LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For more than a year the Atlanta Braves discussed the problem, scribbled names, sent out scouts, all in an effort to find a replacement for second baseman Mark Lemke.
When they finally did, trading for All-Star Bret Boone last November, the news hit Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin hardest of all.
"Oh, man, you guys stole my second baseman," he moaned when he saw the Braves before spring training opened last week.
The anguish Larkin felt was real. In Boone, the Braves have a Lemke-like defensive wizard, with a bonus. Besides being a Gold Glove second baseman, Boone provides more power and production than the Braves have had at second base since Davey Johnson hit 43 homers and drove in 99 runs in 1973.
"I'm a Boone guy. As far as a ballplayer goes, he's a good one," manager Bobby Cox said. "He's a very aggressive kid. He's got some power, he can steal a base occasionally, he's got good instincts. He comes from pretty good stock."
Indeed, the bloodlines suggest a thoroughbred. Boone's grandfather is Ray Boone, an All-Star infielder during a 13-year big league career. His father Bob, now a senior adviser with the Reds, had a 19-year career as a major league catcher. His brother Aaron is the Reds third baseman. His younger brother Matthew plays in the Tigers organization.
Boone grew up in major league clubhouses. Little wonder he developed a strut in his walk that carries over to this day.
"He has that arrogance about him where you want to strangle him half the time," hitting coach Don Baylor said. "He's a good player. His dad and I played together in California. It's good to see it carry on. Bret understands the game. He's a determined guy. He takes every at-bat personal. You like that kind of desire."
Boone, who turns 30 on April 6, cost the Braves two arms and an outfielder, a hefty price to pay, even for an All-Star. But after watching Tony Graffanino flop at second last season and uncertain about Keith Lockhart's shoulder, the Braves moved swiftly this winter to fill the hole.
Now, with first baseman Andres Galarraga out for the season, it's a good thing they did. Boone and right fielder Brian Jordan will be expected to pick up much of the offensive slack, a tall order for a second baseman who had not hit more than 15 home runs or driven in more than 69 runs before reaching career-highs in both categories last year.
The Braves almost got Boone following a disastrous 1997 season when his average plummeted to .223 and his production dropped to seven homers and 46 RBI in 139 games.
"It was a real tough year for me offensively," he said. "I needed to make some changes and I made some changes. I had gotten to where I was in the game by doing things my way and all of a sudden in '97 it wasn't working anymore. I needed to make some changes and I worked real hard last winter and came out and, production-wise, put up a great year."
His primary focus was on shortening a swing that had become too long. His answer was to take the bat off his shoulder and open his stance. The adjustments resulted in one of the best seasons by a second baseman in Reds history. He led the club with 24 homers and 95 RBI in 157 games last year, numbers that were surpassed only by Hall of Famer Joe Morgan (25 homers in 1973, then 27 home runs and 111 RBI in 1976) in Cincinnati history.
"I think you need to be convinced that you need to make a change yourself," Boone said. "There's been a lot better players than myself that have gotten to that point in their career where something has to give, there has got to be an adjustment made. I got to that point because I'd never gone through a season where I couldn't get anything going. A kind of bell went off in my head."
Having put his best season on the board, now the question becomes, can he do it again? Frankly, whether he raises the bar on his offensive numbers or not doesn't really concern the Braves. After watching their second basemen commit 17 errors last season, they are more concerned with tightening the infield defense than getting more production from that position.
Boone, who won his first Gold Glove last year, handled 754 chances and was charged with only nine errors, the fewest by any major league second baseman with over 700 chances.
"Sitting in the other dugout, you don't have to see teams play too many times to know who can really play defense and catch the ball," Cox said. "Boone and Mark Lemke have been the best defensive second basemen in the game for years. Neither one of them ever got any credit for it, it was always (Ryne) Sandberg with the Cubs and (Craig) Biggio with Houston. It's just not true."
The Gold Glove, voted on by each league's managers and coaches, simply reinforced what most players already knew about Boone. Biggio is good, but Boone is better.
"Just from watching him play I think he's one of the best defensive second basemen in the game," shortstop Walt Weiss said. "As far as turning a double play, I don't know if there's many better."
That's what the Braves are counting on.
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