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Bigger And Better
Richard Hoffer
July 16, 2001
Twenty pounds of new muscle and a smoother swing have transformed Seattle's Bret Boone from a baseball-family curiosity into the AL's most potent RBI machine
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July 16, 2001

Bigger And Better

Twenty pounds of new muscle and a smoother swing have transformed Seattle's Bret Boone from a baseball-family curiosity into the AL's most potent RBI machine

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Turnarounds

In addition to Bret Boone, here are the hitters, including Luis Gonzalez (left) who have had the most dramatic changes in performance this season relative to 2000.

Player, Team

2000 Stats

2001 Stats

Behind the Surprise

On the Upswing

Rich Aurilia, Giants

.271

20 HR

79 RBIs

.356

12 HR

38 RBIs

Using the whole field—and batting in front of Bonds

Lance Berkman, Astros

.297

21 HR

67 RBIs

.365

25 HR

79 RBIs

Power expected, but league's leading hitter also benefiting from batting in front of league's No. 2, Moises Alou

Luis Gonzalez, Diamondbacks

.311

31 HR

114 RBIs

.355

35 HR

86 RBIs

Late-career clout has Gonzo, 33, with 246 total bases, on pace to break single-season mark (457)

Ryan Klesko, Padres

.283

26 HR

92 RBIs

.297

17 HR

75 RBIs

Has also unexpectedly been a demon on the base paths: 17 stolen bases in 20 attempts

Travis Lee, Phillies

.235

9 HR

54 RBIs

.278

14 HR

53 RBIs

Off-season tutoring by former big league manager Jim Lefebvre helped him regain confidence and stroke

Paul Lo Duca, Dodgers

.246

2 HR

8 RBIs

.346

14 HR

45 RBIs

Emerging from obscurity, 5'9" catcher has been tough out while moving in and out of five spots in the order

Doug Mientkiewicz, Twins

6 hits in 14 ABs

.316

11 HR

54 RBIs

Found focus and batting eye in minor leagues and during gold medal run at Sydney Olympics

On the Downswing

Edgardo Alfonzo, Mets

.324

25 HR

94 RBIs

.233

9 HR

25 RBIs

Aching back has caused Fonzie to miss 29 games

Tony Batista, Blue Jays-Orioles

.263

41 HR

114 RBIs

.210

14 HR

50 RBIs

Pop still there but on-base percentage has sunk from pathetic .307 last year to subterranean .259

Johnny Damon, A's

.327

16 HR

88 RBIs

.239

7 HR

35 RBIs

Expected to be catalyst, but touted import from Royals has miserable .301 on-base percentage

Jason Kendall, Pirates

.320

14 HR

58 RBIs

.257

4 HR

32 RBIs

Gritty catcher turned leftfielder trying to play through strained ligaments in left thumb

Edgar Renteria, Cardinals

.278

16 HR

76 RBIs

.236

5 HR

28 RBIs

Chasing pitches out of strike zone; .287 on-base percentage

Tim Salmon, Angels

.290

34 HR

97 RBIs

.206

9 HR

26 RBIs

Bothered by back and neck injuries; a .108 batting average with runners in scoring position

Gerald Williams, Devil Rays-Yankees

.274

21 HR

89 RBIs

.203

4 HR

17 RBIs

Impatience at plate, malaise in team took toll

Bret Boone had grown tired of those third generation questions by 1994, two years after his debut with the Seattle Mariners. His father had played major league baseball and so had his grandfather. It was remarkable, at least in a human genome kind of way, no question. But what more could you say? If he was only going to be some genealogical quirk, with a family tree more interesting than his batting average, well, there must be somebody else to interview. "Hey, Bret," they would ask, "what about your son? Wouldn't that be something if..." You can see how this might grind away at a guy, his life story reduced to the science of DNA, a search for the baseball gene. The only attention Boone rated was for his ancestry, and, unless you're a Rockefeller, what's the fun in that?

The problem was, Boone's roots were often more interesting than anything he was doing on the diamond. It actually might be better to talk about old Ray Boone, the patriarch of the clan, who shared the RBI title in 1955 and who trots out Ted Williams stories at family picnics, or to talk about Ray's son, Bob, one of the game's better catchers for 19 years and one of the few guys who could talk to Steve Carlton. Bret, though, was up and mostly down, one season to the next, offensive surges deflated by stretches of strikeouts, his stubbornness at the plate offsetting his steady play around second base. After his first full season, with the Cincinnati Reds in '94, when he batted .320 with 68 RBIs, he was entitled to insist on a third-generation-free zone around his cubicle. However, after successive seasons of .267, .233 and .223 in Cincinnati, his run production declining, there really wasn't much to talk about except the novelty of his lineage, especially after his younger brother Aaron joined the Reds in '97. To the extent, of course, that anybody was talking to Bret at all.

What a difference 84 RBIs make, huh? That's how many the newly buff Boone had at the All-Star break, leading the Mariners, whom he rejoined this season, to the best record in baseball. Boone's RBI total—which tied him with Manny Ramirez for the most in the American League—is one of the season's more astonishing numbers and, relative to his elders, projects Bret well beyond Ray's career-best total of 116 and more in line with Hack Wilson's alltime mark of 191. "It's not that I'm not proud of my family," Boone says of the attention he's receiving this year. "I am. But this is better."

Now enterprising reporters are calling 77-year-old Ray (who scouts for the Boston Red Sox, one of the six teams he played for from 1948 through '60) and 53-year-old Bob, who's managing the Reds, asking how they feel about the three-gen angle, the full flowering of their seed. If it's starting to bore them, maybe they should have learned to hit to all fields, too.

That's the simple explanation for one of baseball's biggest turnarounds. The righthanded hitting Boone, at 32, with nine seasons of inconsistent play behind him, is finally taking simple instruction, not trying to jerk everything down the leftfield line. An off-season conditioning program that added 20 pounds of muscle to his 5'10" frame—"He looked like a little Tarzan when he came to camp," says manager Lou Piniella—probably put pop in his bat. The motivation of a one-year contract might be helping, too. In any case the fans at Safeco Field are hardly lamenting the defection of Alex Rodriguez, whose 41 homers and 132 RBIs last year landed him the richest contract in major league history, with the Texas Rangers. Rodriguez is having another A-Rod type season, but he's not exactly running away from B-Boom.

As even Boone will explain, if you're going to drive in runs, Seattle is the place to do it. Hitting in the fifth spot, he rarely comes to the plate without runners in scoring position. Imagine hitting behind rookie sensation Ichiro Suzuki (who is batting .347), sweet-swinging Edgar Martinez (.302) and ol' reliable John Olerud (.316). "It helps," admits Boone, "that John has an on-base percentage of .400-plus."

"I hear him saying that," says Olerud. "But even if people are on base, you still have to swing the bat."

Although Boone has always had considerable power for a second baseman, he had never come close to this kind of production. In 1998, in his final year with the Reds before successive one-season stints with the Atlanta Braves and the San Diego Padres, he seemed to be reaching the potential he teased everyone with when he cracked 12 home runs in 76 games for Seattle in '93. He hit a career-high 24 homers and drove in 95 runs for Cincinnati in '98. That season earned him an All-Star berth, giving the Boones (pardon us, Bret) All-Stars across three generations, a unique distinction. This year, however, in addition to hitting .324, Boone has significantly upped his power numbers. He already has 22 homers, so he has not exactly been bunting Olerud across.

Why now? At first glance (and with his shirt off), the obvious answer would seem to be his new physique. Thanks to an off-season regimen in Orlando, where he hired a trainer to bulk him up, he has huge guns, rolling shoulders—a home run build. Still, not even Boone is sure that's the reason for his success. "I was in my early 30s, heading into free agency," he says, "and the one thing I could control was the shape I was in. Is it responsible for more home runs? Maybe, maybe not. I didn't do it for that reason, but to keep my body strong, just to hold up, to have some longevity."

Boone was sobered last year at San Diego when (sans muscle) he got off to an excellent start, with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs by the All-Star break, then trailed off after suffering a contusion to his right knee. That injury may have cost him as much as $25 million as potential bidders shied away. The Padres could have picked up his option for $4 million but declined. That part of it Boone understood. "I read in the paper they were going to cut $20 million in payroll," he says. "So, O.K., I'm not gonna be there. Anyway, they would have lowballed me." Boone believes other teams consequently backed away, thinking San Diego's failure to re-sign him had to do with more than economics.

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