- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Bret Boone showed up at the Washington Nationals’ complex here in October, asked by general manager Jim Bowden to work with the team’s instructional league roster, never once thinking the experience would convince him to come out of retirement.

Then something funny happened. A 38-year-old second baseman who hadn’t played in the majors since 2005 started taking batting practice and felt something inside him “click.” Watching his son hit balls like he did when he was a three-time All-Star, Nationals assistant GM Bob Boone realized where this could be headed.

Bret Boone suddenly wanted to play baseball again, and now he will get his chance with the Nationals, who yesterday signed him to a nonguaranteed, minor league contract. Boone will report to the club’s accelerated development program this week and attempt to make his comeback alongside prospects nearly half his age.

“There’s something still in there,” said Boone, who will earn $500,00 if he makes the big league roster. “Whether I tap that or not, that remains to be seen. But I look at it as I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve already had a long career and played my time. And if I can extend this for a few [years], I would be very excited about it.”

Bowden made it clear he wasn’t looking to add another competitor to the logjam at second base on the major league roster. Ronnie Belliard and Felipe Lopez will continue to battle for the starting job this spring. But Bowden, who has been close with the Boone family for more than a decade, felt it was worth it to provide Bret an opportunity to come back.

“We may decide in the middle of March it’s not working out,” Bowden said. “But it’s worth trying. He has that kind of ability, and he’s come a long way the last couple of years personally. I think it’s a worthwhile risk.”

At his best, Bret Boone was among the top second basemen in the game.

His 252 home runs rank third all time among second basemen; his 1,021 RBI rank fourth. He won four Gold Glove awards and two Silver Slugger awards. And he finished third in the American League MVP voting in 2001 after hitting .331 with 37 homers and 141 RBI.

But he struggled during his last season in the majors in 2005, when he hit a combined .221 with the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins. He went to spring training the following year with the Mets but retired before appearing in an exhibition game, citing unspecified personal issues.

“I was in no position mentally to continue on at that point,” he said. “I needed to walk away.”

Boone, who turns 39 in April, said he has since taken care of those issues and feels he’s ready to make baseball a priority again.

“I’ve just changed my way of life a little bit,” he said. “I’ve always been a guy that goes out and likes to have a good time, maybe at times too good of a time. That kind of all catches up to you.”

Boone isn’t sure whether he can rediscover his old form, but he’s willing to give it a try. He’s motivated by the fact his father works in the organization and his brother Aaron signed as a free agent with the Nationals this winter.

The three Boones, who also were together in Cincinnati in 1997-98, will live together this spring in a condo near the club’s spring training facility.

“While it’s so unique, it’s kind of business as usual for us,” Bob Boone said. “That’s the way I was raised. All the kids, that’s the only job we’ve known, and this is what we do.”

Aaron Boone, who turns 35 next month, is trying not to get caught up with thoughts of playing alongside his brother again.

“What he’s doing is about him and for him,” he said. “I just want a happy ending for him.”

If Bret Boone doubts whether his story can result in a happy ending, he needs only to look at Nationals first baseman Dmitri Young, who last spring worked his way back through the same minor league camp and wound up as the NL Comeback Player of the Year.

“I’m thinking I may have started a trend here,” Young said yesterday after concluding his first workout of the spring.

A trend Boone would like nothing more than to continue.

“It should be very interesting and probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever had,” Boone said. “It’s like I’m a rookie all over again, only I’m not 18 years old.”

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