Bret Boone has made it through the mind games. He has waded past the weirdness. He has reached the stretch run of his strangest season, still the starting second baseman of the Cincinnati Reds.
Unless, of course, he was traded during the middle of the night. The Reds have sent Boone a steady stream of mixed signals this year; so many, in fact, that it's a wonder he still consults third base coach Joel Youngblood for the bunt sign.
One day, General Manager Jim Bowden is determined to deal Boone to the Atlanta Braves. Next thing you know, they're negotiating a long-term contract. One night, Boone is sent to Indianapolis to correct an incorrigible swing. Two days later, the shock therapy is abruptly stopped.
Then there was talk of a deal with the Dodgers, and rumblings of a possible swap with San Diego. Much as the Reds value Boone's defense, they have come to see his salary as an extravagance amid their new austerity.
Few teams have ever made a player feel more wanted and more unwanted in such a short span. Some days, Bret Boone has seemed a permanent fixture at Cinergy Field. Other times, Boone's days might have been numbered in single digits.
"I may play for the Reds for the next 10 years," he said Tuesday afternoon. "And I may get traded tomorrow."
His is the sensible approach of the third-generation ballplayer, one accustomed to and at peace with baseball's nomadic lifestyle. Bret Boone will deal with a trade when it actually occurs, and not each time his name surfaces in some news leak, informed speculation or wild guess.
Bothered by the boos
And still, he has scars. No millionaire hitting .190 at the All-Star break can cloister himself from catcalls and criticism. For most of this season, that's about all Bret Boone has heard.
"This game is something I've always loved," he said before the Reds' 6-5 victory over the Colorado Rockies Tuesday night. "But for a while, I didn't love it. I didn't look forward to going to the park when you come to the plate and you get booed by people who had done nothing but cheer you."
Boone is happier now, but the boos persist. The man who must raise his average to .224 is allowed little margin for error. Boone's benefit of the doubt has eroded further because of the perception his struggles are attributable to stubbornness.
"They pitched him in, and he's not making adjustments," Ray Knight said when Boone was demoted to Indianapolis in June. "I don't know if it's his hands or moving off the plate. I do know that we've asked him to move forward in the batter's box, and he's stayed in the same spot. He just believes that the way he's doing things is right, and I'm not going to argue that. But he's not producing."
Boone has produced better without Knight's prodding - we'll call it a coincidence - and says his earlier difficulties were not so much physical as psychological.
"Most of my problems were in my head, between my ears," he said. "Three years ago, I was as confident as I could be as a hitter, and I didn't feel like that same person at the plate for a long time. I'm still not as consistent as I want to be. I'll get two hits one night and go 0-for-4 the next. But I know it's getting better, and I know I'm on the right path to getting to where I was."
Boone hit .318 on the Reds' recent road trip, but took another 0-for-4 Tuesday night. He stopped a fourth-inning rally by grounding into a double play and left the bases loaded in the eighth.
Which Boone will emerge?
In what remains of this Reds season, Bowden must decide which Boone to believe in. If the second baseman can approach his form of 1994, when he hit .320, the Reds would be loony to let him go. If his statistics continue their three-year slide, he would become eminently expendable.
A strong signal from Bret Boone these next few weeks might stop the mixed signals from his superiors. Though he can not fully control his fate, he can surely shape it.
"We're all responsible," Boone said, "for what's on the back of our bubble-gum card."