- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Aaron Boone forever may be a legend to New York Yankees fans and a villain to Boston Red Sox fans, but to sportswriters he is a saint.

Not because the new Washington Nationals infielder is particularly quotable or high profile. It is because one day five years ago, Boone reached out to a sportswriter during his darkest hours and gave him hope and comfort.

A ballplayer finding it in his heart to help a sportswriter — they’re often viewed in locker rooms as a necessary evil at best, pond scum at worst — may qualify as a miracle.

Boone, of course, says he had no idea his conversation with Dayton Daily News baseball writer Hal McCoy five years ago would have such an impact.

“I was more busting him than thinking I was impacting his life in a significant way,” Boone said.

But he did have a significant impact on McCoy’s life. The longtime baseball writer has ischemic optic neuropathy. He has trouble recognizing people from more than 10 feet away and difficulty reading small type, or sometimes any type at all, for long stretches.

In 2001, McCoy suffered a stroke in his left eye and lost vision in it. In January 2003, he woke up to find the vision in his right eye the same as in his left. It left him legally blind, facing the end of his career as a baseball writer — a job he’d done for 31 years.

A month later, he arrived at the Reds’ spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla., to, in essence, say goodbye. When McCoy told Boone what had happened and that he was facing the end of his career, Boone pulled him into the clubhouse for a pep talk. He told McCoy he didn’t want to hear the word “quit,” that he would find a way to keep covering the team if he really wanted it.

The pep talk inspired McCoy. He found ways — vision tools and assistance from the newspaper and the Reds — to prolong his career. McCoy went out of his way to thank Boone in his 2003 speech at Cooperstown, N.Y., in acceptance of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor given by the Baseball Writers Association of America to its members.

“This is about a baseball player who cared about a baseball writer,” he said.

Boone didn’t think he was doing anything out of the ordinary.

“I feel like I am given a little too much credit for that,” he said. “I had a good relationship with Hal. The first day of spring when he came in and told me what was going on, I told him that wasn’t good enough. It was a little bit of tough love. Now he has continued to do what he loves, and everyone has accommodated him as needed.

“It is humbling to have an effect on people like that. People walk into our lives all the time that maybe touch it or don’t. I didn’t necessarily go out of my way and do some noble, great thing, from my point of view. I was just shooting the breeze with a friend.”

The Nationals signed Boone (whose father, Bob, is the team’s assistant general manager and whose brother, Bret, signed a minor league contract with the team on Monday) to boost their bench.

After 10 seasons in the major leagues, Aaron, who turns 35 on March 9, has developed into a role player. Last season with the Florida Marlins, Aaron played in 69 games at first and third base. In 189 at-bats, he batted .286 with five home runs and 28 RBI. He strengthens the Nationals’ depth significantly.

But clearly, he also has a positive influence on those around him, be they teammates or sportswriters. Manager Manny Acta cited Aaron’s reputation as a leader as one of the assets he brings to the team.

“I try to be myself, and hopefully that means learning from different people and touching certain people’s lives,” Aaron said. “But I don’t come in trying to be a certain way. At the end of the day, hopefully my being here is a good thing.”

Aaron Boone forever will be known for the dramatic 11th-inning home run he sent into the New York sky one October night to give the New York Yankees a 6-5 win over the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

“It was a great moment,” Boone said. “I recognize that is how somebody would recognize me walking through an airport for that, and at the end of the day, that is pretty cool. It is something I am proud of and happy I was in a position to do something like that. But among people in my life, it by no means defines me.”

No, it doesn’t — at least not to any sportswriter who was in the audience that July afternoon in Cooperstown, when Aaron Boone was canonized.

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