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Mike Downey

Just Like Old Times, This Angel Is Having a Ball at Tiger Stadium

August 20, 1986|Mike Downey

DETROIT — When Bob Boone was a kid, growing up in the suburbs here, he would come to Tiger Stadium as often as possible, just to see Al Kaline patrol right field, or to see Jim Bunning pitch, or to see Charley (Paw Paw) Maxwell belt home runs on Sundays, as the man from Paw Paw, Mich., was wont to do.

He also used to come to see the Tiger third baseman. That is where his father got him tickets, in fact--right behind third base. "I can remember it very vividly, sitting behind third base and eating hot dogs," the Angel catcher said Tuesday at Tiger Stadium, between games of a twi-night doubleheader with Detroit. "I knew every vendor in the place by name."

He knew the third baseman's name, too. It was "Dad." The third baseman at the time was his father, Ray Boone, a slugging big league infielder for 13 seasons who hit .308 for the Tigers in 1956 and 151 home runs in his career.

Ray, 63 now, lives in El Cajon, Calif., and scouts for the Boston Red Sox, for whom he personally discovered infielder Marty Barrett and other fine prospects. A new kid he has his eye on these days is an Anaheim infielder who just finished his junior year of high school--Bret Boone, his grandson.

"I think he's an excellent prospect," Ray Boone told a reporter just the other day.

In the meantime, Ray's son is not doing badly at all. Oh, he went on the Angels' current trip in a 1-for-24 swoon at bat, but since the club was in first place, and since he was still the outstanding defensive catcher that he has always been, Bob Boone felt things were going pretty well indeed.

They did not get any worse Tuesday night when Boone cracked a run-scoring double and a two-run homer in his favorite childhood playground to spark the Angels' 5-2 victory over the Tigers. Boone also gunned down the speedy Lou Whitaker as he tried to take second base--after a pitch had gotten away from the catcher.

Baseball is fun again for Boone, 38, as fun as it was in his Little League days alongside St. Francis Cabrini Church in suburban Allen Park. A couple of seasons ago, it was fun only for the Detroit players, who were busy winning the World Series. Boone, at the time, was fading to a season-low batting average of .202.

But Boone was never much of a hitter, not really. That was his dad's line. Bob Boone has been in the majors since 1972 without ever hitting .300 in a season, and he still does not have 100 home runs.

It matters not a bit. Boone is self-deprecating about his hitting. He was making jokes about it again Tuesday. "If I'd had to survive with my hitting all these years, I'd be a lot thinner right now," he said.

For Boone is a catcher, a catcher deluxe. He is to his position what Mark Belanger once was to shortstops, a defensive player so extraordinary that it is barely necessary for him to lug a bat to the park.

Harmon Killebrew recently addressed Boone this way in a scouting report on big league players: "Physically, he has leveled off, but mentally, his skills are as sharp as ever." Any offensive production Boone supplies, said Killebrew, is strictly "a bonus."

Even from a physical standpoint, Boone is something special. No man catches as long as he has without sacrificing his body, without being in condition to do so. Boone, as of Tuesday, had gone into his squat in 1,771 different big league games, putting him fourth on the all-time list, ahead of Johnny Bench, and within 19 of Gabby Hartnett.

Another team tried to move Carlton Fisk to a new position this season to save the catcher's body and prolong his career. Boone, asked if anyone had ever offered the same consideration to him, smiled and said: "Nope. I'm right where I'm supposed to be. I know the only reason I'm playing baseball is because I can catch that sucker."

The man was indulging in a bit of pleasant exaggeration.

"Let's face it, if I can't catch, I can't play," Boone said. "And I've known that for 20 years. That's why they moved me from third base in Philadelphia when Mike Schmidt moved up to the majors. It was the best move of my career. Because, like I said, if I'd have had to make a living with my bat, I'd be starving now."

The home run he hit against Detroit, then, aside from jogging memories of his "favorite hitter's park," was a nice bit of unexpected new for the Gene Mauch's Angels, who, as usual, had their catcher batting ninth. The trademark of a good team is usually when even the No. 9 hitter is dangerous, at least once in a blue moon.

"My offense, any way you cut it, is going to be a plus," Boone said. "If the guys in the middle of our order don't hit, we're not going to win, regardless. But at least if I don't screw it up every time up, I can help us win one once in a great while."

Had he changed his stance or done anything to help break out of the slump he was in?

"Yeah, as a matter of fact," Boone said. "But I'd better not talk about it. If I try to verbalize it, I'll probably just screw it up more."

Just as he probably will be screwing it up a couple of years from now--when, perhaps, he will catch his 2,000th game, gun down a runner or two, and maybe toss in a hit or two to boot. Maybe a kid sitting near third base will be clapping. Or maybe Bob Boone will be back in those bleachers, clapping for another Boone on the field.

"You never know," he said.

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