By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009
RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif.
The comeback was born here, silver spoon in its mouth, in a mansion outside San Diego, amid the spoils and luxuries of Bret Boone's 14-year major league career. It was surrounded, loved and nurtured by family. It never wanted for any material thing. It was given the space to grow at its own pace.
If you've ever wondered: Why do they come back? . . . And if you thought you knew the answers . . . yeah, it's all those things -- an inability to leave the athlete's life behind, an addiction to competition, a need for validation -- but it's so much more.
Bret Boone's 2008 comeback attempt with the Washington Nationals, after two full seasons out of the game, may have been born into a world of wealth and tranquillity -- a world made possible by a total of nearly $50 million he earned in his career -- but it was spawned from darkness. From the descent into the hell of alcoholism and the climb back out. From primal urges -- conquering demons, proving something to oneself, gaining closure.
If the athlete's playing career is life, and retirement is death, Boone -- or at least the ghost of him that showed up in 2008 -- refused to go into that good night until his career was given a proper burial.
"I struggled for that 18-month period where I was just kind of lost," Boone, now 40, says. "Your whole life, [baseball] is . . . not exactly what defines you -- but it's all I've done my whole life. You're Bret Boone, the second baseman, and all of a sudden you're not that guy anymore."
In all but a few pockets of the country that still cared about Bret Boone, the news went by in barely noticed flashes on a television screen or small headlines in a newspaper, stretched across a time frame that, in the mind's eye, could have been weeks or years: March 2006 -- Bret Boone Retires. February 2008 -- Bret Boone Making Comeback. April 2008 -- Bret Boone Retires Again.
But when it's your life and your career, it can consume you. The comeback lasted all of two months, encompassing one final spring training in Viera, Fla., and exactly 13 games in Columbus, Ohio, at the time the home of the Nationals' Class AAA affiliate, where Boone found the answers he sought and buried his career the proper way -- with dignity and finality.
"I had some closure," he says of that spring, when he hit .261 and played passable defense at second base for the Columbus Clippers, but walked away before the Nationals could call him up. "I could still play. I wasn't going to be what I used to be, but I could compete. I knew where I was. And I was okay with it."
* * *
It is 8:30 a.m. on a Friday in late May, and the productive portion of Bret Boone's day is over. The extent of his duties? Dropping off his four kids at their respective schools, the staggered starting times allowing the task to be done in two shifts, with a pit stop at Starbucks in between.
"He makes fun of himself," says Boone's wife, Suzi. "He calls himself a soccer mom. But he takes the kids to school, brings me back some Starbucks -- I'm like [pumping her fist], 'Yesssssss!' "
So what is he going to do now with the rest of the day? Bret Boone shrugs. Outside there is a light drizzle.
A four-handicap, he could play golf again, but when 99 out of 100 San Diego days are sunny and gorgeous, you don't feel compelled to scrape it around a wet course just because you can.
"You've got a lot of time on your hands," he says from the couch of his den-slash-bar-slash-Boone Hall of Fame -- festooned with trophies and memorabilia from his playing days, with an enormous, flat-panel television on one wall. "Once I drop these kids off, sometimes I don't want to go golfing every day," he says. "So sometimes it's like, 'What do I do now?' . . .
"It's weird. You retire, and everyone says, 'Oh, it must be awesome to be young and retired and you're set for life and this and that.' It's usually a young guy saying it. And I always tell them [wagging his index finger], 'It's not all it's cracked up to be.' All my friends are still playing [baseball]. All my buddies now are 65-year-old men who are retired -- because they're the only ones who can play golf on Tuesday mornings."
So Boone plays a lot of golf. And when his 18 holes are up, sometimes he finds himself hours later, still sitting at his locker in the posh clubhouse, yakking it up with the young clubhouse attendants who are there to clean spikes and pick up towels -- because, well, it's the closest approximation in his present life to the experience of being in a baseball clubhouse.
"Man, if you'd told me I'm going to play for 15 years and be fortunate enough to earn the money I've earned and set my family up and not have to worry about the financial side -- wow, what a dream," he says. "But then all of a sudden . . . that's over with. What do you do next? How do you go on? Where do you start? And I think right now I'm feeling my way through."
He figures this offseason he'll make some calls, use his many connections in the game, find a gig -- special-assignment scouting, advising, evaluating -- that will allow him to stay home much of the time but still keep his hand in the game and let him feel as if he's still useful to somebody.
But there's still a lot of golf to be played, a lot of doodling on the computer to be done between now and then.
Basic question: Is Bret Boone happy these days?
"I don't think completely. I think I have a ways to go," he says. "But compared to where I was a year and a half ago -- yeah, tenfold."
* * *
Picture a grown man, approaching his 37th birthday, taking off his uniform after a workout, with tears in his eyes. It is only a couple of weeks into spring training, the man's 14th in the big leagues. He is in Port St. Lucie, Fla., with the New York Mets, who thought maybe this aging ballplayer, a three-time all-star, could still help them in the 2006 season.
"I'm just sitting there, in my own world, really confused," Boone says, recalling the day he walked away -- the first time.
He thinks he's getting ready to hit the weight room, but he just keeps getting undressed, the tears streaming down his face. And then he is getting dressed -- in his civilian clothes -- and he is walking out the door, praying no one sees him in this state.
"I didn't even shower," he says now. "I just went home. I called a few people -- family, friends. I said, 'I'm done.' "
Hours earlier, he had been taking batting practice -- one of a few hundred such sessions a baseball player will go through in a given year -- and he was knocking balls out of the park, almost at will.
"I heard people saying, 'Boone's back! Boone's back!' " he says. "But I remember that feeling in my gut: 'I don't care if I hit every ball out.' " He points to his heart. " 'I just don't have it here anymore.' "
As if the point needed driving home, as he leaned on the cage between turns, he looked out into the outfield, where other players were shagging flies, and caught a glimpse of José Reyes, the Mets' firecracker of a shortstop, then 22 years old and possessing boundless ability, gliding over the grass.
"He just had that sparkle in his eye, that spring in his step," Boone says. "And I remember going, 'I remember what that was like. I remember being him.' And I'm sitting there going, 'I'm taking groundballs with two second basemen who can't carry my jock. I'm a borderline scrub now. And look how much fun that guy is having.' "
The next morning, Boone arrived early to camp to beat the media, found then-Mets Manager Willie Randolph and General Manager Omar Minaya, and told them he was packing it in. He was gone, headed for the airport, before the rest of his teammates arrived.
"You could just tell that something was a little off that spring," Mets third baseman David Wright says. "He wasn't enjoying himself. When I played against him, he always had this presence. And he didn't have that anymore."
* * *
It wasn't just the sapped motivation or the nagging pain in the knees that drove Boone away. It was also the bottle. By the spring of 2006, alcohol had gone from being a harmless postgame tradition to a seemingly minor liability to a full-blown, wreck-your-life addiction that had Boone sometimes sucking down 10 or 12 beers after a game.
"It started out for me as -- I'd go to the bar after the game and have a couple of beers. I always did it. It was never an issue," Boone says. "Well, it started to be an issue in 2005, to where I started to notice it. And when you start to say, 'Maybe my wife is right [about the drinking] . . .' It needed to be addressed, without a doubt. I teetered on the edge for a long time. Once you go over the edge, you're over."
Still, it wasn't until the summer of 2007 -- more than a year after his retirement -- that Boone, at the urging of loved ones who all of a sudden were daily witnesses to the bottle's ravages on him, finally checked himself into an outpatient alcohol rehabilitation facility near his home. There, he spent 26 days, moving from what-am-I-doing-here denial to gradual understanding and finally to resolute acceptance.
"I was so disciplined when I played, in terms of my diet, my regimen," he says. "I never wavered. In the [offseason], I would eat fish for lunch or dinner for four months straight and never cheat one time. So I thought, 'I've got the strongest mind in the world. I can conquer [alcohol]. But that's the one thing in the world you can't conquer with your mind, just by saying, 'I'm strong. I can do anything.'
"I don't like beating the drum about, 'Oh, I quit [drinking].' Because any day, you can slip. It's nothing to be arrogant about. 'Look at me -- I quit.' No, no. You don't mess with that."
With sobriety came a realization: It had been alcohol, as much as anything else, that had driven him out of the game. Which meant: Maybe he hadn't been washed up. Maybe he had just been hung over.
A few months into his newfound sobriety, he started to get the itch to play again.
* * *
Newly sober in the winter of 2007-08, Boone got himself into the best shape of his life. He started showing up at the batting cages frequented by players who live in the San Diego area.
"What are you doing here?" they'd say.
"I'm thinking about playing again."
Sports is full of comeback stories, both successful and un-, and the circumstances surrounding each are different. But this much is almost universal: Elite players rarely are able to make successful returns in their late 30s and beyond, after being out of the game for as long as Boone was.
"I'm guessing that comebacks after a year or more of retirement are rarely undertaken for positive reasons," says Michael Oriard, a former NFL player who is now a professor of English at Oregon State University and a leading scholar in the study of sports in society. "There must be something missing from the athlete's life that he wants to recover, which has to mean he hasn't found anything fulfilling to do outside his sport."
Perhaps the most extreme comeback attempt in baseball was Jim Palmer's return to the mound in the spring of 1991 at age 45, nearly seven years after the former Baltimore Orioles great had retired and about eight months after he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He lasted through two innings of his first spring start before tearing a hamstring and ultimately scrapping the attempt.
"I tried it because no one had ever done it, and because, yeah, there were some things about playing that I missed," says Palmer, now an Orioles television analyst. "People say it must have been about the money -- they don't understand. And besides, I was making more in broadcasting and public speaking than I did as a player."
Ready to give it a try, Boone found his opportunity amid familiar faces in an unfamiliar organization. In the spring of 2008, the Nationals employed his father as assistant general manager, his brother as a reserve infielder and his friend and former GM from Cincinnati, Jim Bowden, in that same role.
Until Boone showed up at spring training, lean, cocky and grinning slyly, almost no one outside of that inner circle had any inkling about his intentions. And even Boone himself had no inkling as to how this little experiment was going to go.
* * *
The first big road trip of Columbus's 2008 season was to Charlotte, and Boone figured he would shun the team bus and fly instead -- an ex-star's prerogative. But then he thought better of it. He wanted to experience this again. He climbed up the steps of the bus, made his way back and threw himself into a seat.
Eight hours later, they were in Charlotte.
"It was like, 'Whoa, that was a mistake,' " Boone says. "It was funny. I'd never walked into a manager's office and said, 'I can't play today.' Ever. And I remember, I got to the ballpark early. I remember seeing the lineup, and there I was. And I went into the manager's office and said, 'I can't play today.' And he started laughing. He said, 'I know what you're feeling.' "
In his two weeks with the Clippers, Boone had 46 at-bats, struck out 11 times, failed to hit a homer, drove in eight runs ("I was a sacrifice fly machine," he says) and slugged only .348. In the clubhouse, rather than putting himself out in front as the epitome of the big-league dream all those youngsters had, he sat in the background, content to answer questions of any teammates who would pose them.
On what would be his final day in uniform, the team was in Durham, N.C., when Boone told team officials he had decided to fly home to San Diego to talk to his wife about the situation. He knew he wouldn't be back.
"It just wasn't working for me at that point," he says.
The reasons were many: The sore knees. The unyielding grind. And also the fact that the Nationals, with whom he hoped to get a midseason call-up, appeared to have no chance of contending.
He headed west, toward home and his soccer-mom existence, just as he had done some two years earlier, though under vastly different circumstances and with a vastly different mind-set. He had his answers, and we had ours:
They leave because they have to.
They come back because they need to.
They leave again because they know.