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SCOTT OSTLER

Bob Boone, at 40, Is Beginning to Catch On

August 08, 1988|SCOTT OSTLER

This is the catcher time forgot.

Bob Boone is 40 years old. On his next birthday, in November, he'll turn . . . what? Forty-one? Twenty-three? Sweet 16? Cartwheels?

Name one other ballplayer, in any real action sport, who had the best season of his or her life at age 40? It's spooky. To those of us over 30, it's disgusting.

Boone, asked what goes first, what subtle signs of aging he has noticed, said: "I have none of those things I've heard about, the things everyone tells me about. I don't feel any different than I did 15 years ago. I can tell absolutely no difference in how I feel and how I approach life."

Hey, there is a difference. At 40, Boone can hit. It's about time.

"I hit .286 in Philadelphia," Boone said, defensively.

Come on, Bob. Let's talk about modern times. You hit .286 in 1979. In the decade affectionately known as the '80s, you are a .235 hitter. Until this season. Now, suddenly, you're a .294 hitter.

"It's taken me 20 years to learn how to hit," Boone said, laughing.

This, then, is a hell of a prospect. The Angels should try to keep the kid around five or six years until he matures.

"I don't try to analyze it too much," Boone said. "I think it's a gift. I'm sure the work I do (regular kung fu and flexibility workouts) is part of the reason. But I shouldn't be able to do what I do now. It's a gift, and you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. You just do it and enjoy it and accept it."

Not that it matters what Boone hits. He could hit .007 and still be an asset to the Angels. Hitting is something he does during breaks from his real job, which is catching. Boone does as well as any man who squats. After having caught more games than any other catcher in history, Boone currently is considered by many to be the game's best catcher.

He throws out half the runners who try to steal. He is said to be the finest handler of pitchers. What else does he do? He watches.

"You watch a guy when he gets on base. You see the (opposing) manager give signals to the third base coach. You can see the third base coach go through his sequence, but maybe the runner is going back to the base and has his back turned and didn't see the sequence. You know he didn't see it, because you were watching. So what does the runner do now? He can't ask for the sign again. He glances over at the first base coach, who will nod or shake his head."

But if the bad guys know that the cagey Boone is looking for this kind of stuff, why would they be so careless as to tip their hand?

"In a three-hour game," Boone says, "there will be hundreds and hundreds of these situations. Everyone is going to go to sleep a little bit. My job is to not."

Indeed, here is how Boone kills the 20 seconds or so between pitches:

He mentally rearranges his pitch-sequence strategy, planning three or four pitches ahead; checks the positioning of his fielders and dictates any necessary shifts; glances into the opposing dugout; studies the third base coach and the first base coach; chats with the umpire, chats with the hitter (does he sound tired, eager?); studies the runners ("They'll tell you when they're going to run."); sneaks a peek at the hitter to see what foot or hand adjustments he has made since the last pitch, thus ascertaining what pitch the hitter is expecting; checks his own dugout for any special instructions; scans his pitcher for signs of fatigue, flagging concentration or athlete's foot; and flashes a signal. All this while sweating under 15 pounds of plastic armor in 95-degree heat, and chewing tobacco.

"When you've been doing it 20 years, you get the hang of it," Boone said.

Between innings he relaxes by training his X-ray vision on the defense.

"The pitcher will show you what he's going to throw," Boone says. "When he has to have a strike, what's his pitch? What's his favorite pitch? You see whether he tips his pitches. You can read a lot of pitchers. Some hold the ball different in their glove for different pitches. Or maybe they know you're watching and they try to fool you. Sometimes they tip their pitches in the motion."

Boone pantomimed a pitcher going into a stretch. "Curve." Then he pantomimed the exact same stretch, only bringing his hands an inch closer to his face. "Fastball."

"You watch the infielders. Do they tip the pitches by moving or leaning? If we have a hit-and-run on, do the second baseman and shortstop tip which one will cover (second base)? If so, I'll know which side to hit the ball on."

No wonder Boone isn't breaking down like the rest of us. He doesn't have time to get old.

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