Bret Boone calls it a career
Four-time Gold Glover felt he was missing 'passion'
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The cell phone rang Wednesday morning in the condo Bret Boone had rented as his Spring Training residence, long after he made his decision to retire and well before he returned to a ballpark for the last time as a big leaguer. His father was calling. And often, when a professional athlete retires, his father is involved.
It's no different with the Boone family, though the Boone family is different. A grandfather, a father and his two sons have graced Major League fields for most of the last six decades. So when the father, Bob Boone, called the son, Bret Boone, it was a little heavy on the receiving end. "Tell me this is April Fool's Day," Bob Boone said, hoping someone had flipped one extra page on his calendar.
"My father's having a tough time with this," Boone said, hours later as he stood outside the stretch limousine that would take him to Palm Beach International Airport and the rest of his life. Father Boone wasn't alone in that regard. At noon, the Mets' could-have-been second baseman had stood at his locker listening to the clubhouse attendants promising to pack and send the final remnants of his 14-year career to Seattle. And as he listened, his eyes glistened. "I'm sick of crying," he said.
Tears were not unexpected. The oldest baseball grandson of the late Ray Boone wasn't ending only his own career, he also was removing a branch from the family tree. And that made it harder on him. "We're a baseball family," is how Bret Boone put it.
But his branch had withered. He had come to the Mets' camp with a chance to extend his career and remove the taint that had formed on his image during his uncharacteristically unproductive 2005 season. He had come after a winter that was more about re-creation than recreation. He had come after "working out 10 times per week and eating all that fish and steamed vegetables."
What he hadn't worked out were his feelings about the game. And after three days in camp, he discovered he had run out of steam and feelings. "The passion wasn't there anymore," he said. And rather than risk insulting the game that his family embraces or embarrassing himself, he walked away.
The Mets would have preferred he walked with the bases loaded or smoked a two-run double or turned a double play. They thought he might have enough left to change the dynamic of their batting order. He was assigned a corner locker and a single-digit uniform number -- 9, not coincidentally. Even if he couldn't deliver as he had from 2000-04, when he averaged 30 home runs and 112 RBIs, they suspected he would be a stable, reliable defender. A .270 average, 58 RBIs and 17 home runs would have sufficed.
Their second-base sweepstakes now has only three participants -- Kaz Matsui and rookies Anderson Hernandez and Jeff Keppinger. Each has more career left than Boone, who turns 37 during the first week of the first big-league season he'll miss since 1991. But Matsui still is a Mets hope -- the departure of Boone improves his chances of playing only marginally -- and the two rookies, while they may be better players in two years that Boone is now are unlikely to provided what the club had hoped Boone would provide in 2006.
Veteran Mets had watched Boone in his brief time in camp, hoping. He played his final five seasons in the American League, so they had little firsthand knowledge of him. But they were familiar enough to know he had driven in "a 140-something" recently -- 141 in 2001 -- and that he had "gone deep -- what? -- 38 times" in the not too distant past. Actually, he had hit 37 home runs in 2001. "If he's anything like that," one of the veterans said last week, "our lineup is special."
Chances are Boone wouldn't have been so productive. His 2005 resume suggests as much -- he batted .221 with a .290 on-base percentage and a .350 slugging percentage produced in 326 at-bats with the Mariners and Twins. But he was confident he was a far better player then he showed last season.
Boone thought he wanted to come back and prove he was. He was prepared. He had brought with him a T-shirt given to him by a friend. On the front, it had the inscription "Boone digs the long ball," a play on the old "Chicks dig the long ball" television commercial featuring then Braves teammates Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. On the back was one word "Again."
He had planned to wear the shirt this spring as soon as he was sure his skills were intact. Now it is one of the shirts that will be shipped back to Seattle. Chances are it will remain unworn. There will be no "Again."
The day Boone reported to camp, he recalled watching telecasts in September and thinking, "He's still playing, and I'm not?" Turns out, that thought provided insufficient motivation. "Physically, I can still do it," he said Wednesday. "But I've lost the edge. I would look into the mirror and know I'd never get that edge back."
When he awoke Wednesday, Boone said, he had no doubts about his decision. His father had enough misgivings for both of them. But he shared with the former Phillies and Angels catcher the same anecdote he shared with manager Willie Randolph when he explained his decision to the Mets manager Tuesday.
Boone was in the outfield, hours into a workday of typical Spring Training drudgery when he noticed 22-year-old Jose Reyes prancing in the infield as if he were a colt. "He's bouncing off walls, his hat flying off," Boone said. "That used to be me.
"I knew what he was feeling -- he can't wait to get to the ballpark."
Boone no longer had that sense. He referred to playing as "a job" on several occasions. He told of his inability to focus as he had so readily even two years ago. He recalled having running conversations with his shortstops during infield sessions and turning double plays without thought. "Now I have to work at it."
Now he doesn't.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.