Baseball is a swift moving current that waits for no one.
Rookies and veterans alike have to decide whether they want to sink or swim in a river that have seen heroes and legends come and go upon its current. Such was the challenge facing Aaron Boone when he was crowned the 35th manager in New York Yankees' history; a position dependent upon one's wit to keep the media feeding frenzy at bay. For Boone, being given the helm of this ship meant mastering the tide, as the Phoenicians and Greeks did all those years ago, rather than just keeping the ship afloat.
The season is young. The dog days of August have yet to come and with it the physical and mental grind that either make or break teams, the days where the greats separate themselves from the mediocre. As the first series of the season concluded on Sunday with a stinging 7-4 loss against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Yankees have seen both positives and negatives out of their neophyte manager.
He's not afraid to get creative
A manager must play the cards he is dealt whether he is Casey Stengel, Bobby Cox, or Kevin Cash. The pieces are presented in front of him and he must arrange them in such a way that can assure a winning formula.
When Aaron Boone signed on with the Yankees, he was signing on to a team with an embarrassment of riches. The winning formula left by his predecessor had been bolstered with the addition of Giancarlo Stanton, so it seemed as if the hardest part of Boone's job would decide whether Stanton would hit in front of Aaron Judge or behind.
Fast forward to the first week of the season, and there have already been a few changes to the gameplan. First, Greg Bird's injury and subsequent surgery left a vacancy at first base with no true back up for the position. Then, Aaron Hicks joined a growing list of outfielders who found themselves on the DL, leaving a second vacancy in center field.
Injuries are a part of the season. Perhaps not this early in the season, but winning teams win regardless of the inconveniences that inevitably come. So, when both Bird and Hicks were determined to be unavailable in the early going, Boone had to figure out a way to minimize the impact of their absences.
Raise your hand if you predicted Opening Day to have Neil Walker starting at first base. Raise two hands if, two days later, you had Aaron Judge starting in center field. Please forgive if forgiveness is due, but would Girardi have been so comfortable in moving the hulking 6'7" Judge to a position he hadn't played in since college? Or putting Walker at first, who had less than ten complete games of experience there?
The shuffling of positions, though strange they may seem, still allowed Boone to maximize the full offensive potential of one of the deepest lineups in all of baseball. Unorthodox it may be, but Boone's willingness to give it a chance was a far cry from the binder that seemed perpetually bound to his predecessor. And the willingness of the players to venture out of their comfort zone showed he has respect and the dedication to winning from his players.
But he can't afford to over manage
Because the New York media and the Yankees' fans are ruthless. Neither a ten-year veteran nor a rookie can escape the scrutiny that inevitably comes with the Bronx Bombers. It just so happens the scrutiny is even more intense for a rookie manager on a team with high expectations.
Boone's first big blunder came in the eighth inning of Sunday's game against the Blue Jays. Holding on to a narrow 4-3 lead with runners on second and third with two outs, Boone elected to have David Robertson intentionally walk Josh Donaldson to get to Justin Smoak. Smoak, who had drilled a two-run home run to center in his previous at-bat, waited until the tenth pitch of the at-bat to launch a go ahead grand slam that sealed the victory for Toronto.
It was the first case of Boone over managing. Smoak's 38 home run season from the year before, and the two-run shot earlier that game, was a clear sign that this was not the same man hitless against Robertson in his career. The switch-hitting first baseman held the advantage on the left side of the plate against the righty Robertson.
It was a pick-your-poison situation for Boone and Robertson. Historically, Donaldson would've proved the bigger threat in the situation, but Donaldson has been hampered by a bum shoulder that may contribute to a slow start that's seen him with two hits in 13 at-bats and six strikeouts. Robertson's cutter and sharp curve ball naturally move away from the right-handed hitting Donaldson rather than breaking back into Smoak's left-handed swing.
The decision to pitch to Smoak instead of Donaldson was a case of trusting the numbers instead of one's eyes. It's a fine line managers all across the league must navigate. Here, the rookie manager of the biggest team in North America had the numbers backfire against him.
A 2-2 start to the season is better than 1-3 or 0-4.
As much as a .500 record stings for the fans who were expecting to go 162-0, patience will be required as Boone and his coaching staff go through the inevitable growing pains. This was that case and is not at all an implication that Boone is bad at his job, but the road to glory is often beset by a thousand adversities. This was the first.
The season is neither won nor lost in the first weekend. There are now 158 games left to determine whether Boone is truly the man for the job or not. This writer thinks he is, and as long as he avoids the dreaded act of over managing and overreacting, he'll be just fine. Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenner family wouldn't have hired him if they didn't think he was up to the task.
And for those who need more reassurance, the 1996 Yankees split their first four games with the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers. That season, if memory recalls correctly, ended pretty well for new Yankee manager Joe Torre.