WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) - A fiercely loyal Man of Troy, Aaron Boone wears his love for Southern California football on his sleeve. He's even got an authentic Trojan helmet sitting on top of his locker in the Indians' spring training clubhouse.
It has taken a while, but Boone has gotten over his alma mater's loss to Texas in the Rose Bowl, where his celebrity status wasn't strong enough to get him a sideline pass for the national title game.
"Even Snoop Dogg got bumped,'' Boone said. "He was standing right in front of me.''
And, it took most of the winter, but the third baseman has finally forgotten most of his first season in Cleveland.
"Hopefully,'' Boone said, "I learned something from it.''
After having two knee operations and missing the 2004 season - the result of an injury sustained in a pickup basketball game - Boone got off to a horrific start in 2005. In early June, he wasn't batting his weight as his .151 average was the lowest among everyday AL players.
Indians fans booed him mercilessly, and many wondered what the club was thinking when it signed the 33-year-old. Boone's swoon contributed to a slow start by Cleveland.
Boone bounced back and a .284 average after June 3 somewhat salvaged his season. He finished hitting .243 - 22 points below his career average - with 16 homers and 60 RBIs. Not bad. But not Boone.
"As tough as last year was for me, really the worst year of my career, the one thing I'm proud of is that I was buried there and I rallied to where at least I was coming to the park feeling like I could contribute,'' Boone said. "This year, I expect to have more of an impact.''
Unlike last year, if Boone struggles again, the Indians have someone to take his place.
Andy Marte, acquired from Boston in the January deal for outfielder Coco Crisp, appears to be the Indians' third baseman of the future - if not the present. Marte, rated the No. 1 prospect when he was with Atlanta and Boston, has had an impressive training camp and looks major league ready.
Indians general manager Mark Shapiro insists the 22-year-old Marte will begin the season at Triple-A Buffalo. But that's the plan only as long as Boone doesn't start out like he did a year ago.
Boone doesn't see Marte as a threat. In fact, Boone has befriended the Dominican, taking Marte under his wing by working with him in the field and helping him fit in with the rest of the squad. Boone, who broke in with Cincinnati, remembers what it was like to be the new guy,
"He's a good dude,'' Boone said. "I found that out right away. Obviously, he's going to be a good player, and he knows how to act, too. I want to be there to help him out. But I don't want to overkill him with Johnny Veteran stuff. We're all men here and we're all teammates here. Plus, I like him.''
Their relationship could be tested if both Boone and Marte play well enough to deserve at-bats. Boone is signed through this season for $3.75 million, and he and the Indians share a mutual option for $3.75 million in 2007.
Boone knows that things could change down the road.
"The reality of it is that it could have an affect on us next off-season,'' he said. "Not to say that both of us couldn't be here, who knows. Hopefully, we're both doing our thing this year and it will be good decisions for everyone.
"There's ways to fit it, ways to work it out - from his standpoint, from my standpoint and from the Indians' standpoint. You play good, you have options.''
Boone, who restructured his contract last season to stay with the Indians, feels better than he has in years.
"I've done a lot of work to get ready,'' he said Monday after hitting his first two homers of the spring in a win over Tampa Bay. "I'm healthy already, that's the biggest thing. I played last year. I had only four or five months off instead of 18.''
Indians manager Eric Wedge noticed a difference in Boone when camp opened.
"You could see it the first day just in the way he was walking around,'' Wedge said. "He had a hop in his step. You don't see the wear in his eyes. He's fresh mentally and physically. It's night and day from last year.''
From one of baseball's royal families, Boone became a leader in Cleveland's clubhouse last season. Even when things weren't going well, and that was more times than not, Boone remained upbeat and never once ducked a reporter's question about his slump.
He led by example, even if that sometimes meant showing up at his locker to explain another 0-for-4.
"I learned a lot,'' he said. "How to survive anyway.''