Aaron Boone, in his first season as a big-league manager last year, led the Yankees to a 100-62 regular season. A good season by any objective measure. But, in a season dominated by the Red Sox, who won 108 games and dispatched of the Yankees in four games in the ALDS, one quickly forgotten by Yankees’ fans.
In this Q & A with Newsday's Erik Boland, Boone talks about the challenges of the manager’s seat, the loss to the Red Sox, what he didn’t know about Aaron Judge before becoming his manager and expectations for 2019.
Q: What do you know about this job that you didn’t know at this point last year?
A: “I guess the volume of the unknown that comes across the desk that may have everything to do with baseball between the lines or very little to do with between the lines. There’s a lot of things on a given day that come across the desk. Being able to handle those and take things in and make a decision on how to proceed. I don’t think I could have known the volume of that. And I think that’s one of the challenges of the job.”
Q: Can you give an example of that?
A: “Like yesterday (Feb. 25) for example. There’s about a 30-minute barrage of about five or six different people – coach, trainer, front office, (media relations director Jason) Zillo, different things that were happening at once. But in a lot of ways I feel like I’m totally cut out for it and it doesn’t overwhelm me, even when a day like yesterday happens and there’s a lot of stuff going on.”
Q: Any overwhelming feelings last year?
A: “I don’t know if overwhelming is the word but (there was) the Orioles game early in the season (April 6). We lost in 14 innings. CC left the game early with an injury, it wasn’t serious but we had to put him on the DL; Tyler Wade left the game sick, Brandon Drury had to come out. Didi Gregorius (got banged up on a play at the plate) . . . I remember it was probably 1 in the morning and in the coaches’ meeting room there’s members of the front office, the whole coaching staff and it’s like, ‘All right, what are we going to do now?’ because we had to make three or four transactions. So that was a day like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ (Assistant GM) Jean Afterman came down the next day, walked into my office and quietly she tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘It gets better.’ And it did. But that was a day early in the season I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on today.’ But honestly, I loved every part of the job. Even the crappy days or tough days. Obviously for the most part we had a very good year, but there’s pockets in there where it’s a struggle, it’s a grind. Finding a way to kind of help maintain that solid, steady culture through the ups and downs of a season was critical I think."
Q: Culture has become a buzz word in recent years in sports, what does organizational or team culture mean?
A: “I think a great culture can look a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s guys that get along great and it’s a good, solid, healthy work environment. I think there’s sometimes great cultures where there’s some angst and friction even. We don’t necessarily have one of those here, but I talk to the guys all the time how they know how important a strong culture is and the way I would define it is, or one of the ways, is if a visitor from outside the organization showed up during the season they would have no idea what we’re going through as a club, whether we’re in a tough stretch or whether we’ve run off 15 in a row. And I never want us to take that for granted. That’s work. Guard that, protect that, build that. These guys do a great job of that and it’s really important. Overall, I want this to be a place, no matter what’s going on with you personally in your season, whether you’re having an MVP type year or you’re struggling your ass off or you’re going through something off the field that’s difficult, I want this to be a place you look forward to coming to every single day. Because I think in a sport where you play every day and we’re together 200 days whatever it is during the year, I feel like when that’s strong and solid and this is a place you come and draw energy from, I think that results in wins. How many I don’t know but I think it matters.”
Q: How much of that is there and how much is pushed by you, the coaches, etc?
A: “I think I inherited a great situation and I think it’s a testament to the front office, I think it’s a testament to Joe Girardi before me and to some of the veteran guys. I walked into a really, really stable environment and I want to protect that and want it to grow and get better and better to where this is a place that when you come experience it, hopefully more and more and you’d leave here and say, ‘That was awesome. I want to be there. I want to be in that environment.’ ”
Q: We asked Hicks the other day how long it took him to get over the ALDS loss to the Red Sox and he said, “I haven’t.’’ Can you associate with that comment?
A: “Sure. The immediacy of it really stung and I think you always carry it with you. But it was also very easy for me to get right back to work and get back at it. The end of the season really stings but in this sport you can’t stand still and you have to keep pushing and trying to improve and grow where you can. It’s too good an opportunity based on the people we have in that room.”
Q: What do you know about Aaron Judge after managing him for a year that you didn’t know or wasn’t apparent as a broadcaster or analyst?
A: “The elite competitor that he is. I knew obviously Rookie of the Year (in 2017), the 52 homers, he’s a great player. Having met him a little bit but not really knowing him, you see the way he carries himself, treats people, all that is confirmed. But really to be around him all the time and see the kind of relentless rip-your-heart-out competitor that he is was awesome, but probably something that I wasn’t aware of. And right away, in my mind, in spring (2018) I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s a better player overall than I even thought, too.’ ”
Q: What did you get out of your offseason visit to the Dominican Republic where you spent time with Gary Sanchez (and also Luis Severino and Miguel Andujar)?
A: “Relationships are a big part of this job I think and he’s (Sanchez) an important person within in this organization, so it was just another opportunity to build our relationship and spend time with someone that I care about. And to do it in his country where he’s driving the bus a little bit with where to go and all that. I’m so glad I got to go on many fronts. I had never been to the Dominican Republic so to go there and see our academy and see all the people down at our academy, spend an evening with Sevy and his family and Gary and his family, spend time with Miggy and on their turf, it’s something I hopefully get to do again this winter.”
Q: It’s hard to improve on a 100-win team but this team on paper seems better; is it possible you win less games this year but be a better team?
“Sure that’s possible. As we sit here today I think we’re potentially better on paper than we were at this time last year but we’ll see. We’ve got to go do it.”
Q: You’ve used the phrase ‘this team has a chance to be special’ often this spring. What can make this a special team?
"Look, I do think there’s a level of chance that goes with, especially when you get in the postseason, it’s difficult. The Red Sox were the best regular season team last year and the best team. That doesn’t always happen. Things have to line up a little bit and go your way a little bit I think, but what I just want us to do always is do everything we can to put ourselves in position to win the little things. Win on the margins. We’re going to overwhelm teams sometimes on given nights of the year because of talent and our ability, but I want us to be relentless in the way we prepare, the way we work, the way we talk to one another because I think all those little things . . . on the back fields, in the weight room, in the cage, the more you pour into those things, the more you have a chance to win on the margins. To win those little moments, or those gut-check times when it’s real difficult that inevitably is going to come up, especially in a postseason, that’s kind of our focus. I want us to be really focused on those little things every single day.”