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Monday, February 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:07 AM

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Larry Stone

Mets, Bret hold out for "The Boone"

Seattle Times baseball reporter

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The Mariners didn't release just Bret Boone on that fateful day last July, when the tears flowed and another crumbling brick was torn from their foundation.

They also cut loose his alter ego, "The Boone," the swaggering, cocksure persona he invented, and cultivated, for three glorious seasons (and 1 inglorious seasons) in Seattle.

"The Boone," complete with boasting T-shirts and clubhouse trash talk, was mostly for the amusement of teammates, and it came off far more positively than it sounds. It was a hoot, is what it was, offending no one and uplifting all, and it came to embody the overflowing team spirit back when the M's won 302 games from 2001 to 2003.

"It's something my teammates came to expect," Boone said on Sunday, as if reflecting on a departed friend. "And if I wasn't that guy, it was, 'Man, what's wrong with Boonie? He's not himself. What are the rest of us going to do?' It was harmless, and it was a lot of fun."

"The Boone" is in remission these days, for obvious reasons. The Bret Boone that sat quietly in front of his Mets locker Sunday would hardly be recognized by those who knew him in Seattle.

The very phrase "sat quietly in front of his locker" would be an anomaly, for starters, because Boone never did that. He agitated, needled, kibbitzed, and generally made himself the hub of action in the clubhouse, which befitted a Most Valuable Player candidate, an All-Star, and a Gold Glover, all of which he was at various times.

But that was before Boone's career was nearly torn asunder last year, before his bat went deadly quiet and even his glove began to fail him, before he was released by two teams in the span of a month.

Boone hit a tepid .231 with the Mariners (seven homers, 34 runs batted in), and a shocking .170 in 14 games with the Twins. That is what brought him to where he is today: in camp on a minor-league contract, battling for a job that will pay him $1 million plus a possible $500,000 in incentives — down from $9.25 million last year.

Now, the only sign of brashness from Boone is non-verbal — his bleached-blond dye job. Otherwise, he was as inconspicuous as a timid rookie, allowing established Mets like Cliff Floyd and David Wright to do the chattering.

"I set my mind that, yeah, I'm not going to walk into camp like it's my team," he said.

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Boone had a lot of time to think things over this winter, after the Twins released him on Aug. 1 following his disastrous two-week stint. The first order of business was getting his head straight.

"I went to Minnesota, and it was kind of like I was in a fog," he said. "I lost that edge I've always had. It was the worst year of my career, feeling-wise. I've had troubles before, but it was different for me last year.

"Normally, when I'm really having a tough time, man, I'm mad after the game. But it was like, 'Is the game over now? Can I go home?' I had lost the passion."

What helped bring it back was sitting at home in Seattle in August and September, reduced to watching games on television and wondering what in the world had brought him to this point.

"I reflected on everything, and started getting that hunger back watching baseball games, thinking, 'I can't believe I'm sitting home.' I'm watching guys playing, and I'm going, 'Are you kidding me?' "

To his credit, Boone takes full blame for his demise and says the Mariners were justified in releasing him.

He decided to rehire his trainer from 2000-01, when he peaked at .331 with 37 homers and 141 RBI, a historic year for a second baseman. He says he worked harder than ever in the offseason, dismissing published reports of alleged reckless behavior as "total fabrications."

Boone, who will turn 37 in April, worked with his father, former major-league All-Star Bob Boone, on refining his swing.

And he talked to other major-league stars who had gone through a similar crash. Chili Davis, now living in the Seattle area, was particularly helpful, providing the words Boone needed to hear.

"He said that it happened to him at the same age, that he lost that desire inside, and that he thought about walking away," Boone said. "He said I needed to rededicate myself if I wanted to still compete. He said he did, and he came back and had three or four more good years."

That is Boone's goal, and he believes New York is the best place for him to do it. The second base job is Boone's to win. His main competition is Kazuo Matsui, who has been a bitter disappointment since coming over from Japan. The Mets tried all winter to dump Matsui and his $8 million salary and may be willing to eat most of his salary if Boone shows he can handle the job.

Showing his confidence is still intact, Boone says he wants no part of a backup or utility job. Either he wins the position, or he'll pack it in.

"My whole career, I always played every day at second base," he said. "When I can't do that anymore, it will be time to go home."

Boone is trying to refrain from critiquing himself every day, and he has to constantly remind himself that he has always been a slow starter in spring. But he allows himself to envision a day down the road when he may invite an old friend to Shea Stadium.

The Boone.

"Hopefully," he said, flashing a grin, "he'll be back."

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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