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BOB BOONE : Kansas City Pitchers Just Couldn’t Be Happier, and Neither Could He

Times Staff Writer

Just to give you some idea of how long he has been hanging around, Bob Boone is five years older than Jim Rice, 10 years older than Bob Horner, 17 years older than Dwight Gooden.

Think about this for a minute. Boone is 17 years older than a guy who pitched in the 1984 All-Star game.

Bob Boone has a son in college. Boone is two months older than the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, 2 1/2 years older than the managers of the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers, 5 1/2 years older than the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

In fact, when Phillie Manager Nick Leyva was 16, Bob Boone already was being drafted by the Phillies as a player.

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Now, Boone wants to be a manager himself.

“I believe it’s something I’d be good at,” he said at the Kansas City Royals’ spring camp the other day. “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I wouldn’t last a season. But, quite candidly, I think I’d be pretty darn good.”

John Wathan doesn’t think Boone would be pretty darn good. Wathan thinks Boone would be pretty darn great.

“A guy like me can learn a lot from a guy like Bob Boone,” Wathan said. “When he talks, I intend to listen.”

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Yes, Boonie definitely is ready to run some ballclub from the dugout.

Just one hitch.

They can’t seem to get him off the field.

Boone, 41, is going to be the first-string catcher for the Royals this season, extending what is already the major league record for games caught.

Wathan, the man who intends to listen to whatever Boone has to say as though he were E. F. Hutton, happens to be Boone’s manager, as well as a former catcher. He also happens to be two years younger than his catcher.

“I’m a young manager, but any manager, even an old one, can benefit from Bob Boone’s experience,” Wathan said.

You hardly ever hear a catcher’s gear called tools of ignorance any more, possibly because so many catchers become managers. Handling every pitch, rarely having an idle moment, they tend to become students of the game who eventually turn into teachers.

Even Yogi Berra was a successful manager--the same Yogi Berra who once was asked if he wanted a pizza sliced into four pieces or eight, and replied: “Better make it four. I don’t think I can eat eight.”

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Boone believes a good catcher is like a good director, somebody who runs the show but stays in the background.

“Catching is much like managing,” Boone said. “Managers don’t really win games, but they can lose plenty of them. Same way with catching. If you’re doing a quality job, you should be almost anonymous.”

It’s a nice theory.

Except it doesn’t wash with the members of the Kansas City pitching staff, who are extremely excited to have Boone behind the plate--particularly the principals of the outstanding Royal rotation of Mark Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Leibrandt and Floyd Bannister.

Gubicza, who won 20 games last season, can barely contain himself.

“That was one of the great moves in the club’s history, as far as I’m concerned, picking up Bob Boone,” Gubicza said. “We get a guy who knows the league, knows both leagues, knows the hitters, knows when pitchers need to be coddled and when they need to be scolded.

“Boonie’s about the best there is behind the plate. I don’t care if he hits .190, which I’m sure he won’t.”

Boone batted a career-best .295 last season, joking afterward that, “It took me 20 years to learn how to hit.” It also took that .295 to raise his career average above .250.

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Hitting is gravy, as far as Boone is concerned. Although some catchers are big, strapping sluggers, he has kicked around the big leagues for 17 seasons and has only 104 homers to show for it.

As a handler of pitchers, however, Boone is nonpareil.

“One thing you have to realize,” Wathan said. “Contrary to what the public probably thinks, most pitchers do not want to call their own game. They like to be led. They like to be told what to do, by somebody who knows exactly what he’s doing. They want the decision-making left up to somebody else, while they just make the deliveries.”

As some smart catcher once said--it might have been Crash Davis--when a pitcher starts thinking, that’s when he gets into trouble.

Pitchers, of course, will disagree.

“I wouldn’t want to be led by the hand ,” Gubicza said. “But, yeah, I don’t mind putting myself in a good catcher’s hands, at least when the catcher’s a catcher like Bob Boone.”

Said Leibrandt: “I think of myself as a thinking person, and Boone’s a thinking man’s catcher. Works out nicely, doesn’t it?”

Had the Royals not signed Boone as a free agent last November, eight weeks after the Angels had traded for Lance Parrish, their first-rate pitchers would be placing themselves this season into the mitts of Mike Macfarlane, who is 24 and a veteran of 78 major league games. Macfarlane isn’t much older than Boone’s son, Bret, a USC infielder.

Macfarlane was just getting the hang of things last season when, quite unexpectedly, he was returned to the minors in July. The consensus around the clubhouse was that Macfarlane was being made the scapegoat for the pitching staff’s having struggled up to that point, and the demotion was a blow to the kid’s confidence.

Now, though, according to Wathan, the young catcher is eager to learn from Boone, while spelling him behind the plate now and then.

“Mike’s so excited about working with Boonie, you can’t believe it,” Wathan said. “The pitchers feel the same way. Bob’s already taken most of them under his wing.”

Boone has spent precious little time sulking about leaving the Angels. After seven seasons in Anaheim, Boone was tremendously popular with his teammates and fans, but tired of feeling as though management wanted him prematurely put out to pasture. The Parrish deal was one more reminder that the Angels weren’t sure he could cut it anymore.

The ante for Boone was a dollar. When the catcher stipulated in negotiations that the one thing he wanted was one buck more than he had made in 1988, the Royals offered him $883,001.

Done. Boone jokes that it was his agent’s idea because he wanted to be able to tell everybody that he got his client a raise.

“There are no hard feelings on my part toward the Angels, none at all, principally because I’m too happy here to think about the past,” Boone said. “This is the best move I could have possibly made. I’m with a contender, I’ll play an awful lot, and I’m with one of baseball’s classiest organizations. Things couldn’t have worked out better. I don’t wish the Angels anything but good luck. If it comes down to us and them in September, though, I wish them second place. Sorry. I have to.”

To that end, Boone is spending every day of spring camp getting acquainted with a new bunch of pitchers.

More important, they are getting acquainted with him.

“I have a great desire to pass along what I know,” he said.

There is more under Bob Boone’s mask than a cap turned backward.


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