By Steve Wilstein
The Associated Press
There isn't a basketball game in the world worth $4.8 million.
Surely not to a baseball player looking for a little exercise and fun in a Friday night pickup game.
New York Yankees' Aaron Boone celebrates his solo home run in the eleventh inning to beat the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.
Yet Aaron Boone played a game six weeks ago that cost him that much money and set off a chain of events that led the New York Yankees to replace him at third base by trading for Alex Rodriguez in the steal of this young century.
It was like replacing a rhinestone with the Hope diamond and getting it for next to nothing.
"The crazy thing about it is, I never play basketball. It was the one time I played basketball this offseason," Boone said as we spoke moments after the Yankees released him a few days ago. He sat with a brace on his left knee at home in Newport Beach, Calif., a week after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
He hadn't done his regular cardio workout that Friday back on Jan. 16 and had no plans with his wife to do anything that night.
"I figured I'd run up and down the court a little," Boone said. "It was three minutes into the game. We were playing five-on-five, full-court. There were rebounds going up and I was just hanging on the outside. One time there was a loose ball and I went to tip it and take it the other way and this guy cut me down."
Boone had torn the same ACL playing baseball during the 2000 season, so the fear shot through his mind right away that he had done it again. This season could, and would, be all but gone.
Boone didn't realize at the time that his new, $5.75 million, one-year contract prohibited basketball. Even if he had, he said, he wouldn't dream about making up a lie that he had hurt his knee tripping down some steps.
"He didn't try to cover it up," his big brother Bret Boone of the Mariners told the Seattle Times. "That's the thing about him. He has character and is honest. You have to respect someone who is honest from the get-go. As a professional athlete, it's tough to do that."
It also seems increasingly rare these days, when lying and cheating and breaking the law grab more headlines.
Aaron Boone was a hero for a New York minute at Yankee Stadium last October when he homered off Boston's Tim Wakefield in the 11th inning of Game 7 in the American League championship series. He was feted at a City Hall rally and launched into Yankee lore along with Bucky Dent, the plucky shortstop who hit a stunning three-run homer at Fenway Park to help the Yankees win a one-game playoff for the 1978 AL East title.
It was a heady time for the 30-year-old Boone. Now he spoke softly about the strange bounces the game and life take, the way events humble a man and motivate him to rise toward new challenges.
The same Yankees who embraced him last fall had just let him go, contending he violated his contract by playing hoops. Boone would lose $4.8 million of that, getting $917,553 for termination pay.
"I really believe that things happen for a reason," he said. "This is a bump in the road for me. Sometimes going through adversities makes you a better person, a better player, a better everything. I expect to come back from this better for it. I'm excited by what lies ahead.
"This game can humble you in a minute, and there's a lot of lessons to be learned. I just feel in the big picture I'm doing pretty good."
Boone is already doing physical therapy and aims to be ready to play in five months - for the Yankees or anyone else who would want him as a free agent.
"I know I'll be back 100 percent next year for the season," he said. "That is ultimately my goal. Now with that said, I expect that I will be playing late in this season.
"But I don't want to impede the healing process. I would never put myself in a risky position, just because I want to get back this year, to go out there too soon. If I'm out there, it's because I'm ready to be out there and it's a safe choice."
Playing it safe is pre-eminent in his mind, but he doesn't berate himself for taking too much of a risk six weeks ago on the basketball court.
"I can say in my career, I'll probably never play basketball again," he said. "But at the same time, I really don't feel like I did anything wrong. Half the players play basketball. I'm not a person who lives outside the box. I'm not a risk-taker. I work hard in my offseason. It was just a freak and unfortunate accident.
"It wasn't like I was hustling for the ball. The ball was tipped over my head and this guy clipped me from the side."
There are probably Boston Red Sox fans who wish nothing but bad luck for Boone the rest of his life. Not only was he one more Yankee who kept the Red Sox out of the World Series again, his injury prompted the Yankees to make the deal for A-Rod that the Red Sox had failed to close.
"He killed Boston twice," Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi said.
For that, Boone surely has no regrets.
"Aaaah, Boston fans," he said, "they're not real friendly people anyway. They don't treat Yankee players the best."
What would he think then, if by some twisted course of events, he one day wound up playing for the Red Sox?
Boone laughed at that thought.
"You never know in this game."
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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