Yankees manager Aaron Boone's sitdown with SNY's Andy Martino will air Monday at 6 p.m. on Baseball Night New York.
Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
On Oct. 8, 2018, during the terrible span of 10 minutes or so between a playoff loss and a grilling from reporters, Brian Cashman offered Aaron Boone an out.
"You can tell them about Britton," said the GM, whose typical approach is to preemptively reveal stories that are likely to leak anyway.
That would have made it much easier. It might even have saved Boone from 24 hours as the New York sports pariah du jour. The Yankees had just dropped a pivotal Game 3 to Boston, in part because Boone had failed to remove starting pitcher Luis Severino after Severino lost his effectiveness.
Irate fans were already asking why Boone didn't utilize his deep bullpen sooner. But no one outside the Yankees organization knew that the pen wasn't nearly as deep that night as the media and public thought.
According to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, Zack Britton had experienced cramping in his right leg and underwent an MRI while in Boston, a continuation of his long recovery from an Achilles injury.
The Yankees had managed to conceal that information -- in fact, they somehow kept it a secret all winter, until now -- but Boone and pitching coach Larry Rothschild were determined to stay away from Britton in Game 3.
Had Boone revealed why he needed more length from his starter that night, as Cashman said he could, the postgame storyline would have changed. Though Boone wouldn't have avoided all criticism, the world would have at least understood his reasoning.
But the manager shook his head.
"I don't want to hurt his free agency," Boone told Cashman, before walking into the press conference room and taking all the heat.
He figured that if other teams knew Britton had the MRI, they might be less likely to offer him big money that winter, even though he was healing (and to be clear, is 100 percent fine by now).
That evening underscored many of the challenges that come with a major league managing job in 2019. Gone are the days of skippers barking orders at players; now, they must finesse and respect them.
Younger managers like Boone and his Boston counterpart, Alex Cora, are charged with incorporating more front office input into game planning than ever, soothing millennial egos, and dealing with a culture of outrage in the media and public that scrutinizes every comment and decision.
Boone's handling of those challenges in his inaugural season showed why he was the perfect man for the modern Yankees.
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Approached last week in the clubhouse in George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Britton said he was not even aware that Boone had declined the chance to reveal his MRI. But he added that act was in keeping with the behavior of a person he has quickly come to admire.
"If I know Aaron, he would do that," Britton said. "It's a sign of a really good manager."
Britton, who agreed to work as a setup man for the Yankees even though he prefers to close, explained that Boone's communication style was part of his calculation in making that choice.
"This was the only team that I would have come to without being the closer," Britton said. "I really appreciated the way they treated me. They didn't expect me to be fully myself, and understood I was still healing from the injury. I felt respected, and they were very understanding of where I was at."
Even now, Boone declines to discuss Britton's 2018 health. But he does make a broader point about the climate of trust that he is trying to build.
"Hopefully, we do a really good job of creating a culture where we're creating trust," he says.
There is no doubt that he is succeeding on that front. For the better part of two decades, the Yankees were defined by a buttoned-up vibe that bordered on stiff and bland -- first, centered around Derek Jeter's cold professionalism, then around the tension that could exude from Joe Girardi. The Yankees were usually successful, but not always loose or fun.
When the front office decided after the 2017 season that Girardi was no longer the right leader for the post-Jeter era, they brought in Boone for an interview. Though Boone had become a prominent broadcaster, he did not know the Yankees front office well, after playing for the team for several months -- and one memorable, ALCS-winning home run -- way back in 2003.
In the interview, Cashman and his staff found Boone so personable that after he left, a brief silence filled the room before someone said, "Was that real? Because if it was, we found someone special."
It's not that Boone is the anti-Jeter or Girardi. He, too, is relatively quiet, and while he is friendly with the media, he is not particularly revelatory. But he patrols the clubhouse with relaxed shoulders and a smile, and a genial looseness that fits this Yankee era, defined as it is by a younger crowd.
This is not your father or mother's Yankees. It's more likely your younger brother or sister's Yankees. Aaron Judge is willing to yield a boom box outside the Boston clubhouse. Gleyber Torres doesn't mind occasional styling in the field. Gary Sanchez will drop his bat emphatically in the dirt after a big home run. It's a group that needs a laid-back manager.
Sanchez, who never quite connected with Girardi, has spent the early days of spring training this year praising Boone, who visited Sanchez in the Dominican Republic last winter.
"I had a good relationship with Boone since day one," Sanchez said through a translator last week. "We're always talking. It was a great experience [in the Dominican], just having the chance to sit down and talk. We talked about baseball and plans for the future."
Another free agent who appreciated Boone's style and ultimately returned was J.A. Happ. Shortly after the Yankees acquired him last summer, Happ found himself hospitalized with hand, foot and mouth disease. Boone, whom he had just met, called him every day.
In the playoffs, Boone removed Happ from his start at Fenway Park in the third inning. Later, he was willing to engage the veteran in an honest and detailed discussion about why he had made the decision. Happ left the ballpark that night wishing he had pitched deeper into the game, but feeling respected by his manager.
It was just another way that the division series underscored Boone's calm nature. Despite aggressive questioning, intense games, and a season-ending loss, he spent the postseason able to savor the moment, never defensive and rarely stressed.
"It a lot of ways, it was awesome," Boone says now of that division series.
Sure, he felt pressure, and of course crushed by the defeat. But Boone never allowed the tension to overwhelm him.
Asked this spring if the grind of those playoffs made him miss his lower-pressure work as a broadcaster, Boone shook his head and smiled.
"Nah," he said. "I liked it. But I really like this job."