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Baseball Is In His Blood
Peter Gammons
July 04, 1988
At 40, Bob Boone, the son of a ballplayer and the father of another, is still the game's best catcher
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July 04, 1988

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

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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.

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.

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