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Boone's success in Seattle marks another Rays loss

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By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 29, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Where others saw risk, the Devil Rays saw potential. While others feigned indifference, the Rays were infatuated.

When another showed up with cash, the Rays offered their best wishes.

This explains why Bret Boone's arrival at Tropicana Field on Tuesday was about four months and 80-some losses too late.

In December, when the rest of the baseball world was screening Boone's calls, the Rays had him on the top of their list of free agents.

Unfortunately, their best offer was a day late and (3,000,000) dollars short.

Faced with payroll cuts, the Rays could not make a serious overture for Boone. So the Mariners, having missed out on their top free-agent choices, signed him to a one-year deal at the below-market price of $3.25-million.

Turns out, the Rays were right. In a wish-I-didn't-know-that sort of way.

Boone has been the free-agent catch of the year. A borderline journeyman who has finally discovered himself.

Playing with his fourth team in as many seasons, Boone might be the MVP on one of history's most successful teams. He has done this by evolving from a stubborn hard case to a more agreeable hard case.

Boone came up with the Mariners almost a decade earlier but did a fair job of annoying his employers with a headstrong approach.

Lou Piniella was the Mariners manager when they dealt Boone to the Reds after the 1993 season, but he lobbied general manager Pat Gillick to bring him back in December.

"He had a little cockiness about him when he came up, but that's something you like to see," Piniella said. "You could see the potential with his bat, even if he was a little undisciplined."

Undisciplined is one way to put it. Infuriating might be another.

Boone saw himself as a power hitter when others did not. When he hit .320 with the Reds in 1994, no one argued the point. When he hit 24 home runs and had 95 RBI in '98, there was hardly a peep.

In between, there were too many seasons of 100 or more strikeouts and batting averages in the .230 range.

Cincinnati traded him to Atlanta. Atlanta traded him to San Diego. San Diego, faced with budget cuts, allowed him to become a free agent last year instead of picking up a $4-million option.

Boone had gone from the National League All-Star team in 1998 to virtually unwanted in the winter of 2000. Compounding matters, he was recovering from a knee injury that wiped out much of the second half of last season.

"It wasn't how I thought free agency was going to be," Boone said. "It wasn't much fun."

Boone was greeted with apathy. And maybe a dose of derision.

Players with lesser credentials were commanding more attention on the market, but they, at least, had potential. Boone, who turns 32 this year, had seemingly moved past potential and into some nether world reserved for players who are good enough to play but too expensive to pay.

But for those who looked closely, there were hints of what 2001 might hold. Boone had become a better two-strike hitter by cutting down on his swing. He had learned to drive the ball to rightfield instead of muscling everything to left. Boone had gone into the All-Star break last season with 16 home runs and 62 RBI but injured his knee a few weeks later.

"Maybe it takes some people longer than others to finally get a grip on it," Boone said. "I wish I could have found this 10 years ago."

The Rays recognized Boone might fall between the cracks in the free-agent market and figured they could get a relatively inexpensive bat for one season while waiting for rookie Brent Abernathy to develop at second base.

They were banking on the lure of Boone playing near his Orlando home with a one-year deal that would give him the opportunity to re-establish himself.

It sounded fine in concept but did not work so well on the balance sheet.

"I don't even remember if they made an offer," Boone said. "If they did, it wasn't anything substantial."

The Mariners used the same theory but had the cash to back it up. The idea was that Boone might pick up some of the slack left by Alex Rodriguez. Instead, he has essentially replaced Rodriguez.

Seattle has been rewarded with the best record in baseball, and Boone is preparing for a revenge trip into the free-agent market.

"If we were so smart," Mariners vice president Lee Pelekoudas said, "we would have signed him to a three-year deal."

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