“A little different for me today, Tom,” he said. “I got here a little later than I normally do. I had to go out and watch my son play Pee-wee football this morning. It was a really exciting game, a nip-and-tuck battle. They ended up losing, 7-0, but it was quite a game. It was a nice, relaxing morning for me.”
It was the kind of answer you could imagine Aaron giving now about his own sons — detailed, sincere and just a bit silly. The play-by-play man, Don Criqui, followed up by remarking on the Boone family.
“There’s never been three generations to make it to the major leagues,” he said, “but they say the Boones might well be the first.”
They were indeed, and Aaron embodies a bit of all of them, according to Hal McCoy, the longtime baseball writer for the Dayton Daily News, who grew up watching Ray Boone play for Cleveland and covered the other three.
“Ray was more of a stern guy, Bob was a cerebral guy, Bret was a tough guy,” McCoy said. “Aaron is a combination of all of them. That’s what makes him stand out. He can be cerebral and tough at the same time.”
The Reds drafted Boone from the University of Southern California in the third round in 1994, drawn by his athleticism, smarts and background. Boone could be fiery; he was ejected from his major league debut three years later for throwing his helmet after a play at the plate. But he was also a keen observer, thirsting for information despite a lifetime in the clubhouse.
“He always wants to know more about the global part of the game,” said Bowden, who now works for MLB Network Radio. “He was curious about the front office, the bullpen, the scouting room, the draft room — always curious about how things worked. He truly loved all aspects of the game.”
That extends to the people who cover it. Just before spring training in 2003, McCoy suffered strokes in both optic nerves. His sports editor sent him to spring training in Sarasota, Fla., and McCoy — nearly blind — struggled to recognize faces in the clubhouse. Boone pulled him aside and asked what was wrong. McCoy explained and said he was going to quit.
“He grabbed me by the elbow and sat me down,” McCoy said. “He said: ‘I don’t ever want to hear you say you’re giving up. You love what you do too much. Everybody in this clubhouse will help you.’ He was right.”
McCoy credits Boone’s kindness with saving his career. Naturally, Boone also ribbed McCoy, playfully — he once asked why he was talking to a Coke machine. But when Boone’s name appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, he received only one vote: McCoy’s.
Meeting the demands of the news media, who meet twice a day with the manager, should go smoothly for Boone. In a market like New York, a manager without those skills would create unneeded distractions.
“He’ll be a Joe Torre type of guy — everybody’s going to love him,” McCoy said. “He was our go-to guy. If the Reds lost, he was at his seat after every game, answering questions. There were days when the clubhouse would be completely empty, except for Aaron. Even if he had nothing to do with the loss, he would be introspective and available.”
The Reds traded Boone to the Yankees in July 2003, and his homer won Game 7 of the American League Championship Series — a moment that turned out to be the final gasp of Yankees superiority over the rival Boston Red Sox. Boone’s off-season knee injury, suffered while playing basketball, cost him most of his $5.75 million contract and led the Yankees to trade for Alex Rodriguez.
Boone played five more seasons, with four teams. He finished with Houston in 2009, playing 10 games down the stretch without a hit. But it was a triumph because Boone — then just 36 — had undergone open-heart surgery in March to fix a problem with his aorta and aortic valve, a condition he had known about since college.
A year later, he was calling games for ESPN. He lives with his family in Arizona and voraciously follows his favorite football teams, U.S.C. and the Philadelphia Eagles. He imitated batting stances, pitching motions and other mannerisms on his broadcasts. He was an aggressive fantasy baseball owner in a SiriusXM league with hosts and callers; his team name, “Hum Baby,” was the catchphrase of Roger Craig, a San Francisco Giants manager popular with players.
Boone’s ability to connect, especially in a young Yankees clubhouse, was said to be critical to Cashman. Previous managing experience is hardly necessary anymore; 17 of the 30 major league managers, including Boone, are working in their first major league managing job. In some ways, Boone fits the modern profile — he is one of 26 current managers who attended college, and has recent playing experience.
“He has the swag of a player,” Bowden said. “That’s important with this generation. Very few have it, and you can’t fake it.”
Those relationships should help Boone sell players on the vision of the front office, which may be the manager’s most important task in the era of analytics. The Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who just met in the World Series, often used unconventional strategies based on data. Their managers, A.J. Hinch and Dave Roberts, got players to buy in.
“Joe Girardi had a great 10-year run, but what Brian did was look at the next 10 years,” Bowden said. “Joe was great for the last 10 years, like Joe Torre was great before him. But the game is changing at such a speed that you’ve got to be able to not only jump on and go with it, but relate it to this generation of young stars.”
Those stars may already know Boone’s most famous moment, which plays on the scoreboard before every game at Yankee Stadium: the knuckleball from Tim Wakefield, the deep fly ball into the left-field seats, the joyous throng at the plate.
All these years later, though, if you ask Boone what he remembers most about the homer, he’ll mention something different: As he floated around the bases, the Velcro came loose on his batting gloves. If you’re paying attention, you can notice the strap dangling off his wrist in every highlight.
To Boone, the details always matter. Now more than ever.