Aaron Boone, the Yankees manager, can’t escape his now-infamous tirade at an umpire. It follows him everywhere, even though he isn’t proud of some of the language that on-field microphones caught him using during that July 18 game. His parents wear T-shirts printed with “Savages in the Box,” the phrase he repeatedly yelled. His players and fans do, too. The name plates in the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium now include the words “October Savages.”
Another reminder came when the Yankees visited the Tampa Bay Rays in the final week of the season. Hanging from the walls of the visiting manager’s office at Tropicana Field are 29 photographs of rival managers either talking or arguing with umpires. On the one of Boone, a previous visitor had left a note: “WE ARE SAVAGES!”
While Boone can laugh about it now, his intense outburst might be the most memorable moment of the Yankees’ year so far. Known for his calm manner and affable personality, Boone let his edge — and vocabulary — show in that argument about the strike zone with the home-plate umpire, Brennan Miller.
To Boone’s players, it was an example of how their relatively inexperienced manager, who so often feels like one of them, was growing in his second year on the job — a season that might earn him the American League Manager of the Year Award. In their eyes, he was becoming more comfortable and more assertive — traits that could serve him well in this year’s playoffs.
“The first year I kind of felt like there were times when he should have stood up and said something, and he kind of held off,” right fielder Aaron Judge said. “It’s his first time managing and managing in the big leagues, and knowing when to do this and that.”
But this year, Judge said, Boone is “a guy that really has our back.”
“He knows the right time to say something,” Judge continued, “and the right times to say, ‘You know what, I don’t need to blow up right now, and I’m going to save it.’ Or, ‘I really need to motivate my guys and I need to get something started.’”
To overcome a record 30 players landing on the injured list this season and win the A.L. East, the Yankees relied on Boone’s even keel and upbeat demeanor. Players took their cues from him, even when things looked bleak. (Their talent, depth and $230 million payroll helped, of course.)
CreditKathy Willens/Associated Press
The result: Boone, once a long-shot candidate for the job because he lacked experience, became the first major league manager to win 100 games in each of his first two seasons. He has earned more confidence from his bosses as he leads the Yankees into their A.L. division series against the Minnesota Twins, starting Friday.
“Like a sponge growing before our eyes with every decision he has to make and every discussion he has to have — whether it’s navigating a difficult circumstance, whether it’s taking the ball from a starter’s hand early — all those things he just continues to benefit and grow from,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said of Boone. “And we feel like we have one of the better managers in the game.”
Boone, 46, insisted that he never lost faith this season despite the torrent of injuries, and that he even enjoyed piecing together solutions to each challenge. When he had too much to do after a night game that would be followed by a day game, Boone would skip his drive home to Greenwich, Conn., and sleep on the pullout sofa bed in his office at Yankee Stadium. He estimated he slept there six times this season.
“There were moments when you’re dealing with a lot,” Boone said. “But, by and large, there’s never been a day when I’m not looking forward to getting to the park, and part of it is working with my staff and our players. It’s a place you want to be, and I work hard to hopefully create that environment.”
That attitude is what drew the Yankees to Boone, a former infielder for them who was working as a baseball analyst on TV and radio. He replaced Joe Girardi, 54, who led the Yankees to their most recent World Series title, in 2009, and to five other postseason appearances in his 10 years at the helm. But Girardi increasingly struggled to connect with his players.
“He can relate to the younger player a lot better,” Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia, 39, said of Boone, who was his teammate on the Cleveland Indians in 2005 and 2006. “And he’s taken that approach. It’s been fun to see how he has evolved as a manager.”
Infielder Gleyber Torres, 22, said players felt comfortable raising any issues directly with Boone. Reliever Zack Britton, 31, said Boone had struck a good balance between joking around with players and being an authority figure.
Judge, 27, said players would listen intently every time Boone addressed the team. Boone’s primary method of communication, however, is frequent and informal chats with players. Reliever Adam Ottavino, 33, said he preferred that style to that of some of his past managers who held a lot of meetings and did a lot of talking.
“His job, more than anything, is to communicate and make everybody feel like they can be themselves, and promote that idea of inclusivity,” Ottavino said, “so everybody feels good when they’re out there and doesn’t have to walk on egg shells — which is a huge thing for young players.”
Relating to players is just one part of the job. A modern manager must serve as the middle man for nearly all factions of the organization, from ownership to the front office to the coaching and training staffs. Gone are the days of an authoritarian manager as the dominant figure of an organization. With front offices increasingly active in scripting game plans with help from reams of data, it’s harder than ever to evaluate a manager’s tactics.
Boone, for example, said his game-planning process had involved “a little of everyone,” including his coaches and the analytics staff members, some of whom travel with the Yankees during the season. He also frequently used his iPad to get data and video on an internal app to help prepare for games or decide the lineup.
None of that, though, could protect Boone from criticism of some decisions in the last postseason.
Boone said he had gone back over his calls during the 2018 A.L. division series loss to the Boston Red Sox, but he was light on details of the lessons he might have gained. He has alluded to learning from the pace and urgency of the postseason; last fall, he was criticized for being too patient with starter Luis Severino in Game 3 and then Sabathia in Game 4, both Yankees losses. Boone also drew criticism for relieving Severino with Lance Lynn rather than stouter pitchers at his disposal.
“I’ve learned, but we’re constantly trying to learn and evaluate from every situation I’ve been in,” Boone said. “That’s starting from when I got the job to now.”
The Yankees’ longtime pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, a former manager himself, said Boone had juggled the many demands of the job well, especially for a first-time manager, in New York no less. In terms of the lessons from last year’s postseason, Rothschild said modern, evolving ideas about how to use pitchers in the playoffs had elevated the degree of difficulty.
“There is stuff that you have to get used to to be able to manage it,” Rothschild said.
Cashman noted that Boone was not managing with a full bullpen at times during last year’s postseason — at least one key reliever was dealing with an injury. Cashman commended Boone’s ability to handle scrutiny from the news media, sometimes shielding players from questions. “If it comes to him taking the heat for it,” Cashman said, “he’s prepared for that.”
Boone’s and the Yankees’ preparation for October pitching began months ago. To preserve the health of the bullpen with an eye toward the postseason, the team vowed to avoid using a relief pitcher three days in a row.
“To stick with that, as a manager, from Game 1 to Game 162, is a tough thing to do,” Britton said. “There were times we’ve been like, ‘Are they going to follow that today? Or are we going to pitch today?’ And they’ve stuck with that.”
Despite their injuries, the Yankees overwhelmed their opponents from March to September. But regardless of regular-season success, Boone will be judged by October. In a playoff series of just five or seven games, the margin for error is smaller and tactical decisions loom larger, putting Boone, again, at the center of the Yankees’ hopes. He relished the opportunity.
“I have a lot of confidence in our players, and a lot of talent we’re going to go into the playoffs with, and understanding how hard it’s going to be,” he said. “I feel like we have the people capable of doing something special.”