TAMPA — He hit one of the most memorable homers in major league history against the Red Sox one October day.
That is basically how Bucky Dent got to be Yankees manager. Aaron Boone, too.
Let’s face it: If Dent pops out against Mike Torrez in the seventh inning on Oct. 2, 1978, or Boone singles to lead off the 11th inning against Tim Wakefield on Oct. 16, 2003, do they even get considered by Yankees decision-makers?
I have thought about Dent a lot lately because of the Boone comparison, remembering just how ill-prepared Dent was to manage, lacking in high-end communication skills or a sense of calm or gravitas — or the kind of baseball intellect that could overcome the other deficits. He hit a homer and got thrust way above his pay grade in ability.
Boone received the interview to replace Joe Girardi because of his homer, perhaps aided by a baseball legacy last name and staying in the public consciousness as an ESPN broadcaster. None of those things, by the way, do much to qualify a person to manage. For Boone, they got him in front of Brian Cashman and key Yankees lieutenants, and that group decided Boone won the interview process quite decidedly.
Now he is on the clock, on display to show if he actually has the skill to manage — or did he just hit a big homer, against the right opponent, at the ideal moment?
“Obviously, not having done this before, I understand a lot of the questions,” Boone said. “A lot of people can’t wait to see my style or how I’m going to go about things or how I’ll command the team, so maybe it’s interesting to see how that unfolds.”
For now — before the first clubhouse crisis, prior to game speed warping strategy decisions — Boone and his bosses can be content that he won pitcher and catcher report date if, for no other reason, then by the end of his 36-minute state-of-himself, state-of-the-Yankees press conference, the comparison evoked was to Joe Torre, not Dent.
Torre was the only previous Yankees manager mentioned by Boone. He cited how comfortable Torre made him feel in integrating him into a new environment upon being traded from the Reds in July 2003. Boone mentioned it was a style he wanted to emulate, the ability to be a soothing presence to players.
But Boone made a more vital connection to Torre. Remember that Torre took over for a successful manager (Buck Showalter) who had just gone to the playoffs, and there was a general groundswell against change at a time when the roster was championship capable, especially to someone whose managerial history was so layered in losing like Torre.
I was one of those who felt it was a mistake, and the first time I began to ignore Torre’s history and deal with the real-time guy in front of me was on Day 1 of spring training 1996, when rather than run from the fire of expectations, Torre doubled down. He said it was the best roster he had ever had and that he should win, and that the alternative to such lofty ambitions was actually the far worse scenario in baseball. Torre showed instantly how comfortable he was in this forum and his own skin. He owned the franchise’s history and in that way began to make the Yankees, his Yankees.
Boone, too, follows a successful manager (Girardi) who just got the Yankees to the playoffs and was hired amid a chorus wondering why a championship-capable roster would be put in the care of an untested manager. The Yankees might have been the $200 million little engine that could last year, but that success mixed with the addition of Giancarlo Stanton has the organization on more familiar title-or-bust terrain, to which Boone noted, “It beats the alternative, right? It really does.”
“We are not going to run from that [expectation]. We are going to embrace that and expect to be great.”
Boone offered it all in a, duh, obvious, manner. This is reality, no sense pretending it does not exist. It was kind of his posture throughout the press conference — arms folded in front of him, demeanor hardly changing much beyond a knowing smile to a few questions. He was comfortable as Aaron Boone and being Yankee manager and knowing what he knew and what he didn’t know and how blessed he is.
Boone cited the “stability of the organization from top to bottom.” The Yankees front office, in its multi-department decision-making process, is working as well as at any time in the last 30 years. Boone also is fortunate the Yankees re-signed CC Sabathia and retained Brett Gardner and David Robertson to have a championship-tested, team-oriented leader in every phase of the game.
Conversely, Rob Thomson — interviewed but not named manager — left for the Phillies and took with him the West Point-level precision of running spring training. Can new coach Phil Nevin keep the circus of myriad drills run over several fields with 60-plus players moving cohesively? Would a novice manager have been better served with a former manager beside him rather than a novice bench coach in Josh Bard?
Overall, Boone claimed, “We are in a good place as we embark on spring training.”
And Boone won Day 1. But we watch and wait to see how a new manager handles his first dent.