Aaron Boone, the player, delivered one of the biggest clutch hits in Yankees’ history when he pummeled that Tim Wakefield knuckleball into the Bronx night way back in 2003.
As for Boone the manager, the pressure isn’t so easily conquered. It can’t be silenced with one swing. Every day, the attention cranks up anew, and the spotlight is always focused on the guy calling the shots.
Boone’s Yankees kicked off the playoffs Friday night after winning a total of 103 games, making him the only manager to reach the 100-win plateau in each of his first seasons. The franchise seized its first AL East title since 2012 despite a record 30 players spending time on the injured list, and the affable Boone should be the first Yankee to earn Manager of the Year honors since Joe Torre in 1998.
Despite all that early success, there’s only one measuring stick that matters in the Bronx, and Boone is 0-for-1 in that category as he entered Friday night’s ALDS opener against the Twins. The 0-fer was last October’s four-game loss to the Red Sox, a Division Series that perhaps highlighted Boone’s inexperience in the big chair.
Boone’s puzzling bullpen tactics, whether it was pushing Luis Severino too far before setting Game 3 ablaze with Lance Lynn or sticking too long with a vulnerable CC Sabathia in the next night’s clincher, haunted the Yankees into the winter.
This October, however, the slate is wiped clean again. You’re only a first-time manager once, and the mistakes of the past now have to be viewed as such — just make sure they’re not repeated. If Boone still carries the weight of those missteps, he doesn’t let on, but also understands the scrutiny he faces on this championship pursuit.
“You know, part of the playoffs is pressure,” Boone said. “And you try and embrace that and then use that in a positive way — the nerves and the excitement and the anxiety and all those kind of things. Hopefully, it’s something that we channel in a positive way.”
Boone’s pressure is different than what the others in the Yankees’ dugout face, because they don’t get interrogated as thoroughly on strategy. They’re not at the podium twice a day, having decisions picked apart and second-guessed with regularity. Still, Boone usually aces that part of the test, and Brian Cashman couldn’t be more pleased with the job he’s done at the helm.
“He’s been everything that I thought he would look like from that job interview,” Cashman said earlier in the week. “There was a lot of risk there. But again, our process was designed to kind of lead us to the best candidate. And he was by far, you know, an individual has stood out to me, and everything he’s done has been nothing but impressive. And, sure, he’s gotten even better.
“Like a sponge growing right before our eyes with every decision he has to make, every discussion he has to have a send out; whether it’s navigating a difficult circumstance, whether it’s taking a ball from a starter’s hand early. All of those things he just continues to benefit and grow from. So I feel like we got one of the better managers in the game and we’re lucky that we ran into him.”
To borrow one of Cashman’s favorite terms, this hasn’t exactly been a “plug-and-play” season for Boone, who used 140 different lineups (excluding pitchers) over the course of 162 games. For Friday night’s ALDS opener, Boone deployed yet another new lineup: one that included nine Yankees that had never played together in the same game this season.
“Yeah, it’s remarkable,” Boone said. “I think we’ve had some good fortune here this past month.”
Boone will need more than luck to get him through October with the Yankees’ bullpen-heavy approach to this postseason. That gate should be opening early and often, so Boone is going to find himself looking to navigate through 12 or more outs each night.
You can bet the Yankees’ analytics department has equipped Boone with the best blueprint for every scenario. But he’s the one pushing the buttons, and will have to provide the explanations afterward. Last October didn’t go according to plan, judging by the outcome. And now Boone will get to show how much he’s learned, or improved, since then. Is he a better manager?
“Man, I hope so” Boone said. “Being in it for the first time, you try and learn from every situation you’re put in. Certainly in the postseason the flow of the game, the pace and the tempo of things is different, and the urgency is obviously more.”
This October, the pressure is even greater.