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Originally published Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Bret Boone has regained his passion for baseball

The last time I saw Bret Boone in a baseball uniform was two springs ago at the New York Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie. I was shocked at...

Seattle Times baseball reporter

VIERA, Fla. — The last time I saw Bret Boone in a baseball uniform was two springs ago at the New York Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie. I was shocked at what a shell of his old self he seemed to be.

The cocky, boisterous Boone that Mariners fans remembered from his glory days in Seattle — The Boone, he called himself — was gone. On that day, Boone was withdrawn, almost shaken, even as he went through the motions of talking about how he had regained his passion for the game during the previous winter.

"I'm supposed to say that," Boone said Monday at Washington Nationals camp.

I was hardly shocked when I heard, two days after our St. Lucie interview, that Boone had quit the Mets, barely two weeks into camp, and, at age 36, walked away from baseball.

For good, in his mind. But I'm happy to report he's clearheaded once again and clearly rejuvenated by his improbable comeback bid with the Nationals, a month shy of his 39th birthday.

"I remember feeling relief when I walked out of there that spring," he said wistfully. "After all those years of playing, finally, all that pressure and weight you feel as a player was lifted.

"I went home, and I was miserable. Miserable. I thought it was going to be great and it wasn't. Retirement wasn't what it was supposed to be, for me. I wasn't ready to walk away, but the state my mind I was in, I had to. So I was in a bad place."

Now he's in relative nirvana. Boone is in terrific shape, having recently been measured at 7 percent body fat. And even though it's early, and even though he hasn't faced live pitching, and even though the Nats have two second basemen ahead of him, he's already opening eyes.

Two days ago, Nationals general manager Jim Bowden moved Boone from the minor-league camp to the major-league clubhouse. On Monday, Boone was with the varsity, running through the Nationals' full regimen of drills. He looked like he belonged.

"He looks like he did in his heyday," observed his dad, Bob Boone, a Nationals executive. "We have a logjam at his position. But him in his heyday? You probably clear the logjam. He may be that. You don't know. We'll see what happens when they start pitching for real. I wouldn't bet against him."

Bret Boone readily acknowledges that he is a very different person than the one who got cut by the Mariners and Twins in a one-month span in 2005, then quit the Mets in '06.

Foremost, he said he hasn't had a drink in six or seven months. "Not a sip," he says proudly, adding that he plans to keep abstaining from alcohol.

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"I'm much happier," he said. "Of course, I miss hanging out with the guys at the bar, and having a beer here and there, but that's not that important.

"I'm 38 years old. I need to take care of myself. I have four kids and a family. I have things that are more important than going out drinking with the guys. I'm not 20 years old anymore."

In a candid interview on Monday, Boone admitted that his drinking, which he sees as the product of a baseball lifestyle, had become problematic.

"I think we get caught up in the party after the party," he said. "Not necessarily out carousing, but the drinking. And it got to a point with me where maybe I got a little excessive.

"That does things to you that unless you've been there, you don't even know. Where it just became commonplace to go drink six, eight, 10 beers. It was a normal thing. You get into a routine. And you do it for years. When you're young, you can handle it. You rebound from it. And it's not an issue.

"All of a sudden with me, it became a little bit of an issue. And I needed to take care of that. And I did that."

Although he was reluctant to go into detail, Boone said he attended an outpatient alcohol rehabilitation program near his home in San Diego.

"It was very enlightening, very educational," he said. "It was very humbling. I'm sitting there going, 'What am I doing here?'

"It brings you back to reality. But you know what? It's not an embarrassing thing. I respect a lot of the people that take care of it, and do it. It saves people's lives.

"I saw some people who were at that point. I got lucky. I never got to that point. It was an important thing for me to do. I'm not saying I turned into a maniac. But it definitely, over the years and years, had an effect on me. I've taken care of it. I've moved on. I'm happier for it."

Last October, Bob Boone and Bowden invited Bret to a Nationals instructional camp here to work with their middle-infield prospects. It was a coaching gig, but it segued into a playing gig.

"The young guys got me in the cage a few days," he said. "At first, it was pretty mediocre. By the end of the trip, it was decent."

Boone started to get the bug, and he decided to take the next step by getting back in tip-top shape. He worked with a trainer and began taking batting practice with a San Diego neighbor, outfielder Mark Kotsay.

Next, Boone started taking ground balls, feeling better and better every day. The next step was to assess his comeback options. The Nationals — because of his father, his long-standing association with Bowden, and the presence of his younger brother, Aaron, on the roster — were a natural.

Boone also contacted the Cubs, because of his link with their manager, Lou Piniella. And he kicked around the idea of making another go of it with the Mariners, with whom he was a two-time All-Star and had one of the best seasons ever by a second baseman in 2001 (.331 average, 37 home runs, 141 runs batted in).

Boone has maintained a close relationship with manager John McLaren — a coach under Piniella during his tenure — but decided against it.

"Johnny Mac and I discussed it. But I said, 'I don't think that would even be right.' My time there was my time there. Some of the best years of my career were there. That city was tremendous to me, and I think we'll just leave that what it is."

Meanwhile, the winter had another jolt for Boone, when a list of players that supposedly were going to be named in the Mitchell Report circulated briefly on the Internet before the report's release in December.

Boone's name was on the list, which turned out to be bogus and was quickly withdrawn. But the damage had been done; the list still comes up in some Internet searches.

"It's messed up, but you're never going to be able to stop something like that," he said. "People are going to believe what they want to believe."

It's a familiar issue for Boone, who remains dogged by suspicions that his offensive surge in 2001 and thereafter was fueled by performance-enhancing drugs.

There were insinuations of such use by former player Jose Canseco in his 2005 book.

Boone has steadfastly denied using performance-enhancing drugs and did so again Monday.

"It's silly," he said. "You're always going to have accusations. You train, you work hard. Nowadays, you train hard and you're in great shape, oh, it's got to be something else. It's just the way it is. You go out on the field and take the tests like everyone else."

Boone has no idea where this comeback will lead, but he's eager for the journey. I can vouch for the fact that he has struck a happy medium between The Boone of his rollicking Seattle days and the sullen Boone of his Mets days.

He insists he doesn't want to be a backup, even at 39. He says he wants to play at an All-Star level, or not at all. He seems to believe he can do it. And if the Nats' logjam aces him out, it's possible he might catch the eye of another team and take his comeback on the road.

"I don't look at it as any losing situation at all," he said. "It's either: I've got it or I don't.

"But the good thing is, I'll know one way or the other in my mind with some finality. I'll have some closure either way. I'll either play for a couple more years, or I won't. But I'll be at peace with it."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

UPDATE - 10:00 PM
Larry Stone: Young pitcher Michael Pineda offers glimpse of exciting future for Mariners

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