California's steadying influence behind the plate

Dependable catchers are as hard to find as automobiles that, ungaraged for the night during a Minnesota winter, start without hesitation the next day.

General managers prize them; scouts are always on the lookout for them; and few teams have ever won a pennant without their multiple skills. The good ones are sold or traded about as often as Mrs. Custer sends a check to the Indian Relief Fund.

Yet during the off season, the California Angels were somehow able to pry Bob Boone, a three-time National League all-star catcher who hit .412 in the 1980 World Series, away from the Philadelphia Phillies.

''I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that Boone was coming off two years in which he had hit in the low 200s,'' said California Manager Gene Mauch. ''Maybe the Phillies thought he was used up. I know we paid a lot of money to get him - like $300,000. But when Buzzie Bavasi (the Angels' general manager) asked me if I thought Bob could help, there wasn't any question in my mind but what he'd end up starting for us.

''Compared with other catchers, I'd say Boone's biggest asset is the way he handles pitchers,'' Mauch continued. ''If a pitcher has unconsciously changed his delivery, Bob is sharp enough to spot it right away. He's also good at blocking balls in the dirt; keeping the game on an even keel; and knowing when to slow down his pitcher if he begins working too fast.''

Asked about 1980, when he hit only .229, and 1981, when he dropped down still further to .211, Boone replied: ''In 1980 I was coming off knee surgery so extensive that there was actually a question for a while as to whether I'd ever be able to play again. Anyway I didn't get away well with the bat, I was uncomfortable at the plate for a long time, and then all of a sudden the season was gone.

''As the National League's player representative in 1981, I had a lot on my mind with the strike and the split season and everyone wanting to know what was happening,'' he added. ''Looking back, I think I probably lost a lot of my concentration as a player as a result, although I was starting to hit better about the time we decided to strike in June.

''When we came back several weeks later and I seemed to be having the same problem at the plate all over again, Dallas Green (the Phillies' manager) didn't play me much the rest of the season. Maybe things wouldn't have been any different if he had, but I sure like to think they would.''

Boone was recently quoted in a national sports magazine as saying, in essence , that it's more important for a catcher to stay with his pitcher's strength than to be always working on the batter's weakness.

''Basically, that's true,'' Bob admitted. ''But the point I was really trying to make was, having just come over to the American League after 10 years in the National, I didn't know the hitters. So rather than guess what a hitter's weakness was, I decided to rely on what I knew my pitchers' strengths to be. And that was no problem since I'd worked so much with the staff in spring training.''

Yet the man who has been credited for the pleasant turnaround in California pitching this season often seems reluctant to accept his dividends.

''The thing you have to remember is that a catcher can't go out there and choreograph a game before it's been played,'' Boone said. ''He can get a feel for the way things are going early with his pitcher and help him get into a groove, but he can't throw the ball for him.

''If on a certain day a pitcher doesn't have his best pitch, then I'm not going to let him throw it. Instead I'm going to have him rely on something else and hope that it works - and sometimes it does. Most veteran pitchers police themselves out there on the mound, but you generally have to be more alert with kids because they don't have as much command of what they're throwing.''

The fact that Boone has been hitting right around the .300 mark all season has not been lost on Mauch, who thinks that Bob is all-star material. Boone may also have set a club record earlier this season, when with a man on third and fewer than two outs, he was 11 for 11 in getting the runner home.

Bob's father, Ray, played 13 years in the American League, mostly with Cleveland and Detroit, and in 1955 shared the RBI title with Boston's Jackie Jensen.

''While it's true that I did't hit well my last two years in Philadelphia, I never lost confidence in myself,'' Boone said. ''Prior to that, I'd had three straight seasons with the Phillies in which I'd hit .283 or better. Under the right conditions, I was pretty sure I could do that again.''

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