PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Lee Mazzilli, who played for the Mets and the Yankees and is now a Spring Training coach with the Yankees, stood behind home plate Wednesday while the Yankees took batting practice before a game against the Mets.Mazzilli was talking about new Yankees manager Aaron Boone,
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Lee Mazzilli, who played for the Mets and the Yankees and is now a Spring Training coach with the Yankees, stood behind home plate Wednesday while the Yankees took batting practice before a game against the Mets.
Mazzilli was talking about new Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who hit one of the most famous home runs in Yankee history: bottom of the 11th, Game 7 against the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series of 2003, at the old Yankee Stadium. Now Boone is supposed to hit a different kind of home run and put the Yankees in the World Series again, for the first time in nine years.
"Listen," Mazzilli said, "there's always going to be pressure on guys with jobs like his. He's got one of the 30."
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Then Mazzilli heard what he just said and smiled and said: "Let me correct that. He's got THE one out of 30."
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Boone replaces a man, Joe Girardi, who was the manager the last time the Yankees played in a World Series, in 2009, and won it. Last season, Girardi was part of a rising with the Yankees in New York, as his team came back from 0-2 against the Indians in the AL Division Series, then got up on the eventual World Series champion Astros 3-2 in the ALCS, before losing in seven games.
The Yankees scored a grand total of one run in the last two games of that series in Houston. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said that the way the ALCS ended was not the only reason Girardi was not invited back. But he was not invited back.
So now Boone, home run hero of Game 7 of '03, is out of the broadcast booth, where he had been doing Sunday Night Baseball for ESPN, back with the Yankees, back in the game, back on the field. He is also as much in the barrel as any of the other 29 managers, facing as much pressure as any rookie manager ever has, in the whole, long, famous history of the most famous team in the history of American sports.
"I wanted this opportunity and I wanted this challenge," Boone said in front of his team's dugout on the first-base side of First Data Field. "I wanted to be back on this side of things."
Boone is the one smiling before a game against the Mets that his team won, 11-4, with a big eighth inning, and before a long bus ride back to Tampa.
"I want to chase the prize," he said.
There was pressure for Johnny Keane once, what feels like a hundred years ago. In 1964, Keane's Cardinals beat Yogi Berra's Yankees in a most memorable seven-game World Series, and then Yogi got fired and Keane replaced him in New York, and the Curse of Yogi began, a curse that would keep the Yankees out of the postseason for 11 long years.
And there was pressure when Joe Torre replaced Buck Showalter, after Showalter's Yankees had made it back to the postseason after a 13-year absence, before losing a most memorable five-game ALDS to Junior Griffey and the Mariners in 1995. Then Torre's Yankees fashioned a new dynasty and won four World Series in five years and nearly made it five in six before very bad things happened in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Yankees have only made it to the Series twice since: In 2003, losing to the Marlins, and 2009, beating the Phillies. They came as close as they did last year. They were so sure they were going back after they won three straight at home in the middle of the ALCS and rode a huge wave of adrenaline and momentum back to Minute Maid Park. But they did not get another game. Did not go back to the Series. Boone is supposed to take them back.
"I'll say it again," Boone said in Port St. Lucie, "what pulled me back to this side of things was chasing that prize."
Always in New York, and even though the Yankees have only played two World Series since 2001, there is the notion, sold as hard at the new Yankee Stadium as it was at the old place, that it is World Series or bust. But this year, because of last year, and because Giancarlo Stanton and his 59 home runs have joined Aaron Judge (All Rise) in Boone's batting order, it is as much World Series or bust as it has ever been for the Yankees, even though the Yankees still happen to play in the same league as the reigning World Series champion Astros.
I asked Boone on this day what he knows now, a month or so into Spring Training, that he didn't know when he got to Tampa.
"I know these players," he said. "And when I say I know the players, I mean the 50 or 60 players who have put this organization on such a solid foundation for now, and for what we believe will be years to come. It's why I've found the whole experience, so far, so invigorating.
"It's never tough for me showing up in the morning. It's never tough going through all the stuff you go through in Spring Training that you maybe thought was tedious when you were a player, but hasn't been for me as a manager."
He paused and said: "The best part? I'm competing again. I have to catch myself sometimes in these games, reminding myself it's just Spring Training, that W's and L's don't really matter. But I've realized how much I missed competing, how much I missed having those juices flow."
He walked away then to watch batting practice. A long way from here to October, where it once took him just one unforgettable swing to put the Yankees in the World Series. Long road for him and his team that will begin in a few hours with the ride back to Tampa.
Boone said he's exactly where he belongs. Now we see if he can put the Yankees back where they firmly believe they belong. Lot of big jobs in baseball. None bigger than his.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com and the New York Daily News, and is a best-selling author.