Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 7, 2017

From Home Run Hero To Yankees Manager

The gates open two hours before game time at the Stadium in the Bronx. As Yankee fans start passing through the turnstiles and the three decks of blue seats begin to fill, video clips are shown on the giant screen in center field. There are player profiles, from legends in the Hall of Fame to minor league prospects. There’s a recap of the team’s most recent game and the occasional advertisement by a corporate sponsor. Most of all there are highlights of memorable moments from seasons gone by. With twenty-seven world championships and forty appearances in the World Series, the staff in charge of the pregame entertainment have plenty such moments from which to choose. But invariably at some point before the first pitch is thrown, fans are carried back to an October night in 2003.

Game 7 of that season’s ALCS saw the New York nine and their bitter rivals from Boston locked in a tense duel at the old place on the other side of 161st Street, with the winner headed to the Fall Classic to face the Florida Marlins. As they had in the series by winning Game 1, the Red Sox jumped out to an early lead with three runs in the 2nd inning and another in the 4th. But the Yankees battled back from deficits of 4-0 and 5-2, with the first fateful moment of the contest coming in the last of the 8th. That’s when Boston manager Grady Little chose to stick with his tiring starter Pedro Martinez. The Red Sox ace yielded four straight hits, allowing the Yankees to tie the score. Eventually that decisive Game 7 went to extra innings.

The final drama unfolded in the bottom of the 11th, after Mariano Rivera, in an outing of unprecedented length for the New York closer, shut out Boston for three innings. Tim Wakefield was on the mound for the Red Sox, and as the familiar video begins leadoff hitter Aaron Boone, who had entered the game as a pinch runner in the 8th, is walking to the plate. Boone steps in, and the right-handed knuckleballer delivers his first pitch of the inning. Wakefield would not throw a second that night, nor another pitch that season, for Boone turns on the initial offering and sends it soaring into the night. The capacity crowd reacts with a massive roar as the ball heads for the left field seats. The video ends with a disconsolate Wakefield walking off the mound, headed for the Red Sox dugout, as Boone rounds the bases and the Yankees pour out of their dugout to celebrate his walk off blast at home plate.

What is most remarkable about the video is the reaction it engenders. No matter how many times it’s shown, the roar from the present-day fans watching Boone’s home run always rivals the one broadcast through the Stadium’s speakers from the fans who were there that night. This despite the passage of time, and even though as Yankee legends go, Aaron Boone’s career in pinstripes was extremely brief. He had come to New York from Cincinnati in a trade deadline deal at the end of that July, and appeared in fifty-four regular season games, exactly one-third of the schedule. That winter, after the Yankees lost the 2003 World Series to the Marlins, Boone tore the ACL in his left knee in a pick-up basketball game. Lost for the 2004 season because of the injury, he was released by New York in February, and eventually wore four other uniforms before retiring in 2009.

No doubt some of the undiminished enthusiasm for each showing of Boone’s blast is because of the opponent that night. Like Bucky F’n Dent and Eli F’n Manning, Boone will always have an expletive for a middle name whenever a Boston sports fan refers to him. But there is something else at work as well. Even fans who have never met him know that he was a popular player who was always open and available to the media and the paying customers. Since his playing days, he’s also become a well-respected analyst for ESPN. Despite his brief time as a Yankee, Boone has a large reservoir of goodwill in the Bronx, so most fans were enthusiastic at the news that the 44-year old had been picked by GM Brian Cashman to be the thirty-third manager of the Great Game’s most successful franchise.

Yet on the surface the choice of Boone to replace Joe Girardi seems like a high-stakes gamble by Cashman, mainly because the new manager’s first day on the job Wednesday was also his first day as either a manager or coach for any team at any level of baseball. While it was impossible to find a sports writer saying anything negative about the popular Boone personally, there were more than a few who voiced considerable doubt about the wisdom of giving a neophyte the managerial reins of the team that plays under the greatest media scrutiny and with the most outsized expectations every single season. But to be comfortable with their doubts, the naysayers must overlook both an important fact about Boone and the way in which the job of manager is changing.

Aaron Boone’s life in and around professional baseball didn’t start when he was drafted by the Reds in 1994, or when he made his big league debut three years later. It began in the cradle. His grandfather was Ray Boone, who was twice an All-Star during a thirteen-year career in the majors that began in 1948 with Cleveland. His father is Bob Boone, who was catching for the Phillies in 1973 when Aaron was born, and who was a four-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove Award winner. His older brother is Brett Boone, who led the American League in RBIs in 2001 while playing with the Mariners, one of five different uniforms he wore during his major league career. Aaron’s sibling won a pair of Silver Slugger Awards and made three All-Star teams.

With just a single All-Star nod, the playing career of the new Yankees manager is the least distinguished of his family, the first to send three generations to the big leagues. But despite the fact he’ll wear a uniform every game just like every player on the 25-man roster, Boone isn’t being asked to play, just understand the game and be able to process events as they happen. As a literal lifer in the Great Game, there’s a good chance he’ll be up to the task.

That task has evolved rapidly in recent years, with the rush to understand and use advanced analytics. A successful manager today must be able to communicate with and have faith in his team’s computer geeks, while also being able to translate reams of data into meaningful exchanges with his players. Boone impressed Cashman during the interview process with his ability and willingness to do the former, and his youth while having a lifetime around the game should help him do the latter.

The only certainty is that no one knows how Aaron Boone will do as a manager. When the Yankees assemble ten weeks hence in Tampa for the start of Spring Training, expectations will be very high after Girardi guided the team to within a single win of the World Series this fall. Perhaps what some pundits see as Cashman’s gamble will result in a season of disappointment. But there are also good reasons to believe that just like on that October night in 2003, Aaron Boone will knock the first pitch out of the park.

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Responses

  1. Nice assessment of the NYY’s chances next year. 10 weeks to Spring training—that’s a shocker!
    Ω


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