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Devastating blow

After winning ALCS for Yankees, Boone's fortunes took severe turn

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Red Sox Nation collectively cursed Yankees third baseman Aaron "Bleeping" Boone last Oct. 16 when he clobbered Tim Wakefield's first-pitch knuckleball in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series deep into the New York night, giving the Yankees the AL pennant and a berth in the World Series, and sending the Sox back to Boston to ponder yet another postseason failure.

Now nearly a year later, as the Red Sox and Yankees are set to begin their ALCS rematch tonight in the Bronx, Boone -- now property of the Cleveland Indians -- watches this year's playoffs on crutches from a physical therapy center in Tempe, Ariz. While fans conveniently blame the Red Sox' failure to win a championship on the Curse of the Bambino, Boone has had problems since he one-upped Babe Ruth, who never delivered a pennant with one mighty swing.

Boone had a horrible 2003 World Series (3 for 21, .143), then in the offseason tore his left anterior cruciate ligament playing in a pickup basketball game. The Yankees claimed that playing basketball violated the terms of his one-year, $5.75 million contract. Boone had reconstructive surgery Feb. 16, and was unceremoniously released by New York a few days later. They paid him $917,553 -- one month's salary -- and used the savings to help pay for his replacement at third base, Alex Rodriguez.

Boone, 31, signed an incentive-laden, two-year, $3.6 million contract with Cleveland in late June, but never played an inning because of swelling in his knee. He had arthroscopic surgery in August to remove loose cartilage and has been recuperating in the Valley of the Sun.

"In a lot of ways it's been a tough year," Boone said. "But I believe things happen for a reason. You can take adverse situations and you can be better for it. Your character builds for it. Or it doesn't."

Boone is amazingly upbeat. During a workout at Physiotherapy Associates in Tempe, he wears a T-shirt that says "Faith." He says he truly believes he will be an All-Star again, as he was in 2003.

"Things like this happen and they make you stronger," Boone said. "It makes you appreciate what you have and that definitely has been a good thing. I'm going to come back a better player and a better person. There's no doubt about it."

Boone is planning on celebrating soon, but it has nothing to do with the anniversary (Saturday) of his dramatic home run. No, Boone will be celebrating tossing away his crutches.

"I think I'm going to have a ceremony or something," he said. "For eight weeks I couldn't do anything weight bearing. I can't get in and out of the shower without my wife's help. I'd be in trouble without her, that's for sure. I can't even carry a glass of water with these crutches."

Boone goes to rehab five days a week. He rides the bike, jogs in an exercise pool, then receives electrical stimulation on his knee. Next week, he will be allowed to do weight-bearing exercises, and can resume baseball activities in December. "He's very much motivated," said Keith Kocher, Boone's physical therapist. "He's very disciplined, he works hard, and he's entertaining. He does everything he's supposed to do."

But he misses baseball.

"You miss the grind that is the season," said Boone. "The camaraderie. You follow it, but you realize you're disconnected. Until you're out there, you don't really feel a part of things."

He joined the Indians at the end of July and stayed with them to mid-August. He dressed, took batting and fielding practice, but never got in a game. "I could've played. But [the knee] was swelling and it could've given me problems off and on next year. So it was come back and play for a month, or get this thing scoped and be ready in the fall. Now, I won't have to worry next year in spring training."

Infamous company
Babe. Bucky. Buckner. And Boone.

He knows he's hated in Boston. "That's my understanding," Boone said. "I haven't been there yet. We'll find out next year."

But there's no mistaking the feeling that lingered last year, and the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium in the deciding seventh game against New York's bitter rival. Especially when the Yankees rallied in the eighth against Sox ace Pedro Martinez to tie the game.

"The Yankees have a reputation of being real reserved, but this was like kids playing the game," said Boone, comparing his teammates' exuberance to that of Little Leaguers. "It was wild in the dugout, there was a lot of excitement and `we're going to do this.' Everyone was into it. Once the comeback started, we knew we were going to win that game.

"I'll tell you the thing about that game. It was 4-0 [after four innings], they got to [Yankee starter] Roger [Clemens]. It could have been blown open. [Mike] Mussina comes in, bases loaded, and comes out unscathed. That was huge.

"I thought, `This is not good. Pedro's cruising. This is just not looking like our night.' Then [Jason] Giambi hits a home run [in the fifth] that makes it 4-1. That seemed to give us a little bit of life. Then Giambi hits another home run [in the seventh]. At that point, we kind of felt the mood had definitely changed. It felt like Pedro was a little bit tired in the sixth and seventh."

Jorge Posada's bloop double to center tied the game at 5, and set the stage for Boone's extra-innings heroics.

"There were a lot of heroes that night," Boone said. "What Mo [Yankees closer Mariano Rivera] did was unbelievable. He basically comes in and shuts them down for three innings. How many times does a closer do that?

"I remember Mo striking out [Doug] Mirabelli for the last out [in the 11th]. I remember running back to the dugout thinking I'm going to do something.

"I hadn't had a particularly good series, and when I got back to the dugout Willie Randolph came up to me."

The Yankee coach had predicted that Boone would be a hero. "Before the series he said, `You're my sleeper in this series,' and before I went to bat, he reminded me of it."

Boone grabbed his 32 1/2-ounce bat and looked up to see Yankees manager Joe Torre. "Joe said to me, `Hey, keep that front side in, and snap the middle around. That doesn't mean you won't hit a home run.'

"So I'm on deck thinking about taking a pitch, but then as I was walking to the plate, I thought, `OK, just get a good pitch to hit.' "

He had never met Wakefield, but he respected him.

"We faced him a few times down the stretch and then again in the playoffs," Boone said. "For the most part he did well against me, and us, for that matter. He had a great postseason. I don't really enjoy facing him, to be honest with you. He's got a great knuckler. Sometimes you think you have it and you just swing and miss. It dances so much."

It was 12:16 on the morning of Oct. 17.

"The first pitch floated up there and it worked out pretty nice," he said. "It just stayed up and out over the plate. I hit it."

He knew it was gone immediately.

"I just knew. I hit it and I went, `Yeah.' "

A pennant-clinching, extra-inning home run. Something Yankee greats such as Ruth, DiMaggio, Gehrig, Mantle, and Jackson never did in the House that Ruth Built.

"Running around the bases, I was consciously telling myself to look around," he said. "To take this in. And with that said, I don't remember a thing. It's not a vivid feeling. It's a blur. I was just floating around the bases.

"The only way it's really settled in is now more people know who I am on a national level. I guess I usually bump into someone every day who recognizes me. And it's amazing how many people are either Yankee fans or Red Sox fans. So you get that cross look every now and then."

The National League champion Florida Marlins were up next for the Yankees, and New York could never match the energy expended in dismissing the Red Sox, losing the Series in six games. "Everyone thinks about the home run, but our season kept going, and we didn't reach our ultimate goal," said Boone. "And that's kind of my memory of the season, that disappointment."

And Boone remembers his .143 average. "I didn't have a great Series, so that's the taste I went into the offseason with."

Courting disaster
On Jan. 16, the basketball gods played a cruel trick on Boone. "Usually, I do my cardio work with my trainer," he said. "I hadn't done it that day, so I thought I'd run up and down the court a little bit. I hadn't played basketball in forever. I was just shooting from the outside. A rebound would come up and I wouldn't [go near it].

"Well, this guy went to save the ball from going out of bounds and he flipped it over my head. This [other] guy came in and undercut me. It was pretty violent. It was painful. I knew I hurt myself."

And Boone knew his contract prohibited basketball.

And he knew that pickup game cost him millions of dollars.

"Well, I made a little money from Cleveland this year," he said. "But, yeah, potentially. It was not good."

He told the Yankees the truth. He said he is not mad at Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for releasing him.

"It was a very awkward, uncharted territory," Boone said. "I don't think they dismissed it as, `Screw him.' I think it was a difficult thing for them to do.

"I'm not a reckless guy. I was pretty much at peace with it because I wasn't being reckless. It was just some exercise on a Friday night. I guarantee that if you walk into a major league locker room, 75 percent of the guys would say they played a pickup basketball game or even worse. It just happened. It was very unfortunate, but you know what? Maybe it was the best thing that could have happened."

Boone is excited about the possibilities in Cleveland.

"I fully expect to be a big part of the Indians getting back to playing again in October," he said. "And I think I made a good choice in that regard."

Staying connected
Boone watches all the playoff games and was rooting for a Yankee-Red Sox rematch. He got his wish.

Not surprisingly, he likes the Yankees in the ALCS. "I root for my friends," he said. "They get to the late innings and they've got Flash [Tom Gordon] and Mo." Is it fair to say these teams hate each other?

"A little bit," he said. "No question. It's fair to say the teams don't like each other, but not on the level of the fans. Red Sox-Yankee fans -- oh, that's nuts.

"There's a lot of Boston fans out there across the country and I run into them all the time. For the most part, they give you a good harmless ribbing. I haven't had any bad experience yet."

Does he believe in the Curse of the Bambino? "It's hard not to."

Does he believe a higher power was in the batter's box with him on that fateful night?

"I don't know," Boone said. "Derek [Jeter] used to always remind me, `The ghosts will show up here. They make occasional appearances during the season, but come October, they show up a little more often.'

"There's this Red Sox fan that I tease. I tell him one thing is for sure. The worst day of your year is going to happen this month. Just know that it's coming. It's important to a lot of us. Very important. But in the end, it's just a game." 

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