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS COVER Shock Wave BASEBALL'S MIDSEASON SURPRISES Bret Boone: RBI machine Seattle slugger Bret Boone COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO Swing shift With a stroke made more consistent under his dad's tutelage, Boone has driven in an American League-best 84 runs.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Scooping it up Facing free-agency, Boone hopes his big year will snag him a hefty contract.

Turnarounds

In addition to Bret Boone, here are the hitters, including Luis
Gonzalez (left) who have had the most dramatic changes in
performance relative to 2000.

On the Upswing

Player, Team 2000 Stats 2001 Stats
Behind the Surprise

Rich Aurilia, Giants .271 20 HR 79 RBIs .356 12 HR 38 RBIs
Using the whole field--and batting in front of Bonds

Lance Berkman, Astros .297 21 HR 67 RBIs .365 25 HR 79 RBIs
Power expected, but league's leading hitter also benefiting
from batting in front of league's No. 2, Moises Alou

Luis Gonzalez,
Diamondbacks .311 31 HR 114 RBIs .355 35 HR 86 RBIs
Late-career clout has Gonzo, 33, with 246 total bases, on pace
to break single-season mark (457)

Ryan Klesko, Padres .283 26 HR 92 RBIs .297 17 HR 75 RBIs
Has also unexpectedly been a demon on the base paths: 17 stolen
bases in 20 attempts

Travis Lee, Phillies .235 9 HR 54 RBIs .278 14 HR 53 RBIs
Off-season tutoring by former big league manager Jim Lefebvre helped
him regain confidence and stroke

Paul Lo Duca, Dodgers .246 2 HR 8 RBIs .346 14 HR 45 RBIs
Emerging from obscurity, 5'9" catcher has been tough out while moving
in and out of five spots in the order

Doug Mientkiewicz, Twins 6 hits in 14 ABs .316 11 HR 54 RBIs
Found focus and batting eye in minor leagues and during gold medal
run at Sydney Olympics

On the Downswing

Player, Team 2000 Stats 2001 Stats
Behind the Surprise

Edgardo Alfonzo, Mets .324 25 HR 94 RBIs .233 9 HR 25 RBIs
Aching back has caused Fonzie to miss 29 games

Tony Batista,
Blue Jays-Orioles .263 41 HR 114 RBIs .210 14 HR 50 RBIs
Pop still there but on-base percentage has sunk from pathetic .307
last year to subterranean .259

Johnny Damon, A's .327 16 HR 88 RBIs .239 7 HR 35 RBIs
Expected to be catalyst, but touted import from Royals has
miserable .301 on-base percentage

Jason Kendall, Pirates .320 14 HR 58 RBIs .257 4 HR 32 RBIs
Gritty catcher turned leftfielder trying to play through
strained ligaments in left thumb

Edgar Renteria,
Cardinals .278 16 HR 76 RBIs .236 5 HR 28 RBIs
Chasing pitches out of strike zone; .287 on-base percentage

Tim Salmon, Angels .290 34 HR 97 RBIs .206 9 HR 26 RBIs
Bothered by back and neck injuries; a .108 batting average with
runners in scoring position

Gerald Williams,
Devil Rays-Yankees .274 21 HR 89 RBIs .203 4 HR 17 RBIs
Impatience at plate, malaise in team took toll

"Boone's still got that cockiness," says Piniella, "but now it's
all coming together."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)