If he were just a 36-year-old, 5'8", 145-pound lefthanded knuckleballer supporting a wife and three daughters by pitching Triple A baseball in Rochester, N.Y., Daniel Boone's story would be improbable enough. But there's that name. Sure enough, Boone (right) is a descendant of the legendary American pioneer, and, with that, his story begins to sound like a Disney movie.
Sitting at his Silver Stadium locker, below a snapshot of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great uncle's tombstone, the modern-day Boone explains that preoccupations have changed a little in his family over the last 170 years. His renowned ancestor once had to dodge flaming arrows to settle a patch of land in Kentucky. Boone's dream is to be called up by the Baltimore Orioles so he can clean up late-inning messes against more contemporary Indians.
But getting to Baltimore isn't an easy trip. In the fall of 1989, Boone was spending his days hanging drywall and his nights befuddling beer-bellied batters in a San Diego semipro league, when a teammate, former Padres pitcher John D'Acquisto, was recruited by the Florida senior league. Boone told D'Acquisto to keep him in mind if any of the older shoulders in the league gave out. D'Acquisto didn't forget, and in late November, the Bradenton Explorers signed Boone, who finished the season with a 4-3 record.
While he was pitching for Bradenton, Boone's knuckleball caught the eagle eye of 77-year-old Oriole scout Birdie Tebbetts. The knuckler is the last vestige of Boone's brief major league career, the bitter cups of coffee he had with the Padres in 1981 and the Houston Astros in '82. He first tried the pitch out of desperation in April '81, after Reds catcher Johnny Bench ripped, in succession, Boone's fastball, curve and screwball into the leftfield seats, foul. "[Padres catcher] Terry Kennedy didn't know what to do, so he put down five fingers for a knuckleball," says Boone, who for years had toyed with the pitch on the sidelines. "I had never thrown it in a game, and I thought he was nuts."
But Boone knuckled and Bench whiffed. He continued to tinker with the pitch that season, appearing in 37 games for the Padres, with a 1-0 record. The following season Boone was dealt to Houston, but in June he was sent packing to the Triple A Pacific Coast League. In July '84 he called it quits and entered the drywall biz, where he toiled for five years before getting another chance with Bradenton. "He's lucky he got an old scout with a big imagination," says Tebbetts. "Normally you don't dare suggest signing a 36-year-old guy, because somebody's liable to think you're senile."
Tebbetts's faith has thus far been rewarded. Boone has been an effective reliever for Rochester, with a 6-3 record, five saves and a 3.03 ERA through last week. "His numbers are starting to open some eyes," says Baltimore farm director Doug Melvin. "If we didn't feel he could help us at the major league level he wouldn't be at Triple A."
Right now, Boone's biggest concern is his manicure. His knuckler is gripped with the fingertips, not the knuckles, and his nails are badly chipped. "I had to borrow Sally Hansen's Hard as Nails from my wife," says Boone.
With his nails on the mend, Boone waits like some sort of Slim Reaper for a pitcher in the Baltimore bullpen to falter. And as he waits, he reflects on the fortitude that comes with being a Boone. "You could say that we've both undertaken what many people felt were impossible tasks," he says, comparing himself with his famous ancestor. "I don't think I'd be brave enough to fight Indians, but then he might not have the guts to throw the knuckler with the bases loaded in the ninth."