By IAN WILSON
Bret Boone always played like he had something to prove.
He had to prove that he wasn’t riding his family’s coattails to the big leagues. He had to prove that he belonged in Major League Baseball. And he had to prove that he was just as useful in the field as he was at the plate.
“Winning my first Gold Glove was special to me because, coming up in the minor leagues, I was always known as an offensive second baseman,” Boone told Alberta Dugout Stories in a recent interview.
“Nobody paid much attention to my defense and that kind of stuck in my craw. I thought, ‘I’m a really good defender,’ and I worked really hard because I got really sick of hearing that I was just an offensive second baseman. So that was very fulfilling for me, that was very gratifying to win that first Gold Glove.”
The second baseman’s first Gold Glove came in 1998 when he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds and three more would follow with the Seattle Mariners between 2002 and 2004.
At the start of his major league career, Boone shared the middle infield with defensive wizard Omar Vizquel, but he called Barry Larkin the best shortstop he ever took the field with.
“Omar was young. I was really young and we didn’t have that much time together to really know each other. Of course, his body of work speaks for itself on the defensive side, but it was all just a transition for me. I was getting to the big leagues and had to prove myself. It was a little awkward for a while working with Omar,” recalled the son of MLB catching great Bob Boone and grandson of all-star infielder Ray Boone.
“It’s not a slight against (Vizquel), it’s just that when I got to Cincinnati I was more honed. Now all of a sudden I had proven myself, so I had gotten through that stage. Barry and I got to work together for five years, so it’s a little different. We kind of knew each others’ tendencies.”
Once Larkin and Boone settled in, he said their connection was almost telepathic.
“I could make an unbelievable play, come up firing and I didn’t have to worry, because I knew Barry was going to be there and if that throw wasn’t just perfect he was going to make it look like it was perfect,” said the five-foot-10 native of California.
“I was fearless defensively and you need to be …. We just had that rapport that you get once in a career. We just happened to have it. No one was really close. Barry and I worked the best together. But I got to play with some great shortstops.”
GETTING A FOOTHOLD AT FOOTHILLS
Before he was winning Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger awards (2001 and 2003), Boone put in time in the minors – including the bulk of the 1992 season and much of 1993 – with the Triple-A Calgary Cannons.
He looks back fondly at his time in Cowtown but said he was continually focused on getting to the major leagues when he was living in southern Alberta.
“The people were always very gracious, very nice, back when the Cannons were playing. The fans were great, so I have nothing but positive memories from my time in Calgary,” said the three-time MLB all star.
“I sometimes got to a point where I thought, ‘Are these people for real? Are they really this nice, or are they just laughing at me when I turn around?’ I noticed that right off the bat. Everyone was real nice and cordial, and I remember the city was really clean and I thought that was really cool.”
The rapid and “crazy” weather changes at Foothills Stadium also made an impression on Boone.
“I remember one day we played a double-header, and the first game it was snowing and game two I was getting a sunburn,” laughed Boone.
During his downtime, the then 23-year-old would explore Calgary via CTrain and spend the odd evening soaking up Electric Avenue (now, just 11th Ave. S.W.), where the Fox & Firkin Tavern was a favourite hangout for the Cannons.
“Back then that was big … I remember just going there once in a while after games, and I remember they always had the street vendors afterwards and I’d get whatever they were cooking up. I didn’t always know what it was, but it was really good at midnight or one in the morning,” said Boone, who was a fifth-round pick of the Mariners in the 1990 draft.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
While he struggled with alcoholism near the end of his MLB career, Boone was far too intent on making it to the majors when he was in Calgary to be sidetracked by nightclubs.
“Not to say I was scared to go to a bar throughout my career, but back then I was so focused and everything was so eyes on the prize. It was like I had blinders on. Some of the older players who had played there a few years kind of dragged me along with them.”
The blinders paid off. Over 118 games with the Cannons in 1992, the USC alum hit .314, with 13 home runs, 73 runs and 73 RBI. He also stole 17 bases. His production was good enough to make him a Pacific Coast League (PCL) all star, along with Cannon third baseman Mike Blowers.
Cannons’ manager Keith Bodie also liked what he saw from Boone and the parent club was starting to take notice.
“Bret Boone is a great baseball player. He’s better today than he was yesterday and he’ll be better tomorrow,” Bodie told Calgary Herald reporter Daryl Slade in a June 21, 1992 article.
“He has so much ability. I told everybody from the beginning: The more he learns about himself and the game, the better he’ll play. It’s just a matter of experience …. It wouldn’t surprise me if he hit 40 home runs or stole 30 bases in a year in the big leagues some day.”
‘CANDID CAMERA’ CALLUP
Anticipation for Boone’s arrival in Seattle was building by this point, mainly because his MLB debut would make him the first third-generation player in major league history.
And while it only seemed like a matter of time before Boone’s dream would become a reality, Bodie wasn’t going to let his star second baseman get away without having some fun with him first.
“He was hard on me that year,” Boone said of Bodie. “He had that Brooklyn, New York tough guy act. At the time, I couldn’t stand him. Everything I did was just criticized and critiqued … years later, running into him, I realized what his objective was.”
After knocking a single to right field at Foothills Stadium one night, Boone was surprised to see a pinch runner meet him at first base.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He told me, ‘Keith told me to pinch run for you.’ I said, ‘No no. I’m staying here,'” recalled Boone.
That prompted Bodie to leave the dugout and confront Boone, who threw his helmet in anger. A shouting match ensued and Boone demanded to know why he was being pulled from the game.
“We’re just jawing. I mean screaming at each other. And he just kind of looks at me and he said, ‘I’m pinch running for you because you’re going to the big leagues.’ And it was mid-scream,” said Boone, who worked for the Oakland A’s as a roving instructor and scout after his playing days were over.
“It was like I was on Candid Camera …. He just smiled and he shook my hand. I was just kind of in a weird zone … It was surreal.”
MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF
He made his MLB debut on Aug. 19, 1992 and played 33 games for the M’s that year. Despite breaking through, Boone would return to the Cannons the next season, splitting time between Calgary and Seattle.
After that, Boone stuck in the majors. Gold Gloves, Silver Slugger awards and all-star appearances followed. His best season came in 2001, while playing for a Mariners team that won 116 games. That year, Boone went off, smashing 37 home runs, pounding a league-leading 141 RBI, scoring 118 runs and batting .331.
He finished third in the American League MVP balloting that season, losing out to teammate Ichiro Suzuki.
That season, followed by a stellar 2003 campaign (35 HR, 117 RBI, 111 runs and 16 SB) should have helped to solidify Boone’s legacy. But steroid allegations – including a reference from Jose Canseco in his 2005 book Juiced, listing Boone as a “part of the club” – continue to taint his achievements.
“It’s like all of a sudden in baseball if you hit home runs and you go to the gym, you must take steroids. It’s almost infantile the thought process behind it. I took as many tests as anybody else. I never failed a test. But I became a different player,” Boone told Alberta Dugout Stories.
He notes that he batted .320 with the Reds in 1994, hit 24 home runs and 95 RBI in Cincinnati in 1998, and smacked another 20 homers with the Braves in 1999 – all before his breakout campaign in 2001.
“Edgar (Martinez) was a huge influence on me as far as the psyche behind hitting, the mental approach to hitting, and I changed a lot of things when I went to Seattle,” said the 48-year-old, whose 2016 book Home Game with author Kevin Cook chronicled Boone’s playing career and his place in the Boone baseball family.
“I became flat out a better hitter. I started to think the game and the mental side really started to be a big priority for me …. At the time, I became big into the gym and nutrition and making my brain stronger. There were so many factors that went into that. Of course, that’s what everybody says when somebody does something different. Maybe they just found it. Maybe it clicked for them. But people don’t want to hear that.”
Added Boone: “I think that’s going to be out there forever. I’ve defended it enough times. I did not take it …. There’s nothing I can do if you don’t believe what I say.”
For Boone, it’s just one more thing he has to prove.