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Royals’ Wathan, Boone and Ezell Are Three of a Catching Kind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blindfolded with responsibilities, spun around the country repeatedly on a mission that is becoming increasingly difficult, it is easy to get lost while trying to pin a championship on the 1990 major league baseball season.

But on this warm, sunny Monday afternoon, there was no mistaking where John Wathan, Bob Boone and Glenn Ezell were.

Familiar touches at Anaheim Stadium let them know they were home, or as close to it as an American League schedule permits.

Wathan, manager of the Kansas City Royals, got his twice-annual visit from Bill O’Shaughnessy, his former teacher at St. Augustine High. John Cunningham, his former coach at USD, hadn’t come around yet, but Wathan expected to hear from him soon.

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“He always comes up when we’re in town,” Wathan said.

Boone, the Royals’ catcher, has many friends here, having played for the Angels for five years and grown up in San Diego, where he starred at Crawford High. But he also has family here, and being on the disabled list--for the first time in his record-setting career--allowed him to scurry off 1 1/2 hours before the Royals met the Angels to watch his son, Aaron, play in a Colt League game.

Bullpen coach Glenn Ezell, a former San Diego resident, Padre minor league director and manager and part-owner of the San Diego School of Baseball, swapped fish stories before batting practice with his good buddy Doug Rader, the Angels’ manager. Later, a guy named Tony appeared from the stands. “He was my biggest fan when I managed Ventura,” Ezell said.

The memories--some of them 40 years old--were creeping back.

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There are other Royals with ties to San Diego--Mark Davis, for example--but these are three of a kind.

Wathan, 40, was a catcher. Ezell, 45, was a catcher. Boone, 42, of course, still is one. He holds the major league record for games caught--2,207 before this, his 19th year in the big leagues.

All this makes for an extraordinary learning opportunity for young catcher Mike Macfarlane, the heir apparent to the position in Kansas City.

“They’re the three biggest influences on my catching career,” Macfarlane said. “It started with Duke (Wathan) in triple A. But more importantly, Glenn Ezell and then Bob Boone came along.

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“I’ve done all I can to sponge up all the information I can.”

There is quite a bit to absorb.

Wathan played outfield at St. Augustine, then first base and catcher at USD, where he was selected a college division All-American after his junior year.

“I always wanted to get drafted and play in the big leagues, but I was hurt my senior year (at St. Augustine),” Wathan said. “The only option I had was with J.C. (Cunningham). He’s the only one that offered me a scholarship.”

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In 1971, the Royals selected Wathan first in the January free-agent draft, and he has been with the organization for 20 years, 15 as a player.

In addition to catching, he also played first base and outfield. In 1982, he set a major league record for catchers with 36 stolen bases, despite missing five weeks of the season with a broken foot.

“I got most of them with good jumps and knowing what pitches to go on,” said Wathan, who once made 30 of 31 attempts at USD.

In 10 big league seasons, Wathan’s best came in 1980, when he hit .305 with six home runs, 58 runs batted in and 17 stolen bases. He also played in six league championship series and two World Series.

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After his playing days, he managed to manage less than a full season at Omaha--the Royals’ triple-A affiliate--before landing his current job on Aug. 27, 1987.

With the Royals now last in the American League West, many feel he’s on the hot seat, but in his first two full seasons, the Royals finished third in ’88 and second last season. His .549 winning percentage entering this year is second in club history behind Whitey Herzog’s .574.

“He’s very even-keeled,” Ezell said. “He gives me an opportunity to do my work, and that’s nice.

“Of course, with Booney, you don’t have to do a whole lot.”

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Boone, the son of former major leaguer Ray Boone, began as a third baseman at Crawford, where he was the San Diego Section player of the year in 1965.

Said Wathan, who played with Boone’s brother, Rod, two years behind Bob: “I idolized Bob Boone as a child.”

“It’s kind of ironic,” he added, “since I’m the manager now.”

And how does Boone respond?

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“He’s the boss, and I’m the employee,” Boone said. “I do whatever he tells me, basically.”

Rarely, though, does anybody have to tell Boone much about baseball. An exception might be precise directions to Cooperstown for his Hall of Fame induction ceremonies sometime in the latter part of this decade. It is an honor he may earn for resiliency alone.

Fifteen times, he has caught more than 100 games in a season, and in seven of those, he won Gold Gloves.

He’s also played in four All-Star games, six league championship series and a World Series. In 1980, he hit .412 with four RBIs as his Philadelphia team defeated Kansas City in six games.

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“Bob? Bob is Bob,” Wathan said. “He’s an amazing story. One of the best-conditioned athletes I’ve ever seen.”

Giving no indication of slowing down--the disabled listing is for a broken and dislocated finger--Boone may wind up playing with or against his oldest son, Bret, who signed this week with Seattle after a prosperous career at USC.

So how does he continue to impress both offensively and defensively in the most grueling position?

Maybe it’s that mind. At Stanford, where he played in a College World Series, Boone earned a degree in psychology.

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Glenn Ezell might best be described by his nickname--EZ.

He’s one of those lifetime baseball guys who enjoys coming to the park as much now as he did 20 years ago--perhaps more, having experienced a few ups and downs.

Signed by the New York Mets out of Arizona Western Junior College in Yuma, Ezell hopped around the minor leagues for nine seasons. Seen “Bull Durham”? Ezell caught in Durham in 1967.

In 1971, after being traded to Minnesota, Ezell made it about as close as a player can to the bigs without actually making it. He had had a good double-A season the year before, followed by a terrific spring. On the night before breaking camp, the Twins informed him he had made the club.

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But the next morning, Manager Bill Rigney called and told him they wanted to give incumbent George Mitterwald 30 days to re-prove himself. In the meantime, they wanted Ezell to get some innings in triple A. He was never brought up.

Tough? Of course, he said. “But I didn’t let it sour the game for me. I’m still in it--24 years now.”

After his playing days, he enrolled at San Diego State (from which he graduated two years later) and managed in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

He later was a minor league manager with the Padres for six seasons and even activated himself for a part of the 1977 season in Reno.

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“One of my catchers got kicked out in the second inning,” he explained. “I put my second guy in, and he broke his finger. I wasn’t about to put somebody else in there, so I talked to the other manager and the umpires and activated myself right there.”

The result: three for four that day, en route to .375 in 24 at-bats.

But things turned worse two years later. While managing at Amarillo (double A) in 1979, Ezell became ill and underwent open-heart surgery to repair an aneurysm in his aorta.

“I’m a lucky man to be able to do what I do,” he said. “In fact, I’m a lucky man to be alive.”

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Finally, in the fall of ’82, he made it to the majors when he was named to the coaching staff of the Texas Rangers, who had just hired Rader as manager.

That lasted three years, but when Rader was fired, Ezell followed.

Ezell looked around for work. Anything would do, and did. He became manager of the Toronto Blue Jays’ single-A team in Ventura.

“Day ball. No lights. Dressed in a dad-gum gymnasium,” Ezell said. Still, it was work. More important, it was baseball.

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Kansas City hired him for the 1988 season at Omaha, and the Royals finished first in the American Assn. at 81-61. Wathan brought him up.

"(He’s) a very hard worker and a very good catching instructor,” Wathan said. “I feel very comfortable saying that Glenn Ezell would be a great manager someday.”

Said Rader, “As far as his coaching, he’s very good at what he does. I think all you have to do is look at the progress Mike Macfarlane has made.”


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