I don’t recall Aaron Boone’s Yankee days as warmly as I should. Perhaps it’s because Boone’s home run in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, as exhilarating a moment as any this decade, did not ultimately lead to a world championship. Or maybe it’s because Boone’s Yankee career ended so quickly, undone by a pickup basketball game and a wrecked knee that eventually led to the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez.
Six years after Boone’s brief pinstriped tenure, I find myself thinking of him more fondly. Shortly after hearing that Boone would need open heart surgery to repair an aortic valve—a procedure that took place earlier this week—I also began to think about a pretty good pitcher named John Hiller.
The Tigers’ relief ace for much of the 1970s, Hiller is the only other major leaguer that I can recall who endured severe heart problems during his playing days. In January of 1971, the 27-year-old Hiller suffered a major heart attack at his off-season home. The effects of the attack sidelined him for all of the 1971 season and most of 1972. His career given up as a lost cause by most casual observers, Hiller proceeded to stage one of the most remarkable comebacks in baseball history. In 1973, the talented and determined left-hander set a then-major league record with 38 saves and finished fourth in the American League’s MVP balloting. Hiller never quite reached such a dominant level again, but remained an effective closer for most of the decade. He did not retire until 1980, some nine years after he was struck by the heart attack that had seemingly ended his career on the spot.
Unlike Hiller, Boone’s aortic problem did not fit the description of an “emergency” condition, but it did have to be treated through an open-heart procedure, which always carries serious concerns. Because of that, Boone’s 2009 season is over before it begins. Doctors believe that he can eventually return to the playing field, but Boone does not have the benefit of age on his side, as Hiller did. Hiller was in his late twenties when struck by the heart attack; Boone just turned 36, and has already become a journeyman who has to grapple for his job on a year-to-year basis. According to the earliest timetable, Boone would be able to resume playing in 2010, by which time he will be 37 and hoping that a one-year layoff hasn’t completely eroded his skills.
Does that mean Boone’s career is over? Well, I wouldn’t give up on him just yet, considering that he has always kept himself in good shape and has a reputation as a rock-solid worker. And if he can find some inspiration from John Hiller—who has already done what many thought was impossible—perhaps his chances of a comeback will get that much better . . .
I’m not holding my breath for the Yankees to make any trades before Opening Day—spring training deals have become a lost art—but at least one player’s name has been swirling through the trade winds. Melky Cabrera has drawn interest from the White Sox, a scenario that speaks volumes about Chicago’s center field quagmire. Brian Anderson, Jerry Owens, and Dewayne Wise all have questionable resumes and have failed to advance their causes through slapdash spring performances. The White Sox like Cabrera’s defense and throwing skills, but I have to wonder how much they would offer for a player who was an offensive nonentity for most of 2008. If the ChiSox were willing to fork over a young catcher or a third baseman—anything but another pitching prospect!—the Yankees might have to take the bait. The power and bat speed displayed by Austin Jackson this spring, along with Brett Gardner’s rejuvenated swing, have the Yankees thinking better about their center field depth, thereby making Cabrera more expendable. By trading Cabrera, who is out of options, the Yankees could also open up a roster spot for another infielder or a third catcher . . .
The passing of former Yankee Johnny Blanchard brings to mind some personal memories from the early 1980s. As the Yankees struggled to find a permanent catching solution after Thurman Munson’s death, I once thought to myself: Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like Johnny Blanchard right about now? Though often a third-string catcher on those multi-layered Yankee teams that featured Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, Blanchard would have been a perfect fit as Rick Cerone’s platoon mate in the early eighties. The Yankees eventually found a Blanchard-type player in Ron Hassey, but “Babe” had his limitations with the glove and enjoyed an even shorter peak to his career than Blanchard.
As Cliff Corcoran pointed earlier this week, the Yankees could sure use someone like Blanchard today as a hedge against Jorge Posada’s shoulder and Jose Molina’s bat. Unfortunately, catching depth throughout the game is about as weak as I’ve ever seen it. It’s not just the Yankees who struggle to find backups; the problem persists throughout both leagues. A Johnny Blanchard in today’s game (at least based on his three-year peak from 1961 to 1963) would carry a lavish value—and would probably start for a number of teams, including those in Anaheim, Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland, Seattle, Toronto, Florida, Milwaukee, San Diego, and Washington.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.