By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 18 -- The notion is almost preposterous -- a retired former all-star second baseman, now almost 39 years old and 31 months removed from his last big league game, attempting a comeback on a team that already has a middle-infield logjam. Preposterous, that is, until you remember these are the Washington Nationals, and their general manager is Jim Bowden, and the former all-star in question goes by the last name of Boone.
With all that in mind, it suddenly makes perfect sense that the Nationals would sign three-time all-star Bret Boone -- the son of Bob, one Bowden's top front-office lieutenants, and brother of Aaron, the Nationals' newly signed veteran infielder -- to a minor league contract that would pay him a mere $500,000 if he makes the big league roster.
"There's no downside here," Bowden said. "This is a non-guaranteed deal. There's no downside for him. There's no downside for us. We may decide in the middle of March, 'It's not working out. Let's forget about it. It didn't work.' But it's worth trying when you have [Boone's] type of ability."
On Tuesday, Boone will begin working out at the Nationals' accelerated spring training camp, about 300 yards down Stadium Parkway from the big league complex, with a group of mostly 19- and 20-year-old prospects. It is the same path Dmitri Young used a year ago to turn a similar invitation into a .320 average, an all-star appearance, an NL comeback player of the year award and a $10 million contract. Around the Nationals, the forlorn Field 5 at the far reaches of the minor league facility, where Boone will spend his days, is known as the "Dmitri Young field."
"I come here in a very humbled capacity," said Boone, who is third in career home runs by a second baseman, behind Jeff Kent and Ryne Sandberg. "[But] there's something still in there. Whether I tap that or not remains to be seen. We'll see that in the field. But I look at is as I have nothing to lose. I've already had a long career and played my time. And if I can extend this for a few, I would be very excited about it."
Even for Bowden, who has a well-earned reputation for turning off-the-radar-screen has-beens into comeback players of the year -- a pattern that began with Ron Gant and Eric Davis with the Cincinnati Reds, and continued last year with Young -- the notion of Boone making an impact with the Nationals in 2008 seems to be a long shot.
For one thing, Boone has been out of baseball two full years (more than twice as long as Young's absence), since announcing his retirement and walking away from the New York Mets' spring training camp in March 2006. He last played in the majors in July 2005, when he was released by the Minnesota Twins, three weeks after being jettisoned by the Seattle Mariners.
"I can't be cautiously optimistic," Bowden said. "I haven't seen him play in two years."
Of equal significance, the Nationals were already dealing with a difficult, delicate situation at second base, with veteran Ronnie Belliard viewed as the starter, and Felipe L¿pez, who can also play shortstop, trying to play his way back into the lineup. As Bowden said, "This wasn't a team that was looking for a second baseman."
"We're happy with what we have in Ronnie Belliard and Felipe L¿pez," Bowden said. "That being said, I'm always a big believer in assets. That's a really good thing when you're a GM. I also know there are lot of teams that don't have a second baseman right now, so if all of a sudden I'm sitting here with three on Opening Day, I like that as a GM, when I'm trying to trade and rebuild an organization."
Boone's sudden ascendancy as a slugger in 2001 -- when his home run total nearly doubled from the year before and his slugging percentage rose by 157 points -- fueled rumors that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, rumors that were voiced in Jose Canseco's 2005 memoir, which recounted an incriminating conversation between the two.
Boone has repeatedly denied using the drugs, and asked about Canseco's charges on Monday, he said: "That's silly. I've never had a conversation with Jose Canseco, other than, 'Hey, Jose,' or, 'What's up?' "
The tale of Boone's comeback attempt begins in October, when the Nationals asked him to be an instructor here at their instructional league camp, which inevitably led him to move from behind the batting cage to inside it.
"He got in the [batting] cage, and to be honest with you he looked like the all-star Bret Boone," Bowden said. "It was a different guy than [the one] I had seen [at the end of his career]. The bat speed was like he was a kid. We kept looking [at each other and] going, 'Uh-oh.' And even then, we didn't think it was going to go anywhere, but you could tell he was starting to get a little fire."
That "fire" was a crucial component, because, admittedly, at the time Boone walked away from the game in March 2006, his had been extinguished by personal problems that made it impossible to focus on baseball. His exit from the Mets' camp was quiet and tearful.
"I remember we came into the locker room, and he was gone," said Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca, a member of the Mets at the time. "Everyone was like, 'Where'd Boone go?' "
Without being specific, Boone acknowledged he needed to make changes in his personal life, which he says he has done.
"I'm a different person than I was two years ago," Boone said. "I've always been a guy who likes to go out and have a good time, and maybe at times too good of a time. . . . I took care of some personal business, and I feel I can give this a 100 percent run and we'll see where this takes us.
"It should be very interesting, and probably the biggest challenge I've ever had. It's like I'm a rookie all over again, only I'm not 18 years old."