Game 4 of the American League Championship Series had been over for only a few minutes, but Yankees Manager Aaron Boone already knew he needed to perform triage on his team. The Yankees had played terribly in an 8-3 loss to the Houston Astros on Thursday night, leaving them on the brink of being eliminated from the postseason and falling short of a championship after a hard-fought 103-win season.
Boone rarely calls meetings in such situations — he mostly lets the players police themselves — but a performance like that in such a high-stakes game warranted intervention.
Boone made the short walk from his office to the middle of the clubhouse. The Yankees snapped to attention. “You could hear a pin drop” as Boone started speaking, outfielder Aaron Judge recalled.
Some in the room were half-expecting Boone to berate them for their carelessness on the field — they had committed four errors in the loses — and for allowing the Astros to so thoroughly outplay them on national television, and in their own stadium. Even more damning was how badly the Yankees had unraveled, making mental errors as the game slipped away.
It was the type of situation in which many major league managers might have lost their temper amid the October pressure. “He could have ripped us and we would have deserved it,” Judge said. “But he didn’t.”
Boone instead maintained his typical anxiety-free demeanor, speaking calmly to the Yankees about what had just happened — but not for too long. He did not dwell on the game, he did not overanalyze or ask the players to relive the low point of the 2019 season. Boone merely said, “Let’s flush it,” and directed the conversation to Game 5 and how to beat Justin Verlander.
The Yankees, rejuvenated by Boone’s Zen, responded the following night by scoring four runs off Verlander in the first inning, then holding on for a 4-1 victory and sending the series back to Houston for Game 6 Saturday night. Boone refused to take credit for the turnaround, but his players insisted he was responsible for their remarkable calm.
“No one walked on the field during batting practice thinking, ‘Our season could be over,’” said reliever Zack Britton, who personally repaid Boone with one and two-thirds innings of scoreless pitching. “Boonie showed a lot of faith in us. He doesn’t like to have meetings, so he picks his spots. He kind of knows when we need to hear from him.”
Boone smiled when asked about the specifics of his message. “I honestly don’t remember, it was no big deal,” he said, before adding, “It came from the heart.”
This is just Boone’s second postseason as the Yankees’ manager, but as the son (and grandson) of an All-Star, he has been well-steeped in the pressures and demands of October baseball since childhood. He has his own postseason experience as a player, of course, having delivered one of the Yankees’ more memorable playoff moments with his walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 2003 A.L.C.S.
Now, as manager, Boone was able to convince his Yankees that a comeback in the A.L.C.S. was still possible without making it sound like a mere cliché. He had been just as successful during the regular season instilling the next-man-up mantra when the Yankees were crippled by a run of injuries to some of their most important players.
“He made us believe that everyone mattered, which made it easier to wait your turn,” said the backup catcher Austin Romine. “The thing about Boonie is that he’s the manager for all 25 guys, not just the stars. And not every manager can say that.”
Boone has not been perfect this postseason: He has maintained a stubborn loyalty to Gary Sanchez throughout the playoffs, even when the catcher’s struggles with the bat and behind the plate have frustrated many fans. Boone has also been unwilling to demote reliever Adam Ottavino to lower-leverage situations, even after the right-hander had lost command of his signature slider and allowed crushing hits in the series.
Still, Boone has nevertheless proved to be more relatable than his predecessor, Joe Girardi, who was let go after 10 years in the job. Then again, Girardi never suffered a losing season in the Bronx, and he remains the only Yankees manager to win a World Series after the 2000 season. For all the legitimacy Boone brings to the job, he knows the only currency that matters are those championships.
The Yankees’ ability to adapt to all their setbacks this year — including setting a record for the most players to go on the injured list — will most likely earn Boone votes for Manager of the Year, despite the Yankees’ wealth. No Yankees manager has won the award since Joe Torre in 1998, despite 12 division titles since then. Their performances are often dismissed with the cynical rejoinder: Who wouldn’t win with that much talent?
Boone, though, is the only manager in history to win at least 100 games in each of his first two seasons — no small achievement considering he had no prior managing experience at any level. His counterparts around the majors, including Houston’s A.J. Hinch, have noticed the competence from across the way.
“He’s been able to maintain the balance that’s needed to get through all the peaks and valleys,” Hinch said of Boone. “Whether it’s injuries, whether it’s a bad three-game stretch, whether it’s a blown game here or there. And he’s done a really good job of getting his guys all on the same page.”
But late Friday, as the Yankees were getting ready to board a plane to Houston needing two more wins over their October rivals, Boone pointed out, “There’s a long way to go.”