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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Will Aaron Boone be able to learn, win at same time?

The Yankees’ hero of the 2003 World Series never has managed before.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone stands outside Yankee Stadium

Yankees manager Aaron Boone stands outside Yankee Stadium after a press conference introducing him as the new manager on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When Joe Girardi returned to the Yankees as manager for 2008, the pinstriped jersey he slipped on at the introductory news conference was emblazoned with his mission statement: the No. 27, a reference to the next championship.

Girardi understood. That’s how we measure the success of anything Yankee-related, from free-agent signings to trades to front-office hirings and firings. The Steinbrenner family writes the big checks to win championships. Rarely does coming close feel satisfactory.

But Wednesday’s unveiling of Aaron Boone left us with a different vibe, one that we’re not quite sure how to process. Boone performed as expected, deftly handling questions from both the media and, believe it or not, Twitter followers, as conveyed by the Yankees’ PR staff. The most difficult part was buttoning his jersey (No. 17, by the way) while standing at the podium for the first time.

“I thought that would go a little smoother,” Boone joked.

Kidding aside, let’s hope that sentiment is not a recurring theme this coming season in the Bronx. But there’s bound to be bumps along this learning curve, and that conversation deflected the focus away from title No. 28 during Wednesday’s festivities and more toward cultivating relationships within the Yankees’ clubhouse.

Who knew that these players needed so much hand-holding? Boone, 44, is a bright baseball man, a third-generation major-leaguer, and the son of a former manager. But in listening to the way that everyone talked about his responsibilities, it sounded more like Boone was running for class president than the guy in charge of commanding a World Series favorite.

“I’m going to really care for these guys,” Boone said. “I’m going to love these guys and hopefully they love me back.”

By now, we get it. The clubhouse didn’t like Girardi very much, and the people upstairs were tired of him, too. The Boone hiring seems to be the antidote for all that. But we’re a little confused by the timetable for the next title. Boone is inheriting a young team that fell a game short of the World Series, and should be even better in 2018, yet Brian Cashman repeatedly talked about Boone as a speculative investment, like a mutual fund, which was the GM’s response to his lack of experience as either a manager or coach.

“It’s not a short-term decision,” Cashman said. “We’re betting on his ceiling.”

In that case, Boone may need some helium pumped into his pinstriped pants, because in most people’s estimation, the Yankees have a World Series to win this October, not two or three years from now. If Girardi was a net-negative despite a decade of experience in the Bronx, Boone has a big gap to close in a relatively short period by somehow transforming his newbie self into a playoff-caliber manager.

As Cashman already has pointed out, this job isn’t a one-man show. Boone has the extensive Yankees support staff behind him, including an army of analysts and a farm system teeming with reinforcements. He won’t be lacking in resources, financial or otherwise, and the front office was so smitten with Boone that Hal Steinbrenner didn’t bother flying him to Tampa for the traditional second interview with the family.

“He was the No. 1 guy,” Steinbrenner said, “and it wasn’t close.”

Hal wouldn’t go so far as to say Boone was the piece that could push the Yankees over the top in 2018 — “It’s a long season, and a lot has to go right,” he said — and that statement echoed the restraint shown by the team’s executives throughout the day. They readily acknowledged Boone will need to grow into the job, which could make him an unorthodox pairing with a talented but still-maturing roster of players who have much to learn themselves.

It certainly appears that Boone has the intelligence and the people skills suited for the relationship-building he spent so much time talking about Wednesday. The question is whether he can do it quickly enough to conquer the AL East next season, and perhaps seize the No. 28 that never made it from Girardi’s back to the Stadium’s walls. With all the effort Boone is going to put into winning the hearts and minds of the clubhouse, can he deliver enough victories on the field to make it worthwhile?

“He knows exactly what he’s getting into,” Steinbrenner said.

For now, we’ll trust the Yankees do, too.

New York Sports