Slumping Boone is day's go-to guy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bret Boone strode to home plate with purpose and without paralysis. He had already stranded eight base runners in three at-bats, and yet he did not tremble with the bases loaded again before him.

The Reds' resilient second baseman figures that a rotten day is hard to ruin, but easy to improve. He therefore feared no evil as he stepped into the batter's box in the seventh inning Wednesday afternoon at Riverfront Stadium, the score tied at 1-1, fans pleading for a pinch hitter.

''I left guys on three times in a row,'' Boone said. ''That's a horrendous day. But if you're going to run away from it, that's when you've got problems. My attitude is, 'Give it to me again.' What's it going to be: a double-worse day?''

So far as pressure is concerned, perception and reality are sometimes synonymous. If a ballplayer believes the fate of Western Civilization hinges on his next plate appearance, he often swings accordingly. Bret Boone won out Wednesday by reminding himself to relax.

''Every time I've struggled in my career, it's because I tried too hard, tried to do too much,'' Boone said after the Reds' 4-1 victory over the Florida Marlins. ''It's easy when your swing is right there. But when you've been scuffling, the tendency is to be a little more anxious.''

Reds running ragged

Until Boone's seventh-inning single Wednesday, the Reds could have served as scuffling's poster children. They had lost seven straight games and had squandered another week's worth of opportunities against Marlins left-hander Al Leiter.

Leiter walked nine hitters before he left the game in the seventh inning but was still throwing a shutout until he turned the proceedings over to the bullpen. This was only possible because the Reds ran the bases raggedly, because they continue to bunt badly and because Bret Boone was killing rallies like so many Bob Dole stump speeches.

He grounded out with the bases loaded to end the first inning, and struck out flailing with the sacks full in the third. In the fifth inning, with two on and two out, Boone grounded to third baseman Alex Arias, who tried to tag Eric Davis for the third out, only to have the ball jarred loose from his glove. Thus reprieved, Davis runs too far past third base and is caught in an inning-ending rundown.

Altogether, it had the look of another exasperating day at the home office. Reds manager Ray Knight fielded a foul ball in the fourth inning, turned around intending to make some child's day, and tossed the souvenir straight to some guy carrying on a cellular phone conversation. Catcher Joe Oliver broke his bat over his right knee after a sixth-inning strikeout and then flung his batting helmet down the dugout steps in disgust.

Never say die

Bret Boone managed to remain calm throughout this ordeal. He is a third-generation big-leaguer and not easily rattled. His formative years were spent in Philadelphia, hearing the horrific booing Mike Schmidt had to endure en route to the Hall of Fame. He has seen too much to be shaken up by a high- stakes at bat.

''I love those situations,'' he said. ''I love getting up there and trying to get it done to give your team a lift. You want to be the guy to pick it up.''

Boone pounced on the first pitch from reliever Terry Mathews and hurriedly hooked it foul. Then he watched a ball sail outside. Then he lined a slider into left field for two titanic runs.

''Finally, the man who struggled the most did what I expected him to do,'' Knight said. ''Four or five fans were standing right behind the dugout saying: 'Pinch-hit for him. Pinch-hit for him.' There was no way. Those guys are my go-to guys.''

Bret Boone has not been his usual go-to self much this season. He has been troubled by elbow and ankle injuries, and Wednesday's single raised his batting average to only .225.

It did raise his spirits rather high, however.

''I went from having a pathetic game to a great game in one at-bat,'' Boone said. ''It shows you've got to keep battling. If you don't battle 'em, and you roll over and die, this game will kill you.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published May 23, 1996.