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J.A. ADANDE

Reports Don't Reach Heart of Boone Story

April 04, 1998|J.A. ADANDE

Sometimes you're better off having a medical problem than having to hear about it.

That way you know exactly what's wrong--and that you feel fine. You don't have to read newspaper reports that imply impending surgery. You don't have to get panicky messages on your voice mail.

You're free to focus on the important things in life, such as playing baseball.

Cincinnati Red infielder Aaron Boone was born with a slightly defective heart valve. Whenever the heart comes up in conjunction with an athlete, it's tough to avoid flashbacks of Hank Gathers collapsing on the court.

This isn't as serious. A valve doesn't seal completely and "a little blood leaks back in," with each heartbeat, said his father, former Angel catcher Bob Boone. "That's not really a problem, but it is if the heart stops handling it."

Aaron played with the condition at Villa Park High. Doctors noticed it when he was at USC. During a checkup in spring training at Sarasota, Fla., it came up again and team doctors decided to send Boone to Duke Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

That was the only time he worried.

"Hearing you're going to have to go up to Duke University and check your heart out is not the most comforting thing," he said.

"They sat me down with my parents in the room and said that it wouldn't affect me in the long term. I went through a series of tests with some of the best heart doctors in the country. It actually went better than they expected it to go."

If he does require surgery, it probably will be minor. And that probably won't happen for 10 or 20 years. But when a note appeared in USA Today on March 19 under the headline, "Boone needs surgery," it set a wave of worrying in motion.

Mike Gillespie, Boone's coach at USC from 1992 to 1994, heard a phone message from a friend that said Boone was having a valve transplant.

"It was very concerning," Gillespie said. "It was late at night, and [the Reds] were in Florida.

"My first thoughts were, 'This is a sudden, scary, tragic, bad story.' "

The next day, Gillespie called a Reds' trainer, who gave him the reassuring news.

While others were fearing for his life, Boone, 24, wondered if surgery would cost him games or a shot at making the team's big league roster. The day I talked to him, he had just learned he had made the squad, and seemed almost as thrilled about that news as he was about the good results on his heart test.

Boone can play baseball, and he doesn't have to change his routine one bit.

"I take a couple of pills before I go to the dentist, is all," he said. "Something about bacteria.

"There's nothing like cutting down cholesterol. No lifestyle changes."

So he still eats steak?

"Oh, yeah," Boone said.

Eggs?

"Oh, yeah."

Bacon?

"Sure. I like food."

And he loves baseball. It obviously runs in the family; his older brother Bret is a second baseman on the Reds.

"It's not like I set out and said, 'I want to be another Boone,' " Aaron said. "It's a dream come true, since I was a little kid. That's the biggest thing. If you're playing pretty good, you have dreams of playing in the major leagues some day."

Gillespie said, "I always thought Aaron had the absolutely perfect makeup and demeanor for the game. He certainly had the goal of being a major leaguer, and he loves it. But I felt he was always on an even keel. He never got too high or too low. He had a great temperament to deal with the highs and lows of that life. It is a peaks-and-valleys existence. He seems very well prepared to deal with all of those things."

How could a guy be worried about a batting slump when he sounds so unfazed by a defective heart?

"Even if it went undetected, I wouldn't just fall over," Boone said. "It's just a valve. Over the course of time, it just leaks. It would lead to my heart swelling. That's all. The doctors talk about it like it's doing arthroscopic knee surgery. Just a little tinkering and you're good to go."

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