Boone Casts This Record in Solid Iron

Times Staff Writer

For the record-tying 1,918th time in his major league career, Bob Boone walked onto a baseball field Tuesday night wearing mask, chest protector and shin guards--the tools of his trade.

Just don't call them the tools of ignorance.

As far as Boone is concerned, his decision to don catcher's gear for the first time back in 1970 ranks among the the wisest moves of his life. It enabled a light-hitting third baseman with a journeyman's future to become the Lou Gehrig of catcherdom, establishing one of baseball's foremost records for endurance.

By appearing as the Angels' catcher during California's 7-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals Tuesday, Boone tied Al Lopez for most big league games caught in a career. And, barring a rainout or a quirky lineup by Angel Manager Gene Mauch, Boone will become the all-time leader tonight.

"I've thought about this for the past two years," said Boone, three months shy of his 40th birthday. "To be ranked ahead of the greatest catchers in the history of the game--Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane and, of course, Al Lopez--that, more than anything, makes it special."

Eighteen years ago, Boone was a not-so-special infield prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system. He was a slap hitter, possessing little power, and considered to have scant potential in an organization that already owned a Gold Glove third baseman in Don Money and a promising replacement named Mike Schmidt.

"I was leery," Boone remembered. "I didn't want to be a utility player. Don Money was coming off a .295 season and had just set a fielding record at third. Then we signed Mike Schmidt. Schmidt and I played together in the same infield--he played shortstop--but it was only a matter of time before they went with him at third."

Rather than fight the obvious, Boone opted to switch.

And now, despite a lifetime batting average of .250 and 99 career home runs, Boone has passed the 1,900-game mark and has set his sights on 2,000 . . . and beyond.

"No question," Boone said, "with my lack of hitting ability, the catching position was the only position I could've played for this length of time."

Boone has played it well. He has won four Gold Gloves--two with the Angels in 1982 and 1986--and is a leading candidate for a fifth in 1987. As baseball's oldest active catcher, he has thrown out a more than respectable 42% of potential base stealers (28 caught in 66 attempts) this season.

But the real story here is that he is still playing at all. In baseball, squatter's rights do not include lengthy careers. The wear on legs that must lower into a crouch thousands of times each year, the tear on an arm that must hurry throws into second base and the abuse a body must withstand by protecting home plate from opposing base-runners can brutalize a player.

Among catchers, to be 35 years old and still behind the plate is to be Methuselah.

"The record means he's been around a long time, but it's also a measure of his unparalleled mental toughness," Mauch said. "He also has one of the highest pain thresholds of any player I've ever seen. He and Ron Hunt are the toughest I've managed."

Hunt, who played for Mauch in Montreal, held the major league record for most times hit by a pitch until Don Baylor broke it this season.

En route to Lopez's record, Boone has undergone four knee operations and played with at least two broken fingers. "Just two that I know about," he said. "There have probably been others."

Yet he hasn't spent one day on the disabled list.

Boone cites his upbringing. His father, Ray, was a major league third baseman, his brother Rod spent time in the Royal organization and he had an uncle who played college football.

"All the people I've been around in my family are tough people," Boone said. "You tend to go through life having to be tough."

Boone speaks those words with pride.

"I caught two full seasons with torn cartilage in my knee," he said. "I've played with broken fingers, broken hands. I have pride about never having been on the disabled list.

"I don't accept getting hurt . . . That's one of the things you learn from martial arts training. You never let yourself get tired in a fight."

Kung fu exercises have been a regular part of Boone's strenuous conditioning program, something of a legend around the Angel training room. After catching nine innings in mid-July heat, Boone can often be found lifting weights while his teammates shower, dress and leave.

"The 1,900 games is not remarkable," Mauch said. "What he goes through year-round with his training regimen to keep himself in good condition, the willingness to sacrifice himself, that's what is remarkable."

Last week, a national magazine, noting the longevity record Boone was approaching, argued that Boone belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Boone was flattered, and surprised, by the article.

"I've never given that a lot of thought," Boone said. "I've always assumed there were so many players who were better than me."

Not many .250 career hitters make the the Hall of Fame, Boone noted. Then, again . . .

"There are three categories of baseball players--pitchers, hitters and catchers," Boone said. "You don't ask pitchers to hit and you shouldn't expect catchers to hit. When you put on the gear, you're in an altogether different world.

"The main job of a catcher is defense. If it wasn't so demanding, a catcher would probably hit better. What matters is what you do behind the plate."

Defense matters to Mauch. The Hall of Fame? Mauch considers Boone worthy.

"He's already in my Hall of Fame," Mauch said. "Cooperstown West."

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