NEW YORK — For a New York Yankees manager, Aaron Boone is having way too much fun.
This is October, when the Yankees hierarchy suddenly starts paying close attention — it’s Canyon of Heroes or failure, remember? — and here is Boone, in only his second season occupying what once was considered the hottest pressure-cooker in professional sports, smirking, smiling and playfully taunting his way through a press conference a day before Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Minnesota Twins.
“I know you guys would love to have it,” he says, grinning, in answer to a question about his first-round roster. “But we don't have to give that out until [Friday] morning. So we'll take advantage of that on some level.”
“Can you at least tell us if you’ll be carrying 12 or 13 pitchers?” a reporter persists, desperate for some kind of clue.
“It will be like Christmas morning tomorrow,’’ Boone says, the grin still in place. “You'll wake up, and you've got something waiting for you under the tree.”
“How about a lineup?”
“That will be a bonus gift for you around the corner,” Boone says. By now, he is barely stifling a laugh.
And the New York media corps, notoriously prickly when it thinks a manager is giving it a hard time, is now laughing along with him.
Can you imagine the same scenario starring Boone’s predecessors?
Joe Girardi, who begins to tense up on opening day, would have been in full bulging neck vein, rapidly blinking eye mode. He never looked like he was having a good time. Not even in the World Series.
And the much more easy-going Joe Torre would have had that sincere, sad-eyed look on his face as he earnestly explained why he couldn’t provide the desired information before segueing into stories about the good-old days in St. Louis with Gibby and T-Mac.
Boone is a different breed of cat. He actually seems to be enjoying this.
“You know, part of the playoffs is pressure,” Boone said. “And you try and embrace that and then use that in a positive way, you know, the nerves and the excitement and the anxiety and all those kind of things, and hopefully, it's something that we channel in a positive way.”
And why not? In his first two seasons as the Yankees manager, his teams have won 203 games, more than any other besides the Houston Astros. He’s signed through the 2020 season, with a team option for 2021.
And despite having had a historic run of injuries — when Gio Urshela went down with a groin injury on Aug. 30, he became the 29th Yankee to go on the IL in one season, a major-league record — Boone’s Yankees managed to win 103 games, often with lineups made up of players even the Miami Marlins could afford.
If he’s not the front-runner for the AL Manager of the Year Award, he’s on a very short list, with Kevin Cash of the Rays, who are headed into the other ALDS with baseball’s lowest payroll, and Rocco Baldelli, a rookie manager who coaxed 101 wins out of the Twinkies.
And ever since his “Savages in the batter’s box” tirade went viral in July, the perception of Boone seems to have changed among the Yankee faithful as well. Once viewed as a SoCal surfer dude who was in over his head in New York, Boone’s rant showed the fans there’s some fire burning behind his outward cool. The feeling began to take hold that there was a savage in the manager’s office, too.
This is not to say there’s no pressure on Boone; despite his regular season success, his Yankees have won just two playoff games and no playoff series, unless you count the wild card play-in victory over the Oakland A’s last year as a series, which I don’t.
And even though they have always seemed to own the Twins — they are 53-21 against them since Yankee Stadium 3.0 opened in 2009, 89-33 since 2002, and an astounding 10-1 in four playoff series against them — this is a different Minnesota team they are facing this season, one that more than matched them for power, hitting a record 307 home runs this season to the Yankees’ 306.
“Teams change,” Boone said. “I don't at all get caught up in the history of it, honestly, because I just think there's so many guys that had nothing to do with some of that. We know we’re playing a great team and we’ll have to play well to beat them.”
A first-round KO by the Twins would not sit well with the insatiable Yankee fan base, which seems to have internalized the Mission Statement written by The Boss even more deeply than has his son.
And if history repeats itself and the Yankees gobble the Twinkies once again, there’s no guarantee that they will get past the Houston Astros, who have stopped two of the Yankees last three playoff runs in their tracks, although in the pre-Boone era.
This year, a lot of eyes will be on Boone’s handling of his pitchers, and specifically when to pull a starter and go to his strong bullpen. Last year, after the Yankees knotted the ALDS against the Red Sox at 1-1, Boone stayed too long with starter Luis Severino in Game 3 and the Yankees were crushed, 16-1. The following night’s elimination, at home, was almost like a ritual slaughter.
“Man, I hope so” Boone said when asked if he had learned anything from last year’s experience. “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 year, with a different rotation — Boone will start James Paxton, a first-year Yankee and October virgin, in Game 1 followed by Masahiro Tanaka in Game 2 and Severino in Game 3 — Boone says he will be quicker with his hook than he was in 2018.
“Obviously [the playoffs] are a lot more about today, so we will be aggressive with our bullpen,’’ he said. “I expect they're going to play a huge role.”
That is likely one of the reasons Boone chose to leave CC Sabathia, a star of the Yankees 2009 championship team but in the closing days of his final big-league season relegated to a bullpen role, off the ALDS roster. And with a day off between Game 2 in New York and Game 3 in Minneapolis, the choice to go with Tanaka means Boone can use plenty of bullpen if necessary.
“In my head right now I'm pretty clear about which way we're going to go in my mind,” Boone said. “It's starting to come together about how I picture us lining up our starters, what our roster looks like. Inevitably you get thrown a curveball in the game so we'll try and be ready for every situation, do all we can to put our guys in the best position to go out and thrive.’’
Those inevitable curveballs seemed to drive Girardi nuts well before they happened. His Yankees were serious to the point of being grim.
But there has definitely been a different feeling around the Yankees these past two seasons. Some of it comes from the owner’s box, where Hal Steinbrenner runs a lighter, if not quite looser, ship than his father did. Some of it comes from the front office, which seemed to have a never-ending supply of spare parts available when a Yankee regular went down.
And some of it comes from the manager’s office, from which the air of relaxation seems to permeate into the clubhouse.
For ballplayers and managers lucky enough to get here, October is supposed to be a month of excitement and anxiety and pressure.
Who told Aaron Boone it could be fun, too?
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