- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — As world-changing figures go, Aaron Boone may not be quite up there with Edison or Einstein. Or even Lennon and McCartney.
But Aaron Boone has left his mark, all right, even if he didn't mean to. He didn't mean to change what he changed: The Yankees. The Red Sox. A-Rod. The Curse. Not all of it. Not any of it.
All he meant to do, on an innocent Friday night in January 2004, was play a little pickup basketball — not set off a chain of events that would one day send Curt Schilling's sock to the Hall of Fame.
"It would have been different if I felt like I was doing something reckless," Boone says now, just 13 life-altering months later, sitting in the spring-training clubhouse of the Cleveland Indians. "I'm not a guy who lives out of the box, really. I'm not a big risk-taker. The bottom line is, it was a Friday night, and I went down to get a little exercise, to play basketball. Then the most fluky thing that could have happened, happened."
But the most fluky thing that could have happened did more than just shred the ACL in Boone's left knee. It apparently messed with the entire orbit of the earth.
After that, stuff started transpiring. Lots and lots of stuff. Stuff that would impact the fates of players and fans, legends and myths, villains and heroes, authors and poets scattered all over the map.
Not to mention Aaron Boone himself — the Yankees' third baseman when it all started, the Indians' third baseman (health permitting) now.
Oh, he might seem like just a minor subplot in the all-powerful Yankees-Red Sox extravaganza. Until you stop and think about it.
Once you stop and think about it, though, it becomes clear that maybe none of what's happened in the past year would have been possible had it not been for Aaron Boone, The Man Who Changed The World.
"Yeah, it's amazing," Boone said. "It really is. It's just amazing how it all shook down."
And, just as amazingly, it's still shaking. Right here in spring training 2005, more than one year later.
Aaron Boone is aware of that, of course. But spring training is a time to look forward. So for a week, Boone was doing a fine job of that. Then ESPN.com's special What If correspondent had to show up at his locker, asking if he has a crystal ball around.
"Nope," he said. "No crystal ball."
Uh, Ouija board?
"No," he said. "No Ouija board."
But what Aaron Boone does have is a creative imagination. And a notorious self-deprecating sense of humor. So we ask him to reflect for a few minutes, not necessarily 100 percent seriously, about how the world might have been different if he'd never played basketball that fateful night ...
"Well, the Yankees would have won the World Series last year," he said, before we can even get the first question out. "No doubt about that. So the Red Sox would still be searching."
Ooh. We can feel that Red Sox-ian pain returning already. Boone is laughing as he says this. But how do we know he isn't right? We don't know. We'll never know.
We do know that, had Aaron Boone never played basketball, he would have been playing third base for the Yankees last October. So we can't help but wonder: Where would Alex Rodriguez have been?
"Where does he live?" Boone chuckles. "Miami? So he'd have been in Miami, probably."
But let's see now. If A-Rod had been in Miami last October, then he never would have been wearing those pinstripes from February through September. So he never would have prompted that brawl at Fenway last summer. And he never would have karate-chopped the baseball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove in the LCS.
Which means he never would have set himself up to be a human Yankees dart board for the Red Sox. As if we could even comprehend him in any other role right now.
So here's a scary, What If thought: If none of that had ever happened, how would the New York newspapers have filled all that space they've used up this spring (i.e., enough to stretch to the top of the Empire State Building), chronicling that burning A-Rod/Red Sox love affair?
"Oh, I don't think they'd have any trouble with that," Boone reassures us. "One thing I know from my time in New York is, there's always something going on. So I don't think there would be any trouble filling up the newspapers. I don't think they'll ever have any trouble with that."
But without A-Rod to kick around, there would have to be another target. Wouldn't there? So which Yankee would the good citizens of New England be directing all their mandatory anti-Yankee passions at?
"It would probably," Boone guesses, "be just the normal hating-Jeter thing."
But wait. Is there still a "normal hating-Jeter thing?" We're not sure anymore. So much has changed, the old "hating-Jeter thing" might actually be defunct now. Or at least semi-defunct. Last we heard, we could have sworn Red Sox Nation had decided that at least Jeter was a "true Yankee." Unlike A-Rod.
So maybe that "normal hating-Jeter thing" has morphed into a new normal — the "hating-A-Rod thing." Which would mean that even a once-stable life element known as "normal" has been altered forever by Aaron Boone.
And if all of that had been altered, think of those millions and millions of other lives, those New England lives, that would have been messed with.
Remember those 3 million folks lining the streets of Boston last November to watch the Red Sox parade by in their duck boats? Had there been no torn Aaron Boone ACL, we wonder how many people would have stood on those same streets that same day, checking out those same duck boats?
Boone's educated guess: "Mmmmmm, about 30."
And what about the T-shirts? Remember last spring training, when the Red Sox camp was being overrun by forlorn New Englanders wearing their "Aaron Bleeping Boone" T-shirts, in honor of the Boone home run that had broken their hearts?
How many of those same people, we wonder, would still be wearing those shirts this spring if that heartbreak hadn't been rendered so irrelevant last October?
"Not many," Boone said confidently. "They'd be a little bit old news. You'd see them now and then. But they'd have a new shirt now."
Hmmm. A "19-to-Bleeping-8" shirt, perhaps? Sorry. Can't tell you. With no crystal ball in his locker, Boone isn't even venturing a guess on that.
But if you think that only the Yankees and Red Sox franchises were altered by that pickup hoops game, you haven't grasped the full picture. They're just half the story.
There are the Rangers, for example. A-Rod still would have been their captain last year. So Michael Young never would have been an All-Star shortstop. "Would have been an All-Star second baseman," Boone announces, sounding pretty sure of that one.
And Alfonso Soriano? Wouldn't have had to listen to any Texas accents last year — because he'd have been still "banging away in Yankee Stadium," Boone reports.
Then there are the Indians, who signed an unemployed third baseman named Aaron Boone last June. You can't underestimate his impact on them — or, Boone says, "the lack thereof."
Because of knee issues, he never did play for them last season. So their box scores theoretically would still look pretty much the same (except for their games against the Yankees and Rangers, at least). But the Indians did have to pay Boone. So he definitely changed at least one person's routine in the official team check-writing department.
But that's not all. Another Indians employee whose life definitely changed — and not necessarily for the better, Boone laughs — is their equipment manager, Tony Amato.
"I spent most of my time ordering different bats, and weighing everybody's bat," Boone said. "I kept saying, 'Hey Tony, I want to try some of these.' I didn't have anything else to do, since I wasn't playing in any games. So I became the Bat Nazi."
In other words, if Boone had never gone off to play basketball, Tony Amato "would have had much less of a work load," Boone said, "just from not having to deal with me."
But just because even the Tony Amatos of the planet had their existences redirected doesn't mean everybody and everything in the whole frigging universe had to have their fates altered by Aaron Boone's ACL.
Take Randy Johnson, for example.
"He'd still be in New York now," Boone said, assuredly. "The Yankees are not reactive. They're proactive." So even if they'd won the World Series, it would be the "same situation," Boone said. "He was their man."
Boone even has this feeling that the man most affected by his ACL (other than him, of course) — A-Rod — had his fate rearranged only temporarily. Asked where A-Rod would be right now, Boone grins.
"Now? As we speak?" he said. "Probably a Yankee. Playing third base. ... I leave for Cleveland as a free agent. He gets traded to the Yankees — for Soriano."
Might well be true. Then again, might well not be true. And the cool thing is, we're never going to know for certain.
The earth spun the way it spun. Life unfolded the way it unfolded. And here we all are. We can't know what would have been. We only know what was — all thanks to Aaron Boone, a man who never intended to inspire any of it.
"When you think about it like this, it's amazing," he said. "But I can honestly say that until now, until this conversation, I never once looked at it this way. I never once said, 'What if?' It's all in God's hands. It happened how it happened."
He's an Indian now. And if you paid attention earlier, you know he thinks he would have been one, anyway.
Of course, we'll never know that, either. If the ripple effect of that basketball mishap touched the Cleveland Indians, "we're just on the periphery of the ripple," said GM Mark Shapiro. "We're the last wave, where it hits the dock."
But if that wave is how Boone got to Cleveland, then the Indians are grateful the tide flowed their way, because they view Boone as "an important part of what we're doing here — especially for a guy who's never had an at-bat for us," Shapiro said.
Back before his home run off Tim Wakefield, before he ever became a Yankee, you'll recall, Aaron Boone was an All-Star third baseman. But because Shapiro has had a long friendship with two of Boone's old buddies in Cincinnati, Sean Casey and Danny Graves, the GM knows Boone is more than that.
"He can impact us in a lot of ways," Shapiro said. "With his leadership, his passion for the game, his energy. His positive energy is infectious. And all that's beside the fact he's a very good baseball player."
The Yankees didn't need him for that leadership. But a team like this does. So if it was fate that led him to this place, no wonder Aaron Boone isn't into those What Ifs.
"I tend to think about how this impacts my life," he said. "And I think maybe this all happened for a reason. You know, I was watching a special on Bo Jackson. They were talking about his hip injury. And he said without a doubt, he would do it all over. He was an inch from stepping out of bounds [and never getting hurt]. But he said, 'Honestly, I wouldn't want that. I want what happened to me.' And I'm the same way.
"Sitting here right now, I'm a better, stronger person for having gone through the ups and the downs and the travels. And I think I'll be a better player, too."
So he's focusing his eyeballs on what's next: First intrasquad game. First spring training game. Opening Day. The season. The rest of his life.
That's the way it has to be, of course. The past 13 months have been one earthquake of a ride. But what matters now is what's ahead. For the Indians. For the Yankees. For the Red Sox. Even for Aaron Boone, The Man Who Changed The World.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
What if Aaron Boone hadn't torn his ACL playing pickup hoops? The baseball universe would look a lot different.