Yankees Magazine: Pure in heart

April 1st, 2021
New York Yankees

When you pour your entire soul into something the way Yankees manager Aaron Boone does, good things tend to happen.

Every year, it seems, there’s a “biggest surprise” of Spring Training; some rookie who opens eyes, or some rehabbing veteran out to prove his playing days aren’t over yet.

This spring, though, the biggest surprise in Yankees camp came in the form of a press release. On March 3, the team announced that manager Aaron Boone was taking “an immediate medical leave of absence to receive a pacemaker.” Boone, who underwent open-heart surgery in 2009 to replace an aortic valve, released a statement describing his situation in detail, but also taking time to remind anyone dealing with heart issues to “remain vigilant” and check in regularly with their doctor. “Staying on top of your health is always the first and most important thing you can do for yourself and your family,” he said.

The tidal wave of get-well wishes had barely ebbed by the time Boone returned to his post and focused his attention on the season ahead. With just three weeks to go before Opening Day -- and just eight days after his operation -- the skipper took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Yankees Magazine executive editor Nathan Maciborski about health, happiness, family and the joy that comes with doing a job you love.

Yankees Magazine: What sticks with you the most about the way people have reacted to the news of your heart surgery? Is there anything in particular that you think will resonate with you for a long time?

Aaron Boone: I just kind of feel like it brings out the best in humanity. The number of people who have reached out to me, whether it’s a call, a text, or through other people, or whatever it may be, just makes you stop and be thankful for the relationships you have, for the people you’ve come across in your life or your career. It’s kind of similar to when I went through my open-heart surgery in ’09, and just kind of the outpouring of people that sent their well-wishes and prayers. It just makes you appreciate all the relationships and people you’ve come in contact with, whether it’s in your life or in your career. It makes you grateful for the relationships you’ve forged over the years.

YM: You’re always so good at finding silver linings during tough times. As we’re sitting here talking on March 11, basically Day 365 of the pandemic, do you think there will there be any positives that emerge from this in the long run?

AB: I think people have had to find a more efficient way of working and communicating, and those kinds of advancements can help make us all a little better and more efficient at how we do things. And more than that, it kind of just gives you a perspective and an appreciation for the lives we have. I think life -- and sport, in a way, as a microcosm of that -- teaches you those kinds of lessons all the time. You’re going to deal with adversity and hard times, and good times. It all helps shape you. Hopefully it helps you to appreciate some of the simpler things in life.

YM: Let’s talk a bit about your craft. In watching this team during Spring Training, you’ve got to be pretty pleased with what you’re seeing. But there are some guys who have looked really good that, due to the fact that there’s so much talent ahead of them on this roster, they might not be where they want to be on April 1. What’s your approach when it comes time to be the bearer of bad news? It’s part of the job, but there must be some tough moments for you personally.

AB: It’s something I try to never take lightly, understanding [that] you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods and their careers. Obviously, there are the cases that are pretty simple; a young kid here for the first time and you know and they know they’re not making the team. But there are times when guys are competing and guys, in a lot of ways, especially with our club, if we’re healthy, we’re talking about really big-league-caliber players and guys that could be in the big leagues with some or even most teams. So those are difficult conversations to have.

And really, you try and be as honest as you can be, as far as the evaluation and where we see them fitting in. And also making sure in the case where we’re able to keep guys, and they’re going to be at the alternate site, or in the Minors to start -- especially if it’s a player that you can envision helping you at some point, or is kind of deserving of being that big league player -- you’ve got a job to do. You’ve got to, as best you can, keep your mind right, and keep your focus so that you’re constantly sharpening your craft, and when that opportunity does come, you’re ready to capitalize on it and take advantage of it. A lot of times, that’s how big league careers are made. It’s about taking advantage of an opportunity and seizing it at the right times. And so, as best you can, you try and help guys understand that they’ve got to stay sharp, even when they think something maybe isn’t fair or isn’t right. But ultimately, if they don’t stay sharp mentally and stay working hard at their craft, they’re not only doing a disservice to us, but to themselves and their careers.

YM: On the flip side of that, there are times when a manager gets to deliver a piece of really good news. Having gone right to the Majors as a manager, I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to tell a kid that he’s getting called up for the first time, but has there been one most memorable experience for you so far as Yankees manager in terms of delivering a piece of good news?

AB: When a guy is competing for one of the final spots on the roster and they’ve made it and you get to -- while you’re sending a lot of guys out -- also tell somebody that they’ve earned an opportunity to be in the big leagues. I think of my first year, telling Gleyber Torres that he made the All-Star team; those are rewarding things. Or knowing a guy’s coming back up after a tough send-out. Last year with Clint Frazier, I felt like coming out of Summer Camp, he was in a really good place in his game, but, second or third game of the season, I had to send him out. I knew in a lot of ways I was sending out a Major-League-ready player, a guy that could impact us right now. But there just wasn’t a spot for him at the time. So, one of the messages there is, like I said earlier, making sure, mentally, you need to be strong right now. And you need to continue to get after it, continue to work at your game because your chance is coming. And you’ve got to be in a position to seize on it when those opportunities arise. And he’s a great example of getting an opportunity shortly thereafter and kind of kicking the door in and taking full advantage of that.

YM: All these years later, how vividly can you recall the moment you found out you were getting called up to the big leagues?

AB: Very, very clearly. My brother, Bret, who was an established big leaguer at that point, was the second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. He had been struggling for about a month or two, and they actually sent him down to Triple-A, where I was playing. The Reds had an off-day, he came down and was in the lineup with me. And after that game, I got called into the office by our Triple-A manager Dave Miley and he sent me to the big leagues, essentially replacing my brother. So, it was emotional, the realization of a lifelong dream, but also a little awkward, where your big brother -- who you look up to, who’s a big leaguer -- is down in Triple-A for the time being. He was down for about a week, I think, and then back up, but yeah, I remember it quite well.

YM: You must have so many stories like that, that are just so unique to your family. When you think about your four kids growing up and watching as you’ve had these very demanding, high-profile jobs with ESPN and now the Yankees, what lessons do you hope they’ve learned? What kind of example do you hope to have set for them?

AB: With all your kids, you hope that they find something that they’re passionate about, and then do it to the best of their ability. I think one of the biggest pieces of advice that’s always stuck with me from my dad is, find something you love to do and do it to the best of your ability. If you’ve got those two things going, everything kind of takes care of itself. If you’re pouring all you can into what you’re doing, then it’s hard to have regrets or anything like that. And you’re also doing something you enjoy doing. So usually there’s some fulfillment there. It’s two simple things I try to live my life by.

YM: Those are great ways to live your life, and I find myself following those same two things, to be honest.

AB: There’s a lot of peace in that, you know? If you’re doing something you love to do, and you’re pouring your heart and soul into it, I think, frankly, it takes a lot of the stress away.

YM: I had an opportunity when I was younger to work with my grandfather, who was not a baseball player like yours, but I think I got some of those lessons from him. And for so many families, the grandfather plays such an important role. For you, having a grandfather who played 13 years in the bigs, two-time All-Star, that must have been really special. What part of Ray Boone gets carried on in the way you go about your business?

AB: Well, like you, I was fortunate enough to have a grandpa that was very much a part of our lives. He died in 2004, when I was 31 years old, so I had a grandfather that was very much involved in our lives for 30 years. Whether it was going to my football, basketball or baseball games, whether it was family dinners or whatever it may have been, he was very much involved in our life. And when you have family members, on top of that, that are doing the same thing you do -- Bret and I obviously having major league careers, and my little brother, Matt, played in the Minor Leagues -- we had a grandfather and a dad that could absolutely relate to what we were going through at work or in our lives. Baseball is such a huge part of my family’s life that it was a topic of conversation always. We love to talk baseball, and the different eras, and to have family members that can relate to what you were going through was something that I think was beneficial to all of us.

YM: Did your grandfather get a World Series ring? I know he came up late in the season with Cleveland in 1948 and had a pinch-hit at-bat against Warren Spahn in the World Series.

AB: Yeah, that was his first year called up, and he was part of the last Cleveland Indians world championship team in ’48.

Gleyber Torres (center) and Luke Voit (right) are among several Yankees who, when given the chance to compete, seized the opportunity and ran with it. Whether it’s having a tough conversation with a player who is being sent out or delivering a piece of good news to someone who has earned an opportunity, Boone prides himself on being honest while stressing the importance of staying mentally sharp.New York Yankees

YM: You’ve made it clear on many occasions that your goal here is to get a ring of your own. And it’s the same goal as every player in that clubhouse. But I bet different guys have different reasons for wanting it so badly. For you, when you envision what it would be like, what do you think it is about winning the World Series that would mean the most to you?

AB: It’s obviously the pinnacle of our sport, a sport and a game that I’ve dedicated my life to. As sappy as it is, I dreamed about that since I was a little kid: being a world champion. I was 7 years old when the Phillies won the 1980 world championship. And I remember being in the clubhouse when the final out was recorded. I remember being on the float in the parade, and there’s nothing, no feeling, like that. And even though I wasn’t on that team, I felt like a part of the team as a young kid. And you’re chasing that. In our profession, that’s the ultimate, that’s the pinnacle, that’s the No. 1 thing we’re working toward. So, I’ve been dreaming about that my entire life, and hopefully I get to live it out.

YM: We see how hard these guys work toward achieving that goal. Every player that we talk to is always working on something: Pitchers are refining pitches, position players are making adjustments to try and get to that next level. As a manager now, heading into your fourth season, are there specific areas that you want to work on in order to continue to try and hone your craft?

AB: I think it’s just kind of this living organism that hasn’t stopped since I’ve gotten the job. I feel like I’m constantly evolving, constantly being more tied in to every resource and where I need to look to for certain things that can help me or help us. Experience is very valuable. And hopefully in these first three years, I’ve gained a lot that will serve us well moving forward. I don’t know that I can give you anything specifically. But I think when you’re doing this, you’re constantly trying to get better, learn from successes and from failures, apply those lessons and try to constantly seek that higher ground.

As Boone (right) looks to keep the Yankees’ postseason streak alive under his watch, the 48-year-old skipper is quick to credit (L-R) Pilittere, Mendoza, Thames, Nevin and Willits, as well as the rest of the coaching staff, for the team’s sustained success. “I could talk all day about our coaches, because I have so much confidence in them,” Boone said.New York Yankees

YM: With a few exceptions, your coaching staff has remained mostly intact since you took over. What can you say about your coaches and how important they’ve been to the success of this team?

AB: Yeah, I’m blessed, man. And I mean this, I’ve got great coaches. One thing I find very important in my chair is, I think it’s important to empower coaches. I try not to micromanage things. And the reason I feel very comfortable in that is because I know I have really good coaches in every aspect. Whereas if we had lesser coaches in positions, I might feel that need to micromanage, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing when you’re too intimately involved in every little aspect. I feel like we have one of the really, really good third base coaches in Phil Nevin. He’s really got a presence out there, he really knows what he’s doing mechanically, and having had a really good major league career, he’s just got a really good presence in our room.

In Reggie Willits, he’s a special coach, as far as his ability to teach the outfield and baserunning and the things he’s able to do over there as a first base coach with the communication -- nonverbal and verbal -- that we have. [Carlos Mendoza] is a star in this industry. He’s going to be a Major League manager; he just does so many things and has made a seamless transition to his role. He and I, as bench coach and manager, are very much tied at the hip. But when I was out a couple of days, I didn’t worry about us missing a beat. He’s really, really talented and really, really good and has the respect and command of all our players. Matt Blake is in his second year. I can’t wait to see him continue to ascend in his role because I think his future is incredibly bright as a pitching coach. Mike Harkey has become one of my great friends and just has an amazing presence. And obviously has helped lead a really special bullpen, year in and year out over the last several years. Marcus [Thames] and P.J. [Pilittere], I know we’re in great hands. I know hitting-wise, those guys have got it on lockdown. Those guys have our guys prepared, ready, every series, every game. I love the culture that they’ve created within our hitters. Tanner Swanson, I feel in Year 2 is already just so much more comfortable and so much more established in the relationships he’s developed with Gary [Sánchez] and our catchers. I could talk all day about our coaches because I have so much confidence in them. I feel so close to them. One of the reasons we’ve been such a strong team is because I feel like our guys are very well coached.

YM: You are blessed in that regard, no question there. As we sit here now, three weeks until Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, it looks like there are definitely going to be some fans allowed back in the building for the first time since 2019. Just how excited are you to get this 2021 season underway?

AB: Really excited. Actually, I was talking around the batting cage with with Judgie yesterday about just how cool it is, even down here, to have fans in the stands. Even though it’s not full, there’s just another dynamic and another element that fans bring to a game. And Aaron and I were talking about how every now and then you see different highlights of playoff games in the Bronx or big games and big moments in the Bronx, and there’s nothing quite like it. And hopefully we’re starting to move back toward that. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds. And hopefully we’re playing again in October and hopefully it’s in front of a lot of Yankees fans in the Bronx.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the 2021 Official New York Yankees Yearbook. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a copy of the 2021 Yearbook, or by subscribing to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.